11 psychological tricks restaurants use to make you spend more money

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How Restaurant Menus Trick You Into Spending More Money

When you head to a restaurant, you might have your heart — or stomach — set on a particular dish.

Or, you might be a little more open to suggestion.

That's the opportunity menu engineers and consultants are looking for. Behind the scenes, before you're even thinking of dinner, they put careful thought into the way you choose what foods you eat.

Here are 11 of the sneakiest psychological tricks restaurants use to make you spend more money:

1. They don't use dollar signs

A dollar sign is one of the top things restaurants should avoid including on a menu, because it immediately reminds the customers that they're spending money.

According to research from the Cornell University School of Hotel Administration, guests given a menu without dollar signs spent significantly more than those who received a menu with them. Even if the prices were written out with words instead of numbers, such as "ten dollars," guests spent less money because it still triggered the negative feelings associated with paying.

2. They are tricky with their numbers

Menu designers recognize that prices that end in 9, such as $9.99, tend to signify value, but not quality. In addition, prices that end in .95 instead of .99 are more effective, because they feel "friendlier" to customers. Most restaurants just leave the price without any cents at all, because it makes their menu cleaner, simpler, and to the point.

3. They use extremely descriptive language

Research from Cornell University revealed that items described in a more beautiful way are more appealing to and popular with customers. According to further research from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, descriptive menu labels raised sales by 27%, compared to food items without descriptors.

On an NBC "Today" show interview, menu engineer Greg Rapp poses an example of Maryland Style Crab Cakes. They are described as "made by hand, with sweet jumbo crab meat, a touch of mayonnaise, our secret blend of seasonings, and golden cracker crumbs for a rich, tender crab cake." This brings the ultimate sensory experience to the reader, and the descriptive labeling will make customers more likely to be satisfied at the end of the meal.

Interestingly, brand names in menu descriptions also help sales, which is why chain restaurants such as T.G.I. Friday's use Jack Daniel's sauce or Minute Maid orange juice on their menus. The more adjectives, the better.

4. They connect food to family

Customers are especially drawn to names of relatives, such as parents and grandparents, on menus. For example, people are more likely to buy Grandma's warm, homemade cookies or Aunt Margo's famous potato salad. It also can add a hint of nostalgia.

Also check out 10 tips for saving money when dining out:

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Find deals online

If you're unsure of where you want to go, browse sites for online deals. You'll find new places to dine at for a discounted price: win-win! If you do have a particular place in mind, always check their website before you make a reservation. You never know what coupons or special online deals you'll find!

Opt for lunch instead of dinner

Most restaurants have a different menu for lunch hours, which usually include smaller portions and cheaper prices. Also, you're less likely to be tempted to go for that cocktail or glass of wine in the middle of the day, which will save you bucks on your bill. If you don't have a preference of which meal you want to dine out for, lunch is usually your better bet. 

Make an appetizer your entrée

Most restaurants list entrées at steeper prices than appetizers, and often times the portion sizes aren't that much bigger. In fact, appetizers can be just as satisfying. You can also order one or two side dishes and enjoy those as your main meal.

Snack beforehand

Nosh on something light from your kitchen that won't completely spoil your appetite. This way, you'll be less tempted to order larger portions or appetizers which can make your bill much more expensive. 

Take home leftovers

If you don't finish your meal, take home what you didn't eat and eat it the next day for lunch or dinner. You can also order an entrée with the intention to eat half and bring the rest back home--it will cost you more initially, but dividing the cost in half between two meals will save you money in the end.

Split an entrée

If there's something on the menu you really want but the price is way too high, ask if portion sizes are big enough to be shared. You'll end up cutting the price in half.

Find a BYOB restaurant 

If you're planning on drinking alcohol while dining out, places that allow you to bring your own are an easy way to save. You won't get overcharged for drinks that the restaurant serves, and you can spend as much money as you want beforehand when purchasing it. 

Skip alcohol altogether 

A glass (or two) will cost you, especially since restaurants can charge however much they want per drink. Opting to not order alcohol in addition to your food is a big money saver.

Check social media

Many restaurants will offer deals for interacting with them on social media. Something as simple as "liking" their page, "mentioning" them on Instagram or Twitter, or even sharing a post of theirs can result in big discounts.

Ask for separate checks

If you're out to eat with a big group of people, you can end up overpaying when you split the check evenly. Ordering separate checks ensures that everyone pays for exactly what they ordered, instead of having to pick up the bill for someone else's expensive entrée. 

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5. They use ethnic food terms to make their food seem more authentic

According to Oxford experimental psychologist Charles Spence, an ethnic or geographic label, such as an Italian name, draws a person's attention toward a certain feature in a dish and brings out certain flavors and textures.

6. They visually highlight things

When foods are bolded, listed in a colored or fancier font, accompanied with photographs, or singled out in a box, they look far more special than the other dishes. However, high-end restaurants tend to avoid this strategy, because it can make them look tacky.

7. They use expensive items to draw you to the cheaper items

According to Rapp, restaurants use extremely expensive foods as decoys. "You probably won't buy it, but you'll find something a little cheaper and it'll look more reasonable," he says.

According to William Poundstone, author of "Priceless: The Myth of Fair Value (and How to Take Advantage of It)," in a New York Magazine interview, "The main role of that $115 platter — the only three-digit thing on the menu — is to make everything else near it look like a relative bargain."

8. They offer foods in two portion sizes

This strategy is called bracketing. The customer has no idea how much smaller the small portion is, so they assume it's the best value price because it costs less. What they don't realize is that the restaurant wanted to sell the smaller portion at the lower price all along, and simply used the bigger portion with the higher price as comparison.

9. They analyze your reading patterns

Restaurants consider scanpaths, which are a series of eye fixations that can be studied to see how people read certain things.

According to a Korean research study, a third of participants are likely to order the first item to which their attention is drawn. As a result, restaurants will put the most profitable items in the upper-right corner, because it is where people's eyes go first.

This strategy is based on the primacy effect, which means people remember the items at the beginning of a list better. Another reason this works is that seeing a really expensive dish at first glance will make the rest of the menu appear reasonably priced in comparison.

Restaurants put the most focus on their main servings. According to a Cornell research study on eye movements on restaurant menus, most customers quickly scan the entire menu like a book, but focus the remainder of their attention on the entrees.

10. They limit your choices

Through features such as "try all" samplers, tapas, or fixed menus, restaurants remove the heavy responsibility people feel when choosing what to eat. It is much more effective for restaurants to limit their selection. Apparently, the optimum number of menu items is six items per category in fast-food restaurants, and seven to 10 items per category in fine dining establishments.

11. They set the mood to spend

And finally, a little reading music: According to psychology research from the University of Leicester, playing classical music in restaurants encourages diners to spend more, because it makes them feel more affluent. Meanwhile, less sophisticated pop music caused people to spend 10% less on their meals.

This post was originally written by Maggie Zhang.

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SEE ALSO: 9 tips to save money on food, from the woman who wrote the book on eating for $4 a day

RELATED: Discover 20 unusual ways to make quick money:

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Dog-sitting, babysitting, or house-sitting

These jobs are always in high demand, and the best part: you can name your price and create your own schedule! Post an ad on craigslist, or use your friends' and family's connections to get your name out there. 

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Rent out your space 

List your apartment on Airbnb or another rental site, and make some easy cash by staying at a friends and renting out your place for the weekend.

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Share your space

Just as you can rent out your full apartment or house, you can also post a free room (or even just your couch!) on sites like Craigslist or Airbnb. This way you can split your living expenses -- and maybe even make a new friend!

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Sell your body parts

Now here's a weird one: Donate your hair, breast milk, or even plasma for a profit. According to Grifols, if you're healthy and weigh above 110 pounds, you can earn up to $200 a month donating your plasma to life-saving medicine. 

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Sign up to participate in medical tests and clinical trials. 

Universities constantly need volunteers to test new medicines and treatments -- and because the pool of willing participants is limited, there is typically a large compensation for being a guinea pig. 

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Participate in a focus group

Companies and organizations will pay you to join a focus group. These can be conducted in person, online, or via phone. You will most likely be reimbursed in cash or gift cards -- plus, you often get to test out fun new products! 

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Take online surveys

Similar to focus groups, you can get paid to give your time and insights on an online questionairre. Plus, you can do this from the comfort of your couch. 

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Bank on your sperm

Although we don't necessarily recommend this option, there is a very high demand for healthy sperm donors. Keep in mind some of the obvious drawbacks, but sperm donation is non-invasive and highly compensated. 

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Crowdfund your dreams

Crowdfunding allows you to raise monetary contributions from a large group of people who want to support your venture. Post your project or idea on a crowdfund site, like GoFundMe.com, and see the cash pile up.

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Become a tutor

If you're qualified, post an ad online or on a community board to tutor children on their school courses or for the upcoming SATs.

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Get a part-time job

Capitalize your free time (on the weekends or after work hours) by working a part-time job. A bartender, waiter, or Uber driver are all great options for an additional source of income -- and great tips! 

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Resell tickets

Take this suggestion at your own risk: If you're staying within legal limits, buy tickets low and sell high as an effective way to source additional money. (Just make sure to check your state and local laws first!)

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Rentafriend.com

You can sell anything on the internet these days... including your companionship! Get paid to go on a platonic outing for a few hours and enjoy your afternoon with a new friend. 

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Rent out your parking spot

Make sure to check with your landlord first, but if you have the option to park your own car further away, lend or share your parking space or driveway for the hour, day, or even month! 

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Keep a coin jar 

This one takes patience before a big pay out, but keep a spare jar or drawer for loose change that you usually toss anyway. It will keep it all in one place -- and those quarters do add up! 

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Make something to sell 

If you have a knack for arts & crafts, create jewelry or other handmade gifts to sell on sites filled with other thrifty vendors like Etsy

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Sell items online

This effective strategy requires low effort with a high return. Post photos of your used or non-used items on sites like eBay or Craigslist, and let the bidding begin! 

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Have a yard sale

Sell clutter you've been meaning to get rid of right in your front yard. This simple tactic is convenient, and guarantees a wad of cash right to your pocket.  

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Return past purchases

This tip may seem obvious, but is often overlooked: Take your recently-purchased items that are laying around back to the store for either store credit or a full refund. 

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Recycle scrap metal and cans

Collect cans and scrap metal out your own garbage, basement, and street and bring to your local recycler to exchange your findings for money.  

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