How to eat out for less

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Don’t let eating out be a budget buster. (Thinkstock)
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Q. I My husband and I eat out a lot, and it takes a bite from our budget. I know there is a recommended maximum budget percentage for housing costs, but what about for food?A. I You should look at food as two budget categories. Grocery shopping would fall under a “must have” column, while dining out is a “nice-to-have” or discretionary expense.

When it comes to food, there is no industry standard like the cost of housing percentage, which is often helpful for new homebuyers, says Claudia Mott, a certified financial planner with Epona Financial Solutions in Basking Ridge. But there are some rules of thumb that might serve as guidelines when it comes to setting a limit on food-related spending.

In an annual survey, the Bureau of Labor Statistics compiles common budget categories and finds that consumers, on average, spend 14 percent of net income on food expenditures. Mott says this combines both groceries and dining out into one category. By applying this percentage to your monthly net income, you would have a fixed figure to compare against your actual spending, she says.

Then, consider the “50-30-20 rule,” a budgeting process in which 50 percent of net income is set aside for essentials, including shelter, food and transportation; 30 percent is devoted to wants, such as vacations and restaurants; and the remaining 20 percent is earmarked for savings. Mott says this may be a more useful way to approach food costs because it takes into account your family’s overall budget and separates the essential expenses from the discretionary.

“This budgeting process also gives you a bit of flexibility within each category,” she says. “If you wish to spend more, you can cut back on another expense in the same category, such as vacations or entertainment.”

— K.P.M.

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.
REBRAND APPETIZERS

Appetizers can boost your bill and many are priced almost as high as entrees. Really want the app? Order it as your main course.

DRINK WATER

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.

SHARE

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.

CELEBRATE!

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.

REWARDS

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.

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