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Real Life On A Budget

How to Go Out to Eat for Cheap

One of my favorite things in the world is going out to eat. I’m convinced that if I didn’t live on a budget, this one activity could make me go broke. Because going out to eat is expensive. So I thought I’d share a few tricks I’ve learned on how to go out to eat for cheap. You know, for those times when I just want to sit and chat with my family while chips and salsa magically appear—and, ahem, continue to appear—on our table. If you’re like me, be on the lookout for these options at a restaurant near you.

1. Kids eat free!

It doesn’t matter if our little ones pick at their meals or clean their plates, we still pay full price. But when the kids eat free? Well that puts everyone’s mind at ease. Plenty of restaurants offer free (or nearly free) meals for kids under 12 on certain nights of the week. Your kiddos can also score freebies at some dining spots by showing an A/B report card or sporting a team uniform after a game.

2. Taco Tuesday—and other weeknight specials.

Move your Saturday-night-hang to the middle of the week and you can eat a meal you already love at a better price. You’ll find $10 pizzas, cheap burger deals, all-you-can-eat wings, two-for-one specials and more!

 3. One meal, two servings.

Share and share alike. This is something Winston and I used to do all the time when we were first married . . . and on a super tight budget but still wanted a night out. We’d choose a nice restaurant knowing that the portions were big enough for both of us to feel full with just one plate. It was a great way for us to treat ourselves without breaking the bank. If you and your spouse don’t have the same tastes, or you’re out with friends, you can still take advantage of bigger portions by eating half of your meal and saving the rest for the next day! You get two meals for the price of one, plus you get to enjoy your delicious food—and don’t have to cook—two days in a row! #actuallyblessed

You really can treat yourself to a meal out without breaking the bank—if you plan wisely!

4. Happy hour half-priced appetizers.

You’ve probably heard that appetizers are a waste of money, and they can be—unless you use this little trick. Grab dinner on the early side, between 5 p.m. and 7 p.m., and eat only half-priced appetizers. You might order a sampler platter or a few appetizers to share with a group of friends. You’ll get a more thorough taste of the menu for a cheaper price and with a shorter wait time. Go you!

 5. Water, water and more water.

I know, I know. But you guys! That soda you’re sipping or that wine you’re sniffing comes at a premium. We’re talking a markup somewhere in the range of 300% to 600%!(1) Just drink water. After all, water is free. And you can ask for lemon, open a packet of sweetener, and mix up a light lemonade if you like. Again, all for free. Save the fountain drinks and bubbly for home.

 6. Coupons.

Here in Nashville, the school kids sell a huge coupon book full of deals for nearby restaurants. This makes it super easy for me and my family to go out to eat for cheap. You probably have something similar in your town. You can also try sites like restaurant.com, which offers discounted certificates at local restaurants. Just be sure to read the minimum purchase requirements on both paper and digital coupons. A little planning and work on the front end really pays off here!

 7. A chance to skip the tip.

Relax, people. I want you to be generous with your servers—if you go to a restaurant and you’re waited on. If that’s the case, then please, by all means, let your tip do the talking. What I’m suggesting is that you hit up those spots where you order at the counter, get your own drink at the fountain, and wait for your name to be called. You, generous you, can save 20% or more by doing a little extra work at the restaurant. Beats washing dishes at home, am I right?

And my best advice for spending less on going out to eat as we near the Thanksgiving and Christmas season? Stock your kitchen. Sounds backward, I know. But here’s the thing: Once the hustle and bustle of the holidays hit, it gets SO much more tempting to pop in the drive-thru or pick up something to go. Especially when you’ve had a long day at work and still need to grab a plastic soccer goal for your nephew before it sells out—never mind think about what to make for dinner. (This may or may not have happened to me last Christmas!)

So plan ahead! Stock up on some things that are quick and easy to make. (Here are six grocery staples I personally keep on hand that save me time and money.) With meals and snacks at the ready, you’ll go out to eat less and spend less.

If you want to win with money, it’s important to practice the habit of thinking before you spend. When you grocery shop so you’re not tempted to dine out as much, you’re doing this. The same goes for when you do a little pre-dinner research using the tips above. What I want you to see is that you really can treat yourself to a meal out without breaking the bank—if you plan wisely.

For more habits that will help you win with money while still loving your life, check out my book Love Your Life, Not Theirs.

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  • Jessica

    Groupon and Living Social are also great places to find deals on food. I’ve paid $20 and got a voucher for $40 worth of food at a specific restaurant. Like you mentioned – always read the fine print to make sure it will work for what you want to eat.

  • Melanie Stinson

    Just had a light bulb moment this weekend, I get fuel points at the grocery store, ×4, on non-that-store gift cards, i.e. TGI Fridays…. so, plan ahead and get $0.10 /gal off gas with $25 restaurant gift card purchase!!