Let’s face it: going out to eat is really nice every now and then. You don’t have to do any cooking, there are no dishes to clean, you can try new foods, and your family doesn’t all have to eat the same thing, everyone can order what they want. But as anyone struggling with debt, saving up for a big purchase, or just trying to control their spending knows, eating out is expensive. That’s why most financial advice you see will tell you to limit eating out as much as possible.
I’m not going to debate that; if you are living on a budget, you can’t eat every meal at a restaurant. Your money will disappear (and your waistline will grow). But that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy a meal out every now and then, you just need to be smart about it. Here are a few tips that will let you enjoy semi-regular restaurant meals without breaking your budget.
Redefine “Eating Out”
If eating out means going to a gourmet restaurant where you need to get dressed up and you don’t recognize half the cooking methods mentioned on the menu, you’ve got to change your definition of “eating out”. Those fancy meals are just fine for the occasional celebration a couple times a year, but they are to be reserved for special occasions, not your run-of-the-mill restaurant meal.
If you’re used to the gourmet experience, it may feel like a sacrifice at first, but you’ll soon realize that a well-selected casual restaurant provides just as much stress relief and just as delicious food. Not all casual dining involves dirty carpets, noisy crowds, and unruly children. I guarantee you can find a moderately priced restaurant that satisfies your eating out desires.
Eat Cafeteria Style
Not tipping or under tipping a server is never an option, but if you’re smart about where you eat, tipping becomes a non-issue. Opt for cafeteria style restaurants where you place your order at the counter, and get your own drinks and silverware. Often an employee will deliver the food to your table when it’s ready, and bus your table when you’re done, so you should still leave something in the tip jar, but you don’t need to shell out the standard 15-20%. If it’s the type of restaurant where you get a buzzer and have to retrieve your food when it’s ready, and then bus your own table, you don’t need to leave a tip at all.
Don’t Pay for a Drink
The only thing you should be drinking at a restaurant is water. It’s better for your wallet and better for your health. Leave your alcohol and soda consumption for home, where it is much, much cheaper, and you won’t be tempted to take advantage of free refills that could land you with more calories than you should be consuming in an entire day. An occasional splurge for a nice mixed drink that requires skill to make or a beer that you can’t buy at a local store is fine, but if you’re paying for drinks on a regular basis, you’re throwing a lot of money down the drain.
If You Can Make it at Home, Don’t Order It
I learned this rule from my father, with whom I share a love of cooking. Why would you pay $18 for a piece of salmon, a scoop of rice, and some steamed veggies when you could easily make an identical meal at home for $5? Only pay for someone else to make your food if you wouldn’t be able to make it yourself. For instance, I’m perfectly capable of cooking a filet, but not very good at cooking prime rib, so if I’m splurging on a steak dinner, I’m going to order the kind of steak I’m not good at making myself. Of course, that’s a less frequent dinner out, the more frequent options are ethnic restaurants, which are usually much cheaper than the steak-and-potatoes American restaurants as well.
The corollary to this rule is to learn how to cook a wider variety of foods. The more types of foods you can cook well, the less reliant you will be on restaurants to provide you with all the different flavors you crave.
Only Order One Course
Waiters and waitresses will always ask you if you want to add an appetizer and if you’ve left room for dessert. Resist! Restaurant meals are generally huge, you don’t need to add extra courses. Beyond the obvious point that you’re adding several dollars to your bill, the appetizer menu is typically filled with deep fried foods, and the desserts often have more sugar than you should eat in a week. You will be richer and healthier if you steer clear of the first and last sections of the menu.
Another option is to skip the entree and just have a cup of soup and a small salad. Or if there are reasonably healthy appetizers on the menu, have that as your main course.
There are several sites offering restaurant coupons, and you may receive some in the mail as well. A couple things to remember when using a restaurant coupon:
- You often have to spend a certain amount of money to get the deal. “$10 off when you spend $30″ isn’t a great deal if you would typically spend less than $20 at the restaurant. Bring a friend or two along so you’re not ordering more food than you want just to use the coupon.
- Don’t forget to tip on the non-discounted price. You don’t get to save money on the tip, sorry. Your waiter worked just as hard to bring you your half priced meal as he would have if it were full priced.
So there you have it! You don’t have to completely forgo eating out just because you’re on a budget! Enjoying a delicious meal prepared by someone else can be a delightful escape from the stresses of your daily routine, and with these tips you enjoy it even more because you’re paying less for it.