Dining out at restaurants has been a luxury enjoyed by many for decades. What’s not to like? Good food, a lively atmosphere, and someone else to prepare the meals for you … sounds good, right?
The problem, of course, is that eating out can be expensive. The average U.S. household spends $2,375 annually on restaurants. And as long as inflation continues to make the price of food go up, you can expect that restaurants are only going to raise their prices.
Obviously, there’s a lot of money to be saved if you cooked all of your meals at home. But where’s the fun in that? Instead, I’d like to offer you seven ways to still go out to restaurants but spend less.
1. Look at the Menu Ahead of Time
One of the main reasons people tend to spend too much at restaurants is because they make impulse decisions once they get there. They might see other tables enjoying beautifully prepared dishes or fall for those carefully placed images of premium entrees within the pages of the menu. Either way, it can lead to you spending way more than you probably normally would.
A great strategy to avoid making an impulse decision is to plan in advance. Almost every restaurant has its menu online. You can easily pull it up on your phone, browse the options, and make your choice well before taking your seat. This will give you time to make better choices and find an option that’s within your budget.
2. Eat a Snack Before Going Out
Another reason we tend to over-order at restaurants is that we let ourselves get too hungry! It happens to everyone – you plan to eat out after a long day of running errands or doing some other type of activity. Or maybe you skip breakfast thinking you’ll just eat later.
In all cases, by the time you actually take your menu, you’re starving. This can lead you to order extras like appetizers or side dishes that you probably won’t even end up eating.
One easy way to prevent this is to eat something about 1 to 2 hours before you’re planning to go out. A simple energy bar or piece of fruit can be a low-calorie way to get something in your stomach and offset your hunger.
3. Order Just Enough
When you’re going over the menu, consider your options carefully. Do you really need a full entree with two sides plus a salad? Chances are that’s probably way more food than you actually need.
Google how many calories are in a typical restaurant entrée and this might cause you to think twice. A single plate at most popular restaurants will easily have anywhere from 1,500 to 2,500 calories in it. Remember that the old standard for daily consumption is only 2,000 calories.
To put it plainly, that means one entrée at a restaurant could easily equal your entire recommended caloric intake. That’s not healthy for you at all. And by the time you add on any extras, it just makes things worse.
What to do instead? Go for something lighter like a sandwich. These options are usually more in the 600 to 1,200 calorie range, so they won’t add as much to your waistline. Also, they can be surprisingly filling.
4. Consider Sharing a Meal
Part of the fun of going out is trying new things. So why not get creative? If the people you’re dining with are up for it, propose ordering several smaller dishes or appetizers that everyone can try.
It will be much more interesting, and you’ll all have something fun you can all share. Plus, the cost will likely be much less.
This strategy also works really well if you’re eating somewhere that has pizza. Generally speaking, ordering a large pizza and splitting it among family or friends will be far less expensive than if everyone tries to order their own unique entree.
5. I’ll Just Have Water Please
To get the full experience of eating in a restaurant, sometimes a nice glass of wine or beer can be appealing. But you’ll have to pay the price which can be as much as $10 per glass.
Even something as simple as a soft drink can easily cost an extra $3 to $4 per person. For a family of 4, that adds another $14 to $20 (after you already factor in the tip).
To cut this part of the bill down, just reply “water” when you’re asked what you’d like to drink. Water is of course calorie-free and medical experts have long been broadcasting the health benefits of drinking more water. If that seems too boring of an option, just ask for some lemons to give it some flavor.
6. Redeem Credit Card Points for Gift Cards
Do you have a bunch of credit card rewards or points that are just sitting around doing nothing? If you don’t have any other plans for them, then why not turn them into something fun and redeem them for gift cards to your favorite restaurants?
Depending on the rewards program, you might even get a small bonus when you do this. For instance, some credit cards will offer $25 for every $20 of points that get redeemed.
On top of that, because a lot of the big-name restaurants are owned by the same parent companies, it’s fairly easy to get a gift card that can be used at 4 to 5 different restaurants. That means you don’t have to pigeonhole yourself to one particular place and can explore your options.
7. Know Your Dining Out Budget
It can be fun to get out of the house and eat at a good restaurant. However, like all your expenses, you don’t have unlimited funding to go out for food all of the time.
Go through your budget and set a reasonable limit for dining. Be sure to balance it among your true financial priorities (like rent, insurance, retirement contributions, etc.) versus other discretionary expenses.
If you don’t have a budget already, then now would be a good time to create one. You can easily do this using a helpful app like Buxfer. Buxfer lets you set limits for each expense category and tracks your spending in real-time so that you’ll always know where you stand.
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