Saturday, August 18, 2007

Eating out for cheap

(This was originally posted on my old writingup blog.)

My husband and I love food and we love restaurants. I know that this is not good for people who are trying to get out of debt, so we usually limit this to once a week - that way it stays special, and we can keep it within our budget. A few additional tips have allowed us to eat out more often, and at places we really like, while still staying within the $100 a month I have budgeted for it.

1. Always order water This is probably one of the more obvious tips, and the first one people usually mention. Alcohol, or even soft drinks, will drive up a bill pretty fast. We don't need the extra expense, or the extra calories. It's the food we're there for, so that's what we keep the focus on.

2. Make it an experience We have completely cut out fast food and deli lunches. I get my lunch for free in the school cafeteria at work, and my husband brings a lunch I pack. There's no reason to spend our eating out budget on quick food grabbed on the run. That money is reserved for time that we spend together, sitting in a restaurant and actually enjoying the food.

3. Use coupons and discounts There is a pizza place that we really enjoy, that offers a buffet for $8 per person on Mondays and Wednesdays. My husband got a student discount card that allows us to buy one get one free up to 5 times. That means two of us can get all we can eat pizza for $8 - cheaper than a fast food meal. I scour the newspaper and Internet for coupons for places we enjoy.

4. It's your birthday I have signed us up for birthday discounts at just about ever restaurant I've ever heard of. Off the top of my head, I can think of Red Robin, Souper Salad, Cold Stone Creamery, and Baskin Robbins. All of these places offer you something free on your birthday, and sometimes (as with the ice cream) it's enough food for the two of us to share. While some places are fussy about you going on your birthday, most give you enough leeway that we can eat out almost every day for the weeks before and after both of our birthdays for very little money.

5. Got a giftcard? Use it! My husband's family and my students at school gave us several restaurant giftcards for Christmas this year. I have a special compartment of my wallet where I carry them with me so that we don't forget to use them. It's not worth saving them forever, since they do not increase in value like saved money does; if anything, they decrease.

6. Sign up for everything Some places have a newsletter that you can sign up for in store or online, and they often send you an initial coupon for signing up: a free appetizer, a half price meal, a free dessert. I try to wait until right before I know I'm going to go to a restaurant before signing up for their newsletters because those coupons often have expiration dates, and you can't get the initial sign up bonus a second time if you let it expire
Often these places will continue to send out coupons and discounts to subscribers throughout the year, or will offer some kind of a loyalty program. Whatever they offer, sign up. For example, a TGIFridays points card is free, and the points dont' expire, so you might as well get one even if you don't go there often. You never know when you'll be out with friends and they'll suggest stopping somewhere.

7. Mystery shop Lately, this has been a goldmine for me. I googled mystery shop and signed up for several companies, and they occasionally send me shop jobs in my area. I'm not really interested in most of the shops, as I can make more money doing other things, but the restaurant ones are a great way to get a free meal for me and my husband.


Fabulously Broke in the City said...

We do the same thing too!

But my husband LOVES hotdogs, so sometimes our eating out is $3 hotdogs which is fantastic :)

In restaurants, we only drink iced water, forego dessert (200% markup!, only $2 at the Provigo around the corner for something better), and we always make sure we know what's included and what's extra before ordering.

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