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Eat Out on the Cheap

Can’t cook tonight? Here's how to eat out cheaply without going to a fast-food restaurant.
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WebMD Expert Column

When the going gets tough and the budget gets tighter, do the tough keep going out to eat? You can stay on budget and still eat out, making every 5 or 10 dollar bill count by keeping the following rules in mind.

Order “Take Out” to Save Money

When you order your food “to go” instead of eating in the restaurant, you save  the cost of drinks, the tip, and maybe even dessert. Say you are going to a moderately priced popular restaurant chain. Not ordering drinks will save you about $2.50 a person and not ordering an alcohol-type drink will save you about $5 or more per drink. Not ordering one dessert will save you $5 to $7. And by avoiding paying a tip, you save an average of 15%.

For example, if you order four dinner entrees as “take out” totaling $40 instead of eating in the restaurant, you could potentially save the: 

  • Tip = $6 on the $40 tab
  • Drinks = $10 for nonalcoholic drinks for four (would be more with alcohol)
  • Dessert = $10 for two desserts that the table shares

for a total potential savings of $26.

Check Your Sunday Newspaper for Extra Savings

Sometimes local restaurant chains offer special coupons in the Sunday paper. The Sizzler restaurant chain, for example, recently offered a few coupons in Northern California:

  • A $9.99 “Create You own Combo” that includes your choice of two entree items and a baked potato
  • A $8.99 “Complete Burger Lunch” includes salad bar and a drink
  • A $9.99 “Complete Steak Lunch” includes salad bar and a drink

Join Restaurant Email Clubs

Most of the restaurant chains with web sites offer an email club.  Each club has a slightly different name and list of benefits, but each usually offers some sort of sign-up incentive (a coupon or two) plus a little surprise when your birthday rolls around (a coupon). It’s a “win-win” situation: The restaurant wins because the coupon brings you into the restaurant, and you win because you are getting a discount.

2 Meals for the Price of 1

Get two meals for the price of one by taking home half of your big restaurant meal. You can even ask your server to only serve you half on the plate and package the other half in a take-out container. This technique works especially well for restaurants that are notorious for serving mammoth-sized meals. The meal may cost you $13.95 or $16.95, but since it’s serving as two meals, it’s really costing $6.98 or $8.48 per meal.

“Do” Lunch or Make It an Early Dinner to Catch the Lunch Prices

Beat the long dinner lines and catch the lower lunch prices by eating an early dinner. You can also enjoy the lower prices by visiting your favorite restaurants around the lunch hour.  Most restaurants stop serving the lunch entrees or offering the lower lunch prices around 5 p.m. You can get there around 4:30 or 4:45 and still order off of the lunch menu. Until 5 p.m., The Cheesecake Factory restaurants offer lunch specials ranging from $7.95 to $12.95 that generally include smaller portions of some of their favorite menu items like factory meatloaf, beer battered fish & chips, orange chicken, or chicken piccata.

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