By Rachael White, Hosting & Entertaining Expert for Menuism.com
These days, money is tight for many of us. Still, in the midst of trying times, it's more important than ever to treat yourself on occasion. If it seems beyond your budget to venture out to real restaurants serving food above the level of mass-produced hamburgers and greasy French fries, think again. Here are ten ways to save cash and stretch your dining out budget while enjoying an evening out.
What are your tips for saving cash when dining out?
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Have happy hour at home before leaving for the restaurant. Make a special cocktail and some small bites to share before heading out the door. A personalized happy hour will not only help set the mood for the evening, it'll also save you a few bucks on drinks and food later on.
No, I'm not talking about eating at a fast food joint or other establishment that has some sort of "dollar menu." Try finding unique restaurants or even food trucks in your area that serve delicious dishes for less. Many small, casual establishments -- especially locally owned mom-and-pop spots -- serve quality food at affordable prices.
Look at restaurant menus online before going out. Look at the prices and decide what sounds good for your budget. Planning ahead will keep you from purchasing a meal on a whim and overspending. Looking to eat at W.A. Frost in St. Paul, MN? Take a look at the menu here. Instead of purchasing the $38 rib eye, consider opting for the $16 trio of small plates for great variety at less than half the price.
Many restaurants feature happy hour specials or similar promotions where you can take advantage of a set (usually discounted) price for drinks, appetizers and sometimes even entrées. Check the restaurant's website or call the restaurant to find out whether they have any special promotions. For many restaurants, Monday and Tuesday nights are typically the slowest for business, so you may get lucky if you're able to schedule dinner early in the week.
Whatever your choice of beverage may be, your budget will be better off if you skip it altogether. While food is often more enjoyable with a nice glass of wine or an excellent beer, sometimes the wallet is a bit more important. Skipping alcohol altogether is the obvious (and cheapest) option. If you're not willing to do that, look into the restaurant's prices for corkage fees. You may be able to save by bringing your own bottle of wine.
Sure, we all love it when someone else cooks and does the dishes for us, but part of the beauty of going out for a meal is the ambiance -- which you can easily find outside a restaurant. Consider picnicking in a beautiful park or anywhere with a scenic view (or even just good people-watching!). Pick up a simple meal like incredible gourmet sandwiches or finger foods like olives with crackers and cheese and you've got a great meal with no dishes to clean up -- and you may even have enough cash left over for a bottle of wine or a couple of beers.
One of the best ways to save money dining out is to seek out discounted gift certificates. Find restaurants where you live by browsing local reviews on Menuism, and then look for deals on sites like restaurant.com, Groupon and Living Social. Gift certificates at restaurant.com, for example, are sold at a 50 percent discount or more. From the comfort of home, you can purchase and print a $25 gift certificate for only $10. Can't complain about saving that kind of cash!
Sharing meals, especially at restaurants that are notorious for serving large portions, can save your wallet from thinning further than it needs to. Let's say you go to a restaurant with a friend or spouse. If you each purchase a $7 glass of wine, a $12 appetizer, a $20 entrée and a $10 dessert, you've already spent nearly $100. Now consider this: two glasses of wine, one appetizer, one entrée and one dessert split between two people. That cuts the bill nearly in half! Many restaurants will plate split meals on separate dishes for you, so don't be afraid to ask -- but beware that there's sometimes a small fee for doing so. In that case, just ask for an extra plate.
While sharing is a good habit to get into, if you're not into that, simply eat a little less. Rather than eating the entire meal in one sitting, order a regular portion and ask that half of it be placed in a take-out box for you to take home. This way, you get two meals rather than one.
Eat out earlier in the day. Lunch menus, for example, often offer cheaper meals that are similar (sometimes identical) to those offered during dinner service. The quality is the same, but the bill is much easier to manage. The art of brunch has become quite a trend and for good reason. Many restaurants serve package deals earlier in the day that include drinks and food. With these 10 simple tips in mind and a little financial planning, you can enjoy going out for a meal with your partner or a group of friends without worrying about your wallet. After all, food and drink help lift our spirits and that is invaluable therapy.
Rachael White is an American foodie living in Tokyo. For two years, she and her husband have been exploring the ins and outs of the fascinating food culture of Japan. Rachael's blog Tokyo Terrace chronicles her experiences creating dishes and drinks that use new and exciting flavors in accessible ways. She has been published in Tokyo's Daily Yomiuri Newspaper and contributes to JapanEats.tv. Originally from Minnesota, Rachael creates's recipes that reflect Midwestern comfort food with a modern, Asian twist.
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