BEING SERVED IS GOOD. Very good. But spending a lot of money at restaurants can be very bad for your budget. You can satisfy your appetite for a good meal out without paying a fortune. Try these tips:
SKIP THE EXTRAS
Extras are just that: extra. Do you really need to pay for that additional salad, soup or side order? You may end up full before the main dish arrives, so consider skipping the extras in favor of your budget — and your waistline.
Appetizers can boost your bill and many are priced almost as high as entrees. Really want the app? Order it as your main course.
One fountain soda in a restaurant can cost as much as a 2-liter bottle of the stuff. And not every establishment offers free refills on soft drinks. Consider drinking water — and not the bottled kind — instead.
BRING YOUR OWN
New Jerseyans know all about BYOB. If your favorite bottle of wine costs $10, but a single glass in a restaurant costs $7, think of how much extra you’re spending by visiting an establishment with a liquor license. Even if the restaurant charges a corking fee, bringing your own is always cheaper.
THINK ABOUT TOMORROW
It’s common for a main course to be large enough to cover two meals. Eat only half and save the rest for tomorrow’s lunch. You’ll still have the larger dinner bill, but you’ll save on what you don’t spend tomorrow.
With those large portions, consider sharing a main course. Even if you’re charged a couple of bucks as a sharing charge, the bill will still be less than if you ordered two main courses.
LOOK FOR DISCOUNTS
Check restaurant websites for a coupon or discount days. Sign up for customer loyalty programs and you’ll get emails with special deals. Search sites such as Groupon.com or Restaurants.com for coupons. Don’t forget early-bird specials and “kids eat free” deals, which you’re most likely to see on weekdays. Some restaurants offer half-priced menu options during happy hour, so shop around. And don’t forget social media — following a business on Facebook could get you some discounts, too.
If it’s your birthday or an anniversary, many restaurants will give you a free dessert or other menu item. Sign up for those rewards programs and you’ll probably get a coupon for something free as the restaurant wants to help celebrate your day.
Of course, you don’t want to pay interest on a restaurant bill that you pay for with a credit card, but your card may give you cash back for purchases. Some have higher cash-back deals if you use the card at certain restaurants, so check out your rewards programs. Also consider using credit card reward points to buy gift cards to your favorite eateries.
PRE-BUY FOR YOURSELF
Around the holidays, restaurants often offer gift card deals. Maybe your favorite place offers a $50 gift card for only $40. Consider buying a bunch to use throughout the year.
TAKE OUT AND SAVE
Imagine that you’re craving a beef burrito from your favorite Mexican restaurant. The price is $12 each. If you and your beloved sat in the restaurant for the meal, you’d pay for the burritos ($24), but also for several glasses of soda ($2 each) or a couple of beers ($6 each). While you’re reading the menu, you might spy that delicious guacamole dip ($8) or a veggie quesadilla (also $8). Maybe that corn soup with roasted chiles ($6). The meal could easily run over $50, and that’s before the tip. You could, instead, take out the burritos ($24) and use soda or beer you have at home. If you choose delivery, you should tip the driver — but your overall bill, and therefore the tip, is likely to be far less than if you ate at the restaurant.
ORDER LUNCH NOW — FOR DINNER LATER
Order from the lunch menu as takeout, but serve it for dinner. Lunches are typically less expensive than dinner entrees, and while the portions are smaller, they’re certainly enough for a filling meal. Take my favorite Chinese restaurant, for example. The sesame chicken lunch special costs $7.50 and includes fried rice, an egg roll and soup. If you ordered at dinnertime, you’d get a quart of sesame chicken for $10.50. It comes with white rice, but you’d pay extra for the egg roll and soup.
Karin Price Mueller, the founder of NJMoneyHelp.com, writes the Bamboozled consumer affairs column for The Star-Ledger, and the Money and Biz Brain columns for Inside Jersey. Send your money questions to her at Bamboozled@njadvancemedia.com.