How to Save Money Dining Out (Without Being an Ass)

Going out to eat with your family doesn't have to break your budget. These simple and easy-to-follow tips can help you save money on dining out without turning you into a complete ass.

There’s a big difference between being frugal and being cheap (there is also a huge difference between being cheap and being a complete ass). Do y’all remember that story  that went viral about the couple that put five $1 bills on the table and took a dollar away if the server disappointed them? Whether the story was true or not, the whole concept turns my stomach. That story combined with the stories of people not tipping their server for one of dozens of other stupid reasons irritates me so much because if you can’t afford to tip your server then you have no business going out to eat #sorrynotsorry.

Whether you think tipping should be a practice or not doesn’t change the fact that it is the industry standard and your servers depend on those tips to earn a living and pay their bills. If you don’t tip your server you’re not sticking it to the restaurant, you’re preventing someone from being able to afford groceries or pay their electric bill. You’re also being a complete ass (and yes I judge you based on how much you tip a server). 

To spell it out one more time – not tipping your server is not a way to save money dining out!

Dining out doesn’t have to break your bank and there are ways you can save money without making your server hate you. Brandon and I used to have a major budget buster in our dining out category and it took us a while to figure out exactly which money saving tips worked for us and which ones were more of a hassle than they were worth (like buying discounted gift cards).

How to save money dining out

Consider this advice our practical real-world you’ll-save-money-but-not-feel-like-a-jerk tips for saving money dining out although it’s not exclusive of everything you could do because, by all means, if buying discounted gift cards is your thing then go for it.

Take advantage of free appetizers

Some restaurants offer free appetizers to their patrons so if you’re looking to save on your dining out budget hit these places up to save a few bucks on your bill. You will find that some Italian restaurants offer free bread while many Mexican restaurants offer chips and salsa. In our area we’ve even found places that offer a free basket of french fries (a burger joint), veggie chips and hummus (a vegetarian restaurant), and mini eggrolls (an Asian fusion restaurant). Look around and keep these places in mind.

Order smaller entrees

I rarely finish my entree when we go out to eat so I’ve learned to cut back an order smaller items. I’ll order a cup of soup with my salad, the half-rack of ribs, or other small portion alternatives. We don’t need to eat as much as we think and our eyes are often bigger than our stomachs. If you order the smaller portion, you’ll often find yourself full and a smaller bill to pay.

Don’t drink your calories

Not only are sugary drinks like soda and tea bad for your waistline but they add up at the restaurant and provide no real value. The upcharge on drinks is insane and you don’t need them to enjoy your meal. In place of tea, lemonade, or soda just order a glass of water to accompany your meal. Often, you can request that the server bring lemon, lime, cucumber, or other items from the bar to flavor your water. If you want a cocktail with dinner order the drink with the house liquor and limit yourself to one.

Make a meal of an appetizer

I do this all of the time but especially when the restaurant doesn’t have size options (which I mentioned above). Browse the appetizer section of the menu and choose an app for your meal. A lot of restaurants we visit include items such as sliders, eggrolls, quesadillas, or chicken wings as appetizers which are more than enough for a meal if you ask me. They are also often a few bucks cheaper than entrees even though you’re plenty full after eating.

Use reward programs

This was a huge pain in the you-know-what back when you had to carry a card for every single place but now it’s often as simple as just downloading another app to your smartphone. NBD. A lot of regular day-to-day places (Panera Bread, Chilis, Jason’s Deli, etc) have reward programs which allow you to earn free entrees or other discounts. Just sign up and save.

Go meatless

You’re probably already doing meatless Monday so what’s one more meatless meal? Going meatless can really help you save on your bill and a lot of places are happy to offer a vegetarian alternative even if it’s not on the menu. At Chili’s, we’ve ordered their quesadilla salad without chicken and they charged for a large house salad instead (for a savings of about $4 – $5 on the entree). It never hurts to ask, just know that sometimes this isn’t an option.

Stalk social media

Restaurants are notorious for sharing discount codes or specials on Twitter or Facebook. If you’re planning a night out, take a few minutes to stalk the social media pages of your favorite restaurants and check for specials, discount codes, or bogo offers. If you find one, snap a quick screenshot and show it to the server when you first sit down. If it’s a chain restaurant the discount is usually posted by corporate and often go unclaimed so it’s good to give your server a heads up.

Check the time

Frequently, restaurants offer specials and discounts during their slow times so if you can make it out to eat during those times you can score a pretty healthy discount on your meals. We’ve found 2 for $20 deals that are only good from 2pm – 5pm or BOGO breakfast entrees on Sunday from 7am – 10am. You just have to look around and be flexible with your own schedule.

Be nice and exercise patience

Do I really have to say to be nice? I mean, I shouldn’t have to say it but if the stories in the news are any indication I suppose I do. Being nice is absolutely not a guarantee that you’ll see anything on your bill but we have had it happen. We’ve had restaurants give us free appetizers because we didn’t complain while they cleared a table for us or a free dessert because we are regulars and always nice to the staff. Just be nice and sometimes people will surprise you.

Want to save $ at the restaurant? Check out these tips from @ashleyfromfbl! Click To Tweet

Whatever you do and however you decide to save money dining out, do not take it out on your server. Unless you have horrible service (in which case you should speak to a manager) you should never withhold a tip from your server as a way to save money. That’s just awful.

Ashley LaMar
Ashley bounces between Atlanta, GA + Charleston, WV with her husband and two small dogs for life and work. If she’s not writing or blogging, she can usually be found cooking, reading, or watching baseball. Follow her on Twitter @ashleyfromfbl

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    • SAME! I worked as a server in college and it’s a very demanding position. People don’t realize all of the backwork and other stuff that goes into that job so to not tip or be cheap on that really makes me angry. If your food sucked, complain to management but don’t stiff your server.

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  1. These are good tips. Since I have a family of 9, eating out is just not worth it most of the time. Bye-bye Benjamin!! The exception is when kids eat free at some restaurants. We find that we enjoy eating out more the less we do it, it’s a real treat then.

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