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How to Spend Less on Dining Out, Finance Experts Say

Enjoy a great meal and all the ambiance at a fraction of the price with these 9 tips.

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You're not imagining it—dining out, like everything else in life, has gotten more expensive. Thanks to rising rent rates and increasingly pricy ingredients, restaurant bills are outpacing inflation. In fact, Bon Appetit recently went so far as to say that the high cost of eating out has "killed the joy of trying new restaurants."

However, if you love dining out, but hate draining your bank account upon each visit, don't give up just yet. Finance experts say there are several ways to keep costs down while still frequenting your favorite spots. By making just a few minor tweaks, you can still enjoy a great meal—not to mention all the ambiance. These are their nine best tips for spending less money any and every time you eat in a restaurant.

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Buy restaurant gift cards in bulk.

A gift card and cash.

If you typically eat at chain restaurants, there are several ways to spend less on dining out. Andrea Woroch, a consumer savings and budgeting expert, says that one way to save big is to buy restaurant gift cards in bulk.

"Warehouse stores like Costco sell bulk packages of nearby and national chain restaurants at around 20 percent to 30 percent off on average. For example, you can get two $50 gift cards to Macaroni Grill for just $75 (enjoy an instant $25 off your meal), or two $50 gift cards to California Pizza Kitchen for $80 (a $20 savings!)."

In some cases, you may also be able to earn free restaurant gift cards by using a free rewards app like Fetch, Woroch tells Best Life: "By uploading pictures of your various receipts for groceries, gas, and other daily essentials, you will earn points that can be redeemed for gift cards to a variety of restaurants like Buffalo Wild Wings, California Pizza Kitchen, Chipotle, Cheesecake Factory, Panera Bread, Uber Eats and many more."

Finally, don't forget to scour gift card resale sites such as Raise for their best deals. "Here, you can review the whole restaurant gift card category like 4.5 percent off Panera Bread Gift Cards, nearly 20 percent off Ruby Tuesday cards, and 25 percent off Cold Stone Creamery gift cards," she says.

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Split an appetizer and entree rather than ordering separately.

A couple eating tacos at a restaurant

Restaurant portion sizes have grown dramatically over the years, so you're unlikely to go hungry if you decide to share with your fellow diners.

"Restaurant portions are huge so split a small plate to start and one regular meal rather than two entrees when out with a friend or partner," Woroch says. "This will probably be more than enough and cheaper!"

Aaron Cirksena, founder and CEO of MDRN Capital, says this strategy is even easier with a larger group. "Consider 'family style dining' where multiple entrees are served to share around the table. This is a great way to save money and still eat out," he tells Best Life.

Dine out during restaurant weeks.

Food on wood table in restaurant, including pasta, burger and fries, and chocolate cake

According to Danielle Desir Corbett, a budgeting expert who runs the travel and personal finance blog The Thought Card, another money-saving alternative is to explore restaurant week promotions, which are specific periods when dining out is made more affordable.

"These weeks are often held several times a year and feature special menus with two-course prix-fixe lunches and three-course dinners from $25 to $60+. This is a great opportunity to try out new restaurants or enjoy a meal at your favorite spot at a discounted price," she says.

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Look for discount dining certificates.

Woman in yellow sweater smiling while looking at her computer / iStock

Websites that specialize in daily deals on activities can also come in handy for dining out.

"Daily deal sites like LivingSocial and Groupon are still a great place to pick up restaurant gift certificates at a discount for around 50 percent off on average," says Woroch. "You can also find discount dining certificates via by entering your zip code."

Sign up for rewards and cash back.

Group of friends smiling at waiter in restaurant
Monkey Business Images / Shutterstock

Many restaurants offer loyalty programs that give you something back for your regular purchases, Woroch says. Most often, all the restaurant will ask for in return is your email address.

"For instance, California Pizza Kitchen's reward program offers a free small plate when you register, a free dessert for your birthday, and gives you one point for every $1 you spend, which comes to a $5 reward when you reach 75 points," the budgeting expert explains.

Cash-back apps such as Dosh can also help you earn rewards when you link your card and pay with it at one of their partner restaurants, says Woroch.

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Skip the alcohol.

Shot of a unrecognizable person pouring water into a glass outside around a table

Cirksena says that another great way to spend less on dining out is to skip the alcohol and other pricey beverages, ordering water instead.

"A typical fountain drink is around $3. Alcoholic drinks are going to be much more than that (ranging from around $8 to $20 a drink depending on the type). That will easily increase the bill," he says.

Woroch agrees that this is one of the simplest ways to slash costs at a restaurant, but says this doesn't have to mean abstaining completely. "Prices on alcohol are marked up 60 to 100 percent. Have a glass of wine at home before or after you go out," she suggests.

Look for "kids eat free" offers.

Little boys eating pasta and pizza in restaurant

Plenty of restaurants offer free meals to children with a paying adult. However, Woroch notes that dates and times for these types of promotions will vary, so it pays to familiarize yourself schedule of this offer at your local restaurants.

"For example, kids can eat free at Denny's from 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. on Tuesdays, and Johnny Rockets offers a free kids' meal with the purchase of an adult entrée and beverage on Tuesdays and Thursdays between 4 p.m. and 8 p.m.," she notes. "Meanwhile, Firehouse Subs offers two free kids' meals (complete with dessert and drink!) for every adult meal purchased on Wednesdays from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m., and Baja Fresh says you can buy one adult meal and get a kids' meal free on Sundays."

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Make sure to take advantage of any job- or age-related discounts.

mature woman eating dinner at a restaurant

Plenty of people may also be eligible for reduced dining rates based on their job or senior status, Corbett notes.

"From popular chain restaurants to fine dining establishments, teachers, healthcare workers, law enforcement, the military, students, and senior citizens may all be eligible for restaurant discounts," she explains. "While these discounts aren't often publicized, calling or asking your host or hostess can unlock discounts. Even AARP members can benefit from reduced prices or even free items on the menu."

Do a lunch date rather than a dinner date.

Romantic couple enjoying lunch in a restaurant, eating pasta and drinking red wine.
iStock / Bobex-73

Not every date has to be a dinner date. Woroch suggests saving money by making plans for earlier in the day.

"You get bigger portions for less and many places offer lunch specials since they're slower. Brown bag leftovers to eat later for dinner—it's like two meals for one!" she says.

Many restaurants also have early-bird, happy hour, or late-night specials that can help you spend less while dining out. Call ahead to find out whether your favorite eateries offer any such money-saving deals.

Best Life offers the most up-to-date financial information from top experts and the latest news and research, but our content is not meant to be a substitute for professional guidance. When it comes to the money you're spending, saving, or investing, always consult your financial advisor directly.

Lauren Gray
Lauren Gray is a New York-based writer, editor, and consultant. Read more
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