After learning just how bad my lifestyle inflation has gotten in the last few years, I’m trying to do what I can to cut back in certain areas. One area in which I noticed particularly egregious spending is in eating out. BF and I don’t indulge in too many luxuries, but we do really enjoy going out to eat regularly. This has come to cost me a pretty penny over the years (don’t even get me started on the madness that was our restaurant spending in France this summer). While I have no plans to cut out eating out entirely (it’s something we really enjoy and value), I have been thinking a lot lately about how we can get the same dining out experience without spending quite as much money.
Today I thought I would share my thoughts on how to dine out without spending a ton. You can still enjoy great food, atmosphere and company without going over your budget.
- Go once and go for the “experience.” BF and I are super lucky to live in Cambridge, where you could probably eat at a new restaurant each week and not run out of options in at least two years. And that’s before we cross the river into Boston. We have a few favorites that we go to from time to time, but the vast majority of the time we go out to a place we’ve never been to before. We like this because we get to experience new foods and atmospheres; it makes dining out seem like a special experience instead of just another meal. It also means that it is OK if we splurge a bit on a particular meal because we’re not going to make a habit of it.
- Share. BF and I are both fairly adventurous eaters and we like to try new foods and dishes. A great way to try more things and save money is to share plates. Often, when we go out, we will share one appetizer and one entrée. Appetizers are often less expensive than entrees, so this helps us save money. With the exception of meals to celebrate special occasions, we never order individual appetizers and entrees. Not only is it way too much food, but the price really adds up!
- Go for brunch. Another great way to try a new place, especially one that is a bit more expensive, is to go for brunch. Of course lunch is an option, too, but weekend brunch is just so much more special than boring old weekday lunch. At brunch you can often find unique dishes but at much lower prices than dinner. Drinking is also much less central to brunch than dinner, offering yet more cost savings.
- Limit alcoholic drinks. Drinks are often as much a part of the dining experience as the food, so we often imbibe when we dine out. We try to limit the number of drinks we order to keep the tab down. I like to try different cocktails, and at $8 to $12 per cocktail I usually limit myself to one per meal. BF prefers beers, which are usually less expensive so he’ll often have two. We could easily drink away two or three times as much money, but by limiting the number of drinks we have we still feel like we get the experience without adding too much cost.
- Pre-game. I’m not talking pre-game like the good old, under 21 days when you had to drink before you left the house (not that I would have ever done that!). I’m talking food. It might sound silly, but if you’re going to a fancy restaurant, go hungry but not starving. I’d say that it’s a good rule of thumb that the fancier the place the smaller the portions, and the last thing you want is to leave a nice meal still hungry. By eating a snack before leaving the house, you’ll be able to enjoy your delicious yet small portion and won’t be tempted to order more food.
- Limit frequency. This goes along with my first point – if you eat out every night of the week it becomes just another night and ceases to be special. We try to go out to eat no more than once per week, usually on a Friday or Saturday night. While it is tempting to run out for dinner on a busy weeknight, it would just lead to an exhausted, mindless meal that we won’t enjoy to its full potential. By eating out on the weekends when we have time to savor our meals, we have a better experience, and obviously we save big by limiting the number of times we go out to eat.
Some savings tactics just don’t work
There are also a few ways I’ve tried to save on dining out in the past that have been less successful. For example, I’ve gotten a few Groupons and other coupon deals for restaurants, but somehow as soon as I have a coupon for a restaurant it either closes or ceases to be of interest. Since these coupons usually involve an upfront cost, if you don’t use it you’re out the money having received nothing in return. I find that it is better to avoid sunk costs altogether and just go to the restaurant you really want to try.
Similarly, I’ve tried eating at more budget friendly restaurants with mixed success. I’m by no means a gourmet, and I truly enjoy a hamburger, pizza, and other simple foods. Even with my modest palate, I still find that picking restaurants based solely on cost is often disappointing. I’d rather spend a few dollars more for a great, special dinner than a little less for a mediocre meal.
Do you like to go out to eat? How do you save money when dining out?