Americans have gone restaurant crazy. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 42 percent of the typical American family's food budget is now spent on food prepared outside the home — in other words, eating out.
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As rates of dining out have steadily climbed during the past few decades, so has the size of the family kitchen. Kitchens with commercial-sized appliances and enough counter space to land an aircraft on are now the norm. They're one reason newly built homes are nearly twice the size of houses built in the 1950s, according to the National Association of Home Builders. So we're eating out much more but building our own trophy kitchens at the same time. Go figure.
Don't get me wrong: I enjoy eating a good meal in a restaurant as much as the next guy, cheapskate or otherwise. But to keep the financial indigestion from arriving with the dinner check, here are some ways to dine out for less:
Make mine a water. Restaurants typically mark up beverages — alcoholic and otherwise — by 300 to -600 percent. By drinking tap water with restaurant meals, the average family of four can save about $800 per year. If you want to have a glass of wine or a before-dinner cocktail, consider having one at home before you go out (as long as you have a designated driver, of course).
Control your own portions. Studies have shown that food portions served in restaurants tend to be about 60 percent larger than servings of dishes prepared at home. Gee, you don't suppose that they're serving us more so that they can charge us more, do you?
Consider ordering a smaller meal off the less expensive appetizer menu or splitting larger entrees with your dining companions.
Next: Pull out your coupons. »
Coupons, of course. Don't be shy. Restaurant coupons you find in the newspaper, phonebook, Valpak mailers or buy from outfits like Entertainment.com can really knock your restaurant check down to size. If you're embarrassed about using a coupon, check out websites such as Restaurant.com, where you can buy "gift certificates" for selected restaurants at a fraction of their face value.
Try it for lunch, not dinner. If you have your heart set on trying a new five-star restaurant in town, go for lunch rather than dinner. Many restaurants have similar menus at lunch and dinner, but lunch menu prices tend to be significantly lower, sometimes in exchange for slightly smaller portions.
Don't order the salad bar unless that's all you order. I love salad bars, but I've found that they either inspire me to overeat to the point of not enjoying my entrée, or else I don't eat enough from the salad bar to make ordering it cost-effective. My policy now is that I either order only the salad bar, or only an entrée, but rarely both.
You say it's your birthday? No, don't be a jerk like a guy I know who claims it's his birthday every time he eats out. Based on the number of free pieces of birthday cake he's received over the years, he should be more than 1,200 years old by now. But when it really is your birthday, check out a website for a list of dining establishments that give you free or discounted meals or other perks on your special day.
Eat where the students eat. College students major in cheap eats. You can usually find a selection of bargain-priced dining establishments surrounding a college campus, including inexpensive ethnic restaurants and street food you might not otherwise discover.
Breakfast is the most important (and cheapest) meal of the day. Particularly when traveling, consider eating a hearty breakfast. It is usually the least expensive meal you can eat in a restaurant, and having a big repast in the morning will help you eat less throughout the day. Also, keep an eye open for restaurants that serve breakfast all day long for some tasty values.
Try lunch bars for a carry-out dinner. Self-serve lunch bars — where you buy hot and cold foods by the pound — are all the rage these days among office workers. In the late afternoon, many lunch bars mark down the food they have left, since they're not open for dinner. Consider grabbing some for a bargain-priced carryout.
Kids eat free. Check out Mykidseatfree.com for a nationwide directory of thousands of dining establishments where children can eat for free or at a discount when accompanied by an adult.
Ask for a doggie bag. Thank Heaven, the days of being too embarrassed to take your restaurant leftovers home with you are long gone. Letting food go to waste is so last millennium. Make it a point to eat your leftovers within 24 hours.
Make home cooking faster than fast food. The key to reducing how much you spend on fast food and carryout is to make eating at home more convenient. Cook meals ahead of time in batches, and always have some simple-to-make meal ingredients on hand. That way, eating in will be easier than eating out.
When you do dine out, please don't give us cheapskates a bad name. Remember to always tip accordingly, and base the gratuity on the total value of your meal, before any coupons or other discounts.
Jeff Yeager is the author of The Ultimate Cheapskate's Road Map to True Riches and The Cheapskate Next Door. His website is www.UltimateCheapskate.com and you can friend him on Facebook at JeffYeagerUltimateCheapskate or follow him on Twitter.
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