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How to Save Money When Dining Out

Budget Dining
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BY JULIA SORIANO

Last week, I wrote about saving money by eating at home. But, we all go out eat–to celebrate, to enjoy the company of friends and family, to satisfy a craving for food you can’t (or won’t) prepare at home.  Here are a few tips for those excursions:

Beverages.  Always ask for free water.  Otherwise avoid ordering beverages.  They account for about 1/3 of your bill, while costing the restaurant almost nothing. If you must order a beverage, try to get something with free refills. If you must order a non-refillable beverage, drink free tap water until the food arrives. If you order something hot, don’t use an expensive, non-refillable drink to cool your mouth.

Dessert.  Unless the restaurant is famous for it, skip it.  Have a bowl of ice cream when you get home.

Grains.  Bread, corn chips, and rice are inexpensive.  Restaurants don’t care how much you eat.  Make it a habit to always ask for a second basket or plate, so you have some to take home.  It costs the restaurant more to pay someone to walk back and forth to the kitchen than the bread costs.

Leftovers. Salads and anything fried make lousy leftovers.  Don’t order them, unless you are certain they will be consumed in the restaurant. Sometimes I take my entire entrée home because I’ve already eaten enough.

Eat light. If you don’t want a doggie bag and you are a light eater, you don’t have to order an entrée.  Bread, salad, and one appetizer will do.

Gift Cards. Gift cards don’t expire. My grocery store has a points-for-gas program.  Double points (quadruple near holidays) for gift cards! When I have cash, I stock up, leaving fast food cards in the car.  Also, I pick up gift cards on the way to the restaurant.  Sometimes, you’ll see offers in restaurants for gift certificates with gift card purchases.  If you can use the gift cards/certificate to pay for the meal you just ate or you know you’ll be returning soon, this is a great deal. Free food!

E-clubs. Sign up for E-clubs of restaurants you frequent; often they will send you coupons right away.  Many will also send you a coupon for a free something on your birthday.

Special deals. Keep your eye out for deals to purchase a large credit for a discounted amount at a restaurant group website (I use www.restaurant.com).  Using a Groupon, I bought $300 restaurant.com credit for $40.

Have gift cards, coupons and my restaurant.com gift certificates on hand means that I can splurge on a meal out even when broke.  That’s cool!

Julia Soriano is a freelance writer and editor who has been super cool with limited income for decades.  She lives in Cincinnati with her husband.

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