Hold the line on restaurant spending

By Stew

Going out to eat is almost never a frugal decision no matter what eatery you choose – from fast food to all-you-can-eat to fine dining – you are always going to spend more than the actual value of the food that you consume. So why do we still eat out? For the service. A lot of people can cook food that tastes just as good as restaurant food (including Mrs. Stew), but we go out to eat so that we do not have to prepare the food and do the dishes.

Over the past year, the area of our budget where we were most likely to overspend was in going out to eat. I rationalized it because Mrs. Stew worked so hard during the day with our own three children, homeschooling two of them and also watching one or two children from other families. Furthermore, my crazy job schedule brings me home at different times every night. At the end of a long day, going out to eat seemed like such a welcoming proposition. We started out by limiting ourselves to once a week, but then one became two. . . or three. We tried to be careful, but there were months where we spent over $150 in restaurants. About three months ago, we started to really cut back and right now we are trying to limit ourselves to about once or twice a month.

We also have developed a few techniques in order to spend as little as possible when we go out to eat:

  • We try to use restaurant.com gift certificates whenever possible. If you keep your eyes open, you can usually purchase $25 Gift Certificate for anything from $2 to $5 apiece. We also look for ways to earn free restaurants.com certificates through sites like Groupon, MyPoints, Swag Bucks and more.
  • Look for restaurants that put on a “kids night”. Usually Kid’s Night means free or greatly discounted food for the kids and some kind of trinket – balloon, toy, etc. for the kids. We have a place near us where Kid’s Night includes $.99 meals for the kids and free face painting. We walk in, the kids go to the face painting table where they stay for 15 or 20 minutes while Mrs. Stew and I get a chance to catch up. Almost like a date . . . and we usually feed the whole family for not much over $20.
  • Sign up for the Birthday Club or enroll to get promotional emails from a particular restaurant or restaurant chain. This allows you to keep up on the various deals and coupons available at restaurants in your area. Of course, a free birthday meal is a great reason to go out to eat. If you do not want to get swamped by email, create an email account that you use for filling out surveys, entering contests and restaurant promotions. This keeps your real inbox free of spam and you can check your alternate address once in a while for any good deals that might have come through.
  • Never purchase a beverage. If I purchased a soda for our family every time we went out, it would add $10 to $15 to our bill. Water is healthier and quenches thirst just as well.
  • Share an entree. This is a novel idea . . . eat less, pay less and still get a meal. This takes a great amount of self-discipline, but let’s face it, most of us could stand to eat less and most entrees are more than enough for two people. (I sure hope Mrs. Stew does not read this post.)
  • Another way to pay as little as possible at a restaurant is to just purchase an appetizer and make it your meal. When I was single, I used to go to a local restaurant every once in a while and get the chicken quesadilla appetizer. I think it was around $5 and had chicken, cheese, tortilla, salsa – about as balanced a meal as a single guy can get. I do not purchase an appetizer as a meal very often anymore, but I always check to see if there is something on that list out of which I can make a meal. The only thing you have to remember is to tell them to bring the appetizer at the same time as everyone else’s food. Otherwise, you will get your meal way before everyone else and find yourself eating alone.
  • As always, the best way to hold down food costs is to eat at home. I have told Mrs. Stew that since we are eating out less often, she can spend a little more at the grocery store. $25 might feed your family supper at a restaurant once, but $25 in the grocery store could feed your family for several days. Instead of going to the local eatery, take that money and buy a nice steak for the grill. You will have a great meal and save a lot of money.

If you must eat out, eat frugally, but be sure to not skimp on your gratuity!

Article by Stew

Photo by Alan Light

7 Responses (including trackbacks) to “Hold the line on restaurant spending”

  1. Sheila Says:

    I agree with what you said, but laughed about the sharing of entrees. My husband is 6′ 3″ and just over 170 pounds. He eats his entree and half mine. So I do split mine, but we still have to buy two. :) He’s healthy – just active.

  2. Mrs. Stew Says:

    I am glad to know that you finally agree with me, honey. ;-)

  3. Carol@inthetrenches Says:

    All excellent points. I love restaurant food so it is and always will be a temptation.

    One thing that I really think helps is to go on a cold turkey approach and withdraw completely for a specified period. Like 6 months. I hear your groans but it really does work. Like any other habit once we make a new one we may have an occasional splurge but usually won’t go back to the old pattern. Ugh. I know.

  4. Justin Walters Says:

    I think you meant restaurant.com, not restaurants.com. Had me lost for a minute; hadn’t heard of restaurant.com before and looks like a keeper. Thanks!

  5. Stew Says:

    Thanks, Justin, I missed that one.

  6. dramon Says:

    What I have been doing is looking up recipes for menu items I enjoy when dining out. Most of the time it has been pretty close and is rewarding to try new items. Having said that, at times it is really nice to have someone else shop, cook, cleanup!

    Another suggestion is to look to see if you have any cooking schools, they often host restaurants which are a good value.

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