COLUMBUS (Sarah Robinson/Credit.com) — I’m a busy mom of seven children, who has also been married for 20 years. We have experienced times in our family when money was scarce and times when money was more abundant. Normally, I prefer to cook at home using crockpot freezer meals, but sometimes it’s nice to take everyone out for a little change of pace.
Because we have a large family and it can be quite costly to eat out, I learned how to shave money off of our restaurant bills. We do take the time to splurge every now and then, but when we are on a tight budget, we’ve learned several tips to help us save money when we eat out.
1. Share a Meal
Many restaurants serve large enough portions for two meals. In order to save money, sometimes my husband and I will split a meal that we’re sure we’d both like. Some restaurants do charge a fee if you plan to split your plate, but many do not. Be sure to ask your waiter or waitress if you think this is something you’d like to try to make sure you’re not in for a surprise when you go to pay the bill.
Tip: Choose a meal that is typically larger than most, or one that you’ve seen served before, to be sure you’ll have enough food.
2. Order à la Carte
At my favorite Mexican restaurant, I can order a chile relleno off of the dinner menu, or I can order the chile relleno “à la carte” (with no sides). On this particular meal, I save myself $5 over the meal option, and it’s usually just the amount of food that I need. Mexican restaurants are the perfect place to order à la carte, because you can fill up on chips and salsa if it’s not quite enough. Of course, you can try this at other styles of restaurants, too.
Tip: On days when you have a larger appetite, you may want to try another money-saving technique.
3. Subscribe to Restaurant Email Lists
This is one of my favorite ways to save money on restaurant bills. If I know that I will be traveling to a certain town that has a certain restaurant, I will find their website and sign up for their email list. Many restaurants will give you coupons toward your next visit. They will also send you coupons for your birthday. Some of these coupons you may find worthless, but many of them are “buy one, get one free entree” coupons that you can use to save $10 or more. Be careful, though, the coupons that they email out do expire, so be sure to watch those expiration dates.
4. Order Off the Lunch Menu
Ask if you can order off of the lunch menu. Some restaurants will allow it and some won’t. In my experience, the restaurant I do this at charges an extra dollar if you do, but I feel the extra dollar is still more than worth it in the long run.
5. Only Go Out at Lunch Time
It is a well-known fact that most restaurants will charge less at lunchtime than dinnertime. Typically this is because the portion size is smaller. We have found that if we save our eating-out time for lunch, we spend less.
6. Don’t Order Appetizers
Ordering an appetizer is a great way to kill a restaurant budget. While it can be fun to indulge occasionally, it is best to leave these money-grubbing foods alone if you’re trying to spend less.
7. Drink Water
If we were to buy a soft drink for each person in our family when eating out, we would spend over $18 on drinks alone. Drinking water saves you at least $2 per drink in most restaurants. It would save you even more if you typically order wine or other alcoholic beverages.
8. No Dessert
Desserts add up quickly. Save your dessert purchases for very special occasions with your significant other. Not only will this help your final bill, it could help with weight loss, too.
9. Have Kids Share an Adult Meal
A friend of mine orders one large adult meal for two to three of her kids to eat at a time. It ends up saving them several dollars per order and they typically have more than enough to eat as well.
10. Plan Ahead
If I know I want to eat out but don’t know where I want to go exactly, I will map out my route and look at the restaurant websites in the area to get a bit familiar with the menu. Recently, I was on a trip to San Diego. My husband and I were planning to eat at a nearby restaurant, but when I looked at their online menu, I discovered that the prices were double what I had originally thought. We quickly changed our direction and found a much lower-priced restaurant by using the same tactic.
11. Seek Out ‘Kids Eat Free’ Restaurants
On one of our last vacations, this was a great way to eat cheap while traveling. If you are eating out with kids, this is an awesome way to save some money! Do an internet search for “Kids Eat Free (City and State)” and see what comes up. We found a different restaurant to do this at every day. Some restaurants let you get one kids meal for each adult entree you’re paying for and some even let you get two.
[Editor’s Note; Eating out too often can certainly break your budget if you’re not careful. You can monitor your financial goals, like building a good credit score, each month on Credit.com.]
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This article originally appeared on Credit.com.