Frugal Eats: Dining Out On The Cheap

by Guest

Free Las Vegas Nevada fast food mall food court restaurant signs creative commons

The following is a guest post by Lisa at Wallet Watcher, an Australian personal finance blog created to help readers figure out how to save money and watch your own spending habits.

I love eating out. What more can I say? I’m a great cook (or so I’m told) but over all, there’s nothing like sitting down to eat a meal – that I didn’t have to cook – which has been prepared just for me! Eating out comes with one unsavory factor: the check. I’ve recently stumbled upon a great way to save money while dining out – and in the process I’ve been able to experience restaurants and venues I would have probably never frequented in the past.

Eat for Free

OK, the few totally free meals I’ve had in my lifetime have come from poor service – which I’m not afraid to point out to the management, generally resulting in the meal being free. However, we all know that making a practice of this is wrong – and it gives you a bad reputation within the city you live in. There are still solid ways to get parts of your meal for free, if you know where to look and how to ask. With the economic downturn, more restaurants are offering “Kids eat free” specials with purchase of an adult meal.  Some restaurants have taken to giving free sodas or iced tea with the purchase of an entrée.  Applebee’s 2-For-$20 menu allows for several choices of appetizers, main entrées like Chicken Fettuccine Carbonara, a 7 oz. House Sirloin and more, drinks and dessert for two people, for $20. Although I, personally, find $20 to be an extravagance when dining out, knowing about a deal like this one can come in handy for birthdays, anniversaries, and other special occasions.

Daily Deals and Special Savings

Once popular in the early 90’s, there has been a resurgence of buy-one-get-one offers, as well as “Early Bird” specials, which can cut costs dramatically when dining out. The very best way I have found to save money when eating out is by taking advantage of daily deals. Providers like Living Social, Groupon, and the Customer Advantage offer daily specials like 50% off your meal, vouchers for discounted meals – there’s no catch, except that the deal usually has to be purchased within the day or a specified time period. I have learned that if I’m planning a thrifty vacation, I can search these websites within the postal code area I plan to visit, and have often found deals for dining out which I can purchase now and use when I arrive at my destination.

Corporate Perks

Another outlet for saving when I eat out comes through the Demand Deals program – a corporate buying/rewards program offered by a company I occasionally write for as a freelancer. After 6 months of writing for Demand Media, I was sent an invitation to join the Demand Deals program.  On any given day, I have the opportunity to purchase meal vouchers good at local restaurants, with savings of up to 80 percent. For example, last week I purchased a restaurant voucher for a new Asian restaurant – $25 gift certificate for $2! While there is a minimum order amount – in this case, the check had to be $35 or more – we ate there last night and had Sushi appetizers, an entrée each for our party of four, and beverages:  the tab was $54. With the voucher, we paid $19.00. Figure in the $2 I paid for the certificate, and I saved over 60%. And the bargain don’t stop there – from trips and airfare, to computers and running shoes, I have saved at least $450 over retail pricing, over the past two months.

In my household, budgeting for restaurant meals was been something which was nearly cut out of the “big picture” three years ago. With my personal finances in a bind, entertainment was the first thing to go.  However, living a frugal lifestyle has helped me learn how to accomplish two important things: I’ve made it a point to acquire the skills necessary to live within a budget, and I’ve learned that good times can still be had while saving for retirement or putting a child through college… as long as I am willing to do the footwork, buckle down and make it happen.

photo: Some rights reserved by Pink Sherbet Photography

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{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Cherleen @ The College Investor September 19, 2011 at 5:51 pm

Either free meals for kids or eat-all-you-can where kids below 7 are free. These are our options when dining out with the kids.

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Jon - Free Money Wisdom September 21, 2011 at 7:42 pm

Yeah, those are a great option when you have little ones. I love using http://www.restaurant.com — I score some great deals at some amazing restaurants. I also like Groupon. Good post!

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Bob Senior September 19, 2011 at 6:36 pm

The “Early Bird” specials used to be a Florida special, but I am noticing more of these around where I live in the Atlanta area. My wife and I don’t mind eating before 6pm, besides there are less kids around that early too.

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20's Finances September 20, 2011 at 4:27 am

Great tips. I hardly eat out right now because my wife and I are on a strict budget. We usually limit it to once a month and we usually fill up on the free salad or biscuits/rolls so we can have a second meal.

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Tiffany September 20, 2011 at 7:19 am

The kids eat free meal helps as well as the Daily Deal sites. Though the couple of free meals I have had were not me worth even driving to the place to eat and the service were the worst!

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Niki September 20, 2011 at 1:12 pm

I love dining out. We have cut back quite a bit since really taking a look at where our money is going. But I don’t try and save when we go out, this is definitely something to think about.

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Maggie@SquarePennies September 20, 2011 at 9:21 pm

Great idea to use daily deals on vacations! Jealous of those corporate perks!
We like going to a local restaurant that has a fabulous salad bar. Everything is really fresh and they don’t stint on the ingredients. We pay to just eat the salad bar & are totally satisfied. Dinner for 2 adults comes to around $20 with tip. Not bad for a wonderful meal.

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Jade September 20, 2011 at 11:42 pm

I wish I could eat out more, but being a student limits the money flow, sadly.

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Jackie September 22, 2011 at 12:30 pm

I love eating out too. I don’t generally spend much either on individual meals (total for the month is a different story) mainly because of the things I prefer to eat. (I get water, rarely get dessert, don’t like salad and most appetizers, etc.)

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