12 Ways to Dine Out on the Cheap

Woman paying waiter at restaurant
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By Teresa Mears

Nearly everyone enjoys eating out. What's not to like about a meal you don't have to cook or clean up after you're done eating?

But a restaurant meal can easily cost $20 a person, or even more if you drink cocktails or wine with your meal.

Competition in the restaurant industry as well as the proliferation of daily deal sites provides an opportunity to enjoy the same meal for less money, giving you the chance to go out more often without taking a huge hit in the wallet.

But not all deals are equal, so it is important to be a savvy shopper. A coupon can provide a good discount, but in some instances it may not offer as great a savings as the daily special or the regular value menu.

Buying a discount restaurant certificate can provide special savings, but only if you use it before the expiration date and minimum purchase requirements or other restrictions don't keep you from purchasing what could have been a cheaper meal.

Here are 12 ways you can save when you dine out at your favorite restaurants:

Drink water -- the free kind. Restaurant beverages, both soft drinks and alcohol, can significantly boost the cost of your meal. A soda can cost $3 at a fast-casual restaurant, adding $12 plus tax and tip for a family of four. A glass of wine may be $10 or $12. %VIRTUAL-article-sponsoredlinks%Plus, these days restaurants often push bottled water, at a much higher price per bottle than you'd pay at Costco (COST). Tap water is a cheaper choice. If you enjoy wine or cocktails, consider having your first drink at home before you go out, or coming home for a nightcap.

Take advantage of daily specials. Many restaurants offer $1 taco nights or other specials, especially during the week. Find out when your favorite restaurants offer deals, and pick those nights to eat out.

Don't leave home without searching for coupons. Before you go out, you can search for "name of restaurant" plus "coupon" online as well as check the restaurant's website or Facebook (FB) page. You can also find restaurant coupons in the Sunday newspaper coupon inserts, in weekly neighborhood newspapers and in the Entertainment Book.

Join restaurant loyalty clubs. Many restaurants will send you coupons for free items or discounts in exchange for your email address. They may offer free meals or desserts for your birthday or send coupons throughout the year. Some restaurants will reward you for downloading or using their mobile app.

Look for happy hour food specials. Many restaurant offer special prices on food if you dine early or late. Others offer half-price appetizers along with drink specials. When you arrive, make sure you clarify with the staff whether you need to sit in the bar to take advantage of those deals.

Use online deal sites. Two sites that may save you money are restaurant.com and opentable.com. Restaurant.com sells discounted dining certificates: $10 for $25 of dining all the time. But there are lots of sales where you can get those certificates for $4 or $5. The restaurant selection is better in some cities than in others. Plus, each restaurant sets its own rules, so read the fine print before you buy.

OpenTable (OPEN) is a reservation site. Every time you make a reservation, you receive points. Once you reach a certain number of points, Open Table sends you a certificate good for a discount at any participating restaurant. For example, once you reach 2,000 points, you can get a certificate for $20 off. Yelp.com (YELP), the restaurant review site, also has deals that are worth checking out.

Buy daily deals -- judiciously. New restaurants often offer deals through groupon.com, livingsocial.com and similar daily deal services. These come with restrictions, including minimum purchase requirements. Some deals are better than others, so before you buy, make sure the certificate will really save you money. Groupon (GRPN) also has a new service that gives you a discount for reserving through its site, with no voucher involved.

Share a meal. Most restaurant meals can easily serve two people, and you can always add an extra salad or side dish, if necessary. If the restaurant doesn't make sharing easy, find one that does.

Order appetizers rather than entrees. Appetizer portions are cheaper, more reasonably sized and sometimes more interesting. If an appetizer will fill you up, skip the entree. Your wallet, and possibly health, will benefit.

Look for kids-eat-free deals. Lots of restaurants offer nights where kids eat free. Some require adults to purchase a meal or limit it to one free kid's meal for each adult meal ordered.

Find senior discounts. Some restaurants offer a special loyalty club for seniors, some have a senior menu and others offer a standard senior discount. If you don't see a senior discount on the menu, ask if there is one. AARP provides a list of restaurants that offer discounts, usually 10 percent off, to its members.

Go out for lunch rather than dinner. This is a good way to sample the fare at more expensive restaurants without spending as much money. You probably won't want wine, either.

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12 Ways to Dine Out on the Cheap

Nearly one in four people say they don't have money to contribute to retirement after all the bills are paid. It might feel that way sometimes, but if we can find the $50 to go out to dinner every Tuesday night, we can find $200 a month to put in a retirement account. Make this happen, even if you have to do it one dollar at a time over the course of the month.

And if you think putting away $50 a week won't make a difference, consider this: Contribute just $200 a month for thirty years, and if your money grows on average 8% a year, your total contributions of $72,000 will grow to almost $300,000 if put away for 30 years. When you think about it that way, skipping that regular Tuesday dinner doesn't seem so bad, does it?

This is one of the most seductive retirement lies. For a good long while, it is true that retirement is a ways off. (Even if you're 55, it's still at least ten years away.) But the longer you put off saving for retirement, the less interest you'll earn and the more difficult it will be for you to save.

An example: Alex and Jordan both put just over $90,000 in their retirement accounts over the years, but Alex began saving ($2,000 per year) at age 22, while Jordan began saving (about $3,500 per year) 20 years later at age 42. Even though they both put in the same total amount, Alex will have over twice as much money at retirement as Jordan will when they reach age sixty-seven (assumes a 6% annual rate of return). That's because her money had more time to grow, so it was able to make more off of itself than Jordan's.*

Seriously, you have two people who put the same dollar amount into their retirement funds. The one who started twenty years later contributed the same amount, but ended up with less than half as much.

As someone who cares about making my money work for me, this speaks volumes. It turns out that one of the smartest things you can do is simply to get time on your side. This is how you shortcut the hard work-by taking advantage of the power of compounding interest and the fact that you will only have an increasing number of financial obligations pulling at your purse strings as the years go by. So, this is not something you can keep putting off. This is something to tackle today. The time is now.

* Note: This is illustrative and is not reflective of guaranteed profits over time. Actual results may fluctuate based on market conditions.

I bet all the married people reading this are having a good laugh right now. Marriage does not automatically make your financial life easier. The effect of marriage on your finances depends on a host of factors: Do you both work? Do you both make enough to support yourselves? If one or both of you got laid off, could you still afford your rent or mortgage? Are you honest with each other about your spending? Do you agree on your financial goals? Will you have children? If so, do you make enough that one of you can stay home with them? Bottom line: This is an outrageous excuse, and now I am drinking wine.
I hear you. But saving for retirement versus enjoying life now is not an either/or proposition. You can do both. Also, let me put it this way: Yes, you deserve to enjoy

your money now, but you also deserve not to count pennies when you're old.

This is a case of counting chickens before they hatch. You never know what could happen to the inheritance (it could be devoured by medical bills, it could dwindle away in a financial crisis, or you may need it to pay off debts or taxes of the estate). Sure, it would be nice to inherit a windfall and be able to put it toward your retirement, but counting on doing so is not a plan-it's a gamble at best. It's far safer to plan to fund your own retirement and then enjoy your inheritance as a bonus if you do indeed receive one.
Yes, the market is unreliable from year to year, and yes, the value of your investments will dip in a down market. But downswings don't last forever, and historically, over long periods of time, the market has shown solid returns. While past performance doesn't reveal future returns, the S&P 500, for example, has averaged 9.28% annual returns over the last 25 years.

Alternatively, let's say you leave your money under your mattress or even in a savings account bearing 1% interest: You're going to lose the purchasing power of those dollars due to inflation (which is estimated at 3%). Yes, with the market, you're opening yourself up to some risk -- but with risk comes reward.

No one can predict the market. No one. So while it's true that you cannot time your investments perfectly so that they only ever go up, history has shown that if you invest regularly over decades, your investments should experience more ups than downs. So invest for the long haul, and don't fret over minor dips now. If you do, you'll be missing out on an opportunity to amass money later.
Sure, selling your home will free up lots of cash ... but then where will you live? And what if the market is down when you want to sell that home? Remember the housing crisis a few years ago? The one where tens of thousands of near retirees were left without nest eggs after the values of their homes plummeted? This is not your smartest game plan.
Yes, college is a big expense, and you should definitely save for it-that is, once your own retirement needs are taken care of. If you're a parent, it's a natural instinct to put your children's futures before your own. But think about it this way: If you don't save the full amount for your children's college education, you can always fall back on financial aid, grants, scholarships and student loans to help pay your children's way. When it comes to your retirement, however, there are no loans. Let me repeat: There are no loans. All you'll have to live on is what you've saved. For that reason, saving for retirement should be your top financial priority-always. I get that you don't want to saddle your kids or future kids with loans- what parent would?

But remember that if you pay for your children's college and then cannot afford your retirement, you will end up burdening your children all the same. They will feel obligated to help you out-at a time when their own families need them financially.

You may love your work, and it may be the kind of work you can even imagine yourself doing well into your seventies or eighties. But while that's easy to say now, what if you can't find work at that point in your life, or what if you have health problems or family obligations that prevent you from working? While there is nothing wrong with hoping for a best-case scenario, it isn't wise to plan around one. Sock away some money now so you're ready for whatever may come your way. The last thing I ever want you to deal with is a health issue and money concerns at the same time.

Reprinted from the book "Financially Fearless: The LearnVest Program for Taking Control of Your Money" by Alexa von Tobel, CFP®. Copyright 2013 by Alexa von Tobel. Published by Crown Business, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House LLC, a Penguin Random House Company.

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