38 ways to save money while dining out

We all have days when we don’t feel like cooking, but dining out can be so expensive and you should never spend money you don’t have in hand. Saving money takes some planning on the front end. Here are 35 ways to help you dine out for less.

Read the menu online before you commit to dining somewhere so you’re sure it’s within your budget. Don’t forget to add sales tax and a 20% tip to estimate your final cost. If it’s too expensive, find and suggest less costly options to your group.

If you’re going to the movies or the theater before or after dinner, don’t just walk to the nearest restaurant to dine without doing some research first. Google the theater and search for all the nearby restaurants. Peruse their websites for deals and specials.

Avoid new and trendy “celebrity” chef restaurants. Their prices tend to be very high. Wait until the frenzy wears off; sometimes prices will drop over time.

Alternatively, seek out new restaurants right when they’re opening. Sometimes a new restaurant will offer deals just to get people in the door while it works out the final menu and operations.

Take a look at restaurants’ websites for deals and specials. Many restaurants offer half price wine or a meal special on Sundays, Mondays or Tuesdays, when many restaurants are slow.

Look online for daily early-bird specials, prix fixe menus, or after-theater deals (i.e., show your ticket stub for a discount). Also some restaurants have a set daily special menu (think ribs on Thursdays) that can be a great deal. Compare the deal to regular menu prices.

If you don’t see any specials on the website, call the restaurant. Many websites aren’t updated or the specials aren’t advertised. Just don’t call during the lunch or dinner rush.

Learn to compromise. If you want to order an appetizer, salad, main course, dessert, coffee and wine, it’s not likely you’re going to get out of the restaurant on the cheap. Skip the appetizer, dessert and coffee. Or only have one glass of wine.

Dine out at lunch instead of dinner. Prices are sometimes cheaper. Review the menus online to confirm.

Learn how to get the best value out of the menu. Review it online before you go. One way is to order food that can be turned into two meals. For instance The Palm has a $26 three-course “power lunch” special (price varies by location). You can order a salad, entrée, side, and dessert. Tell the waiter that you want the salad and dessert to go, and ask them to bring them to you at the end of the meal. Then only eat half of your entrée. You end up with two meals for the price of one. Alternatively, ask to have half their main course boxed up before it comes to the table.

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Make a meal out of appetizers. Or order a cup of soup and a side salad. Or a couple of side dishes. Ask that they be brought with the main course.

Split an entrée with your dining companion. Inform your server that you plan to do this and ask that she bring an extra plate.

Consider buying a bottle of wine rather than ordering by the glass. If you and your companion drink two glasses each, sometimes the bottle is cheaper. Do the math.

If you’re drinking a non-alcoholic beverage, make sure refills are free before you get them. You may not want to pay $5 (plus tax and tip) for two glasses of iced tea. The best value is to just order water.

You may get better value by ordering things that are difficult or expensive to cook at home like crab cakes, calamari, or paella versus spaghetti. If you make a mean salmon dish at home, don’t bother ordering it and spending extra. Instead, use your dining dollars to try new flavors.

Learn to be flexible. Look for restaurants with happy hour deals. Dine in the bar instead of the restaurant when those deals are available and make a meal out of the happy hour offerings. A great place to do this is at Morton’s Steakhouse. You can get a couple of appetizers for $7 each and wine for $7 a glass (prices vary by location). A six-ounce filet alone in the restaurant is around $40.

Ask the bartender or waiter if there are any drink or food specials. Many specials aren’t advertised. I was recently dining at a restaurant bar and there were no signs about its $5 happy hour margaritas. The bartender didn’t hand out the drink specials menu unless people asked!

Make sure you know the price of the daily special  before your order. The waitstaff are trained to entice you with the special but don’t give you the price. Don’t be timid. Always ask for the price. Often, the special of the day is very expensive.

Dine at casual restaurants that don’t have wait staff. By dining at fast-casual restaurants like Chipotle, Lyfe Kitchen, Pei Wei ,etc. you’re saving that 20% tip. Isn’t the idea of going out to spend time with friends and not just to eat somewhere with white tablecloths?

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Dine at cafes inside grocery stores such as Whole Foods. Depending on local ordinances, many allow you to purchase and consume alcohol on premises and there’s no waitstaff to tip.

Dine at bring your own bottle (BYOB) restaurants. They may be few and far between where you live, but the savings can be substantial if your usually order multiple drinks.

If the weather’s nice, get takeout and have a picnic. You save on the tip and you can BYOB.

Look for discount coupons through your local Living on the Cheap website. Groupon, Living Social, Travelzoo and all offer substantial dining discounts as well. Just read the fine print carefully so you’re sure you can use the deal. Most of the local Living on the Cheap websites offer these dining discounts under a food and drink or dining tab.

Buy the Entertainment Book for your local city. While most of the coupons are for fast food, the book does offer some two-for-one fine dining deals. After one meal, you will have paid for the book. Everything else is profit.

If there’s a restaurant or restaurant group you enjoy, buy a gift card during the holidays (Christmas, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day) when gift cards are sold at a discount or with a bonus gift card. Save the gift card and use it later. Read all the terms and conditions to make sure you can use the bonus gift card.

Purchase discount gift cards from Costco and Sam’s Club. Your local discount club stores may have other offerings in-store.

Buy discounted restaurant gift cards on the secondary market. People sell unwanted gift cards to various sites, which resell them at a discount to face value. The options available vary and you have to wait for them to arrive in the mail, but there are some good deals to be had.

Join OpenTable, an online reservation service that lets you earn 100 points per booking. Once you’ve earned 2,000 points, you can redeem for a $20 dining check. Some tables, at off hours or on slow days, are 1,000 points (minimum two diners) so you’ll earn the equivalent of $10. Even if I’m dining alone I make a reservation.

Join dining rewards programs at any restaurant, chain or restaurant group that you may dine at more than once. Every program is different, but if you eat out a few times you may accrue savings for future use. Also, if your dining companions don’t collect points you may be able to earn theirs, too, depending on the program rules.

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Sign up to receive emails from restaurants in your area. Some offer an instant discount and some will send you a discount offer from time to time or on your birthday.

Check your mail for postcards and coupon packs that contain local restaurant discount coupons.

Check for employee discounts in areas close to your office, particularly if you work for a large employer.

Don’t agree to split the check evenly. If I order lobster and you order an appetizer, you don’t want to subsidize my meal. Better yet, ask for separate checks. The waitstaff won’t usually mind, as long as you both tip properly. If it’s a large group, designate someone to divide up the check and collect what each person owes rather than letting people “throw” money in to avoid a shortfall that everyone has to make up because someone made a math error.

Eat at the bar. Many restaurants have a bar area where they serve the same food but at a cheaper price. Or, there are specials in the bar during happy hour or other times that are not available if you sit in the restaurant.

Look for restaurant coupons on your phone while you’re dining. Daily deal sites, the restaurants themselves, Yelp and other apps have coupons you can show on your phone.

Find senior discounts. Some restaurants offer a special loyalty club for seniors, some have a senior menu and others offer a standard senior discount. If you don’t see a senior discount on the menu, ask if there is one. AARP provides a list of restaurants that offer discounts, usually 10 percent off, to its members.

Apply all these tips when you travel. There’s no reason why, when you’re away from home, you should be overpaying for meals. You should look at where your hotel options are located in relation to all the good dining and plan accordingly. Also scope out dining near all the sites you plan to see. How to cut road trip food costs.

Bonus: Subscribe to your local Living on the Cheap website, where our experts will send you restaurant deals as soon as they become available. See all our current restaurant deals and coupons.

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We all have days when we don't feel like cooking, but dining out can be so expensive and you should never spend money you don't have in hand. Saving money takes some planning on the front end. Here are 35 ways to help you dine out for less.

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