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I live in a big city with no kids, and up until I retired my cooking abilities began and ended with pressing the ‘Start’ button on the microwave. That meant a lot of eating out.
If you want to find a way to keep restauranting in the budget, here are a few things that will help you keep more dollars in your pocketbook. Using these tactics, I took my restaurant costs from an embarrassing $1000 a month for two people to $250 a month. While that’s still a luxurious number, it is my number one luxury. And happily, these changes have not made me feel deprived at all.
I’m still feasting like a king while saving more than $9,000 a year.
1) Eat Out Socially and For Special Occasions Only: I cannot believe how many bad habits I’d racked up around on-the-go-purchases. Coffee as I was walking the dog. A smoothie on my way to meet a friend. Takeout for dinner so I wouldn’t have to cook. Focusing on eating out as an experience preserves the experiences that are highest enjoyment per dollar. Takeout is extremely inefficient for enjoyment per dollar. You pay the exact same amount for your food and don’t get to enjoy the ambiance! Stock frozen meals and such to help you rid yourself of takeout habits and only pull out the credit card when you’re going to be sitting down with friends or to celebrate a special occasion.
2) Eat A Snack Ahead of Time: You are going to a restaurant for flavor and ambience, not to bulk up. Eating a bowl of oatmeal or some other neutral flavor will keep your palette clean and ready to be pleased while telling your stomach to be more discerning about how much it really needs from your outing. Eating something ahead will also curb your impulse for add-ons like appetizers and dessert.
3) Discount Coupons: What’s not to love about something you want for less? There are a whole host of options here including Restaurant.com, Groupon, and LivingSocial. What I like about these options (aside from being half off) is that it forces you to think about and anticipate your purchase. Anticipating your purchase will help you enjoy the money you spent way more. And who doesn’t want to learn how to get more enjoyment out of their money?
For spontaenous dining, I suggest putting an app like ScoutMob on your phone.
ScoutMob will show you what deals are available around your location at that exact moment. Instant Gratification + Discount? #Win. If ScoutMob is not highly active in your area, google ScoutMob competitors and check those out.
My one recommendation across all of these sites is to be sure to cross-reference your choice with Yelp reviews for before you buy. Sometimes the merchants who sign up for discount deals are perfectly wonderful restaurants, and sometimes they are the desperate ones with terrible food.
My one recommendation across all of these sites is to be sure to cross-reference your choice with Yelp reviews for before you buy.
4) Split an entree: Restaurant entrees often contain twice the amount of calories you are supposed to be eating. Your stomach is only the size of your fist. Makes you feel real guilty when you’re wolfing down a plate of food the size of a cantaloupe, doesn’t it? Keep your wallet fatter and yourself skinnier by splitting an entree.
Some folks feel a little self-conscious doing this at a restaurant. To them, I say that a restaurant is there to serve food and you are eating food. Don’t be a jerk about it and you should be fine. Sitting at the bar is a fantastic chill option. Ordering just one entree at the bar doesn’t raise eyebrows since it’s easily the price of one and a half or two drinks.
5) Coffee Shop/Wine Bar: If you are mostly looking for ambiance to have a great conversation, try an artisanal coffee shop or wine bar instead of a restaurant. You can always order soft drinks at the wine bar to keep the cost down, or a decaf espresso.
6) Lunch Rather Than Dinner: Lunch is often a much better deal than dinner. The average price per entree is about 25% lower in the afternoon. The discounts are even better at fine dining establishments. My favorite deal in New York for a special occasion meal is a 5-course prix fixe lunch at Bouley for $55 vs their prix-fixe dinner options of a 3-course meal at $135 and a six-course meal at $195. You are getting a similar experience at a Michelin-starred restaurant for 30-40% of the price!
7) Ignore Apps, Drinks, and Dessert: You are paying inflated prices for each item you purchase. Choose what’s important to you. If it’s drinks, find a great bar or wine bar. Otherwise, put your blinders on to all but the entree you’d like to order.
8) Choose Brunch or Happy Hour for Whole Hog Dining: If you must have extras with your meal, try timing your meal with brunch specials on weekends or happy hour for dinners on weeknights. Brunch establishments may have a prix-fixe deal that includes am mimosa, coffee/orange juice, appetizer, and entree for a lower price. Restaurants often have discounted appetizers and drinks to draw crowds in on weekday during happy hour. I’m a big fan of $1 oyster nights – in a city there will be at least one decent restaurant offering this every day of the week.
9) Graze: I am a huge fan of grazing on the specialties of multiple restaurants. I might go to a bakery for a great muffin and then walk a mile to the best french fry joint. When it’s about the food for you rather than ambiance, consider a grazing food crawl. You save on tips, you get exercise, and you prolong your food experience and build anticipation as you move from stop to stop. I like to focus on things I can’t make well at home. That means deep fried things, items with a ton of ethnic ingredients I don’t want to invest in for my pantry, and things that take a long time and lots of technique to perfect (perfectly made baby back ribs, anyone? A gorgeous, gorgeous slice of mille-crepe cake?). Man, just talking about all this in one sentence is making my arteries clog up.
For the occasional restaurant adventure, you can absolutely eat well for less. What’s more, the strategies you implement from this article will help you enjoy each experience even more than you have in the past by building your anticipation and awareness.
Happy nomming out there.