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6 Ways to Eat Out on the Cheap

Even with food prices soaring you can save on restaurant meals

spinner image Hands holding out credit cards to split the bill at a restaurant
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“Less is more” has been the mantra for countless consumers in the current environment marked by high inflation and rising interest rates. That’s especially true when it comes to dining out. As of the February Consumer Price Index, prices at restaurants, fast-food joints and other away-from-home establishments are up 8.4 percent year over year. Meanwhile eating at home will cost you an 10.2 percent more than a year ago. ​

“Between labor and ingredient shortages, coupled with the unpredictability of transportation, it has led to rising consumer costs,” says Howard Dvorkin, chairman of Debt.com. “Food manufacturers are experiencing delays waiting for ingredients and in the end they are paying higher prices, so they are charging higher prices. It’s hard to tell if food costs will go down,” he notes. “More times than not, when costs rise they stay that way.”​

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Without a doubt you’ll pay more to eat out, but that doesn’t mean you can’t splurge from time to time. There are ways to indulge without breaking the bank.​

1. Timing is everything

Demand plays a role in the prices you pay at a restaurant. If you dine out at prime time expect longer waits and higher prices. But if you visit the establishment during slower times, you’ll be seated quickly and you’re apt to get a discount.

“Restaurants are more likely to offer deals when they experience slow periods; that’s why you can enjoy cheaper meals and appetizers during happy hour or late at night,” says Andrea Woroch, a money consultant. “Going out for lunch over dinner is another way to snag cheaper meals. Many restaurants offer lunch specials, some of which you may not be able to finish and could be eaten for dinner later that night.” 

2. Show your loyalty to save

Many restaurants offer loyalty programs that often are free and enable you to earn discounts on future orders and snag freebies. Woroch points to Panera Bread’s MyPanera loyalty program as one example. Not only do you rack up points for each purchase that can be used for a future order but you get a free pastry, sweet treat or bagel when you make a purchase within two months of signing up.

Restaurants aren’t the only ones that give older adults a discount on their meals. With an AARP membership you get a percentage off at a slew of restaurants across the country. 

3. Double down with coupons

To get more patrons through their doors, many restaurants offer coupons. There are a plethora of ways to find these deals, whether you are tech-savvy or old school. “You can find dining coupons in local entertainment books, on the back of grocery and other local business receipts, snag daily deals for up to 60 percent off restaurants via Groupon or LivingSocial, or check online at sites like CouponCabin.com,” says Woroch. ​

Cash-back apps are another way to snag a deal. Apps including Hooch, OpenTable, Restaurant.com and Rakuten give you cash back or reward points when you make certain purchases or make a reservation at a participating restaurant.​

4. Choose the cheaper meal

Just because you are going out to eat doesn’t mean you have to order the expensive filet mignon or lobster. There are plenty of delicious, filling alternatives on most menus. “Pasta dishes are generally less expensive and very filling,” says Woroch. “Considering oversized restaurant portions are likely to fill you up quickly, you can likely get away with splitting a less expensive appetizer and just one entree with your partner instead of ordering two separate, regular-sized meals.”​

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If you don’t want to be limited in what you order, Dvorkin says to downgrade. “It’s better to go to a less expensive restaurant and order whatever you want than an expensive restaurant and order the cheapest option because that is what your budget will allow,” says Dvorkin.           ​

5. Say it’s your birthday

Many restaurants and quick-serve establishments will help you celebrate your birthday by giving you a discount on menu items, a free drink or even a birthday dessert. The days of simply saying it’s your birthday to get a freebie are largely over. Most restaurants require you to sign up for their loyalty program to get the celebratory kickback. These deals tend to be good for a few days after your birthday, which means you can spread out the savings. ​

6. Take a survey

If you are asked to take a survey at the end of the meal, do it, says Dvorkin. Sometimes restaurants will reward you with a coupon or discount for sharing your thoughts on your experience. ​

“As a CPA and debt expert, I’ve learned that a great time at a restaurant can reinvigorate your savings at home. It’s like a cheat day on your diet – so yes, it’s OK to splurge a little for a great night out,” he says. “Just make sure you cut costs somewhere else or go on a spending diet for two weeks where you spend money on only things that are absolute necessities.”

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