12 ways to slice your next restaurant check in half

If you love to eat out, you're not alone.

The average U.S. household spent $3,000 on food away from home in 2015, the latest year for which federal data is available. That's up from about $2,600 just two years earlier.

There are plenty of ways to slash your restaurant spending, though. These tips can help you cut the cost of eating out by more than half.

How to cut your next restaurant bill in half
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How to cut your next restaurant bill in half

1. Buy a discounted gift card

You can buy gift cards for less than their face value on websites that enable people to sell unwanted cards. Examples of these online marketplaces include Cardpool.com and Raise.com.To learn more about them, check out “How Unwanted Gift Cards Saved Me $300 Last Year.” 

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2. Buy a discounted gift certificate

Websites like Restaurant.com sell discounted restaurant gift certificates that can drastically cut the cost of dining out. Buy the gift certificates online and print them out at home, or simply display them at the restaurant on your mobile device.

Discount websites like Groupon and LivingSocial also sell similar dining deals.

Here is an extra tip: Make any purchases from Restaurant.com or sites like Groupon and LivingSocial via a cash-back portal such as Ebates. These sites effectively pay you to shop online by giving you a percentage of your purchase cost back as a rebate

Photo credit: Reuters 

3. Use a rewards credit card

If you eat out often, look into rewards credit cards that give a greater percentage of cash back for such purchases.

For help finding the perfect credit card, visit the Money Talks News Solutions Center. You can sort credit card offers by “Cash Back” and “Reward,” for example. 

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4. Join AARP

AARP membership benefits include discounts of 10 to 15 percent at certain restaurant chains.

Note that, as we report in “6 Fabulous Ways to Save After You Turn 50,” you can join AARP upon turning 50. 

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5. Join email list

Many eateries — from sit-down restaurants to fast-food joints and ice-cream chains — have an email list they use to notify subscribers of deals. Look for a sign-up option on the websites of your favorite restaurants and other restaurants you would like to try.

One of my current favorite examples is P.F. Chang’s China Bistro. The restaurant sends me a coupon for an entire free entree with the purchase of one entree about once a month. That’s a savings of up to 50 percent — and all I have to do is show the server my emailed coupon on my phone. 

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6. Take advantage of your birthday

Some restaurants with email lists ask for your birthday upon sign-up and send you a freebie each year to celebrate.

For examples, check out “Happy Birthday — Get Free Food at These 27 Restaurants.”

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7. Dine during off-hours

Pick a restaurant with lunch or early bird specials. Some restaurants also offer specials on certain weekdays.

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8. Don’t walk in starving

Yes, hunger is what brings us to restaurants. But just as you’re liable to spend more on groceries when you go to the supermarket on an empty stomach, you’re likely to order too much if you walk into a restaurant famished.

 Photo credit: Getty

9. Eat dessert at home

This is especially smart if you prefer to eat a simple dessert such as ice cream. The carton you bought at the grocery store can be just as tasty for a fraction of the price.

Even if you’re in the mood for a slice of cake, single servings generally can be found in a grocery store’s bakery department or frozen-dessert aisle for less than the cost of a slice at a restaurant. 

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10. Beware of menu mind tricks

Studies show that certain menu characteristics make customers inclined to spend more money, according to Mental Floss magazine.

Examples include putting photos next to menu items, using fancy language and omitting dollar signs from prices. 

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11. Rethink your drink

You might think bringing your own alcohol to a restaurant would save you money. But even if a restaurant allows you to bring your own booze, you still might end up paying more than you expect.

Jay Zagorsky, a research scientist at Ohio State University, explains on his economics blog that one reason some restaurants adopt BYOB policies is that many customers who bring alcohol then buy coffee to sober up before leaving the restaurant:

“Letting people bring their own bottle boosts coffee sales. Coffee has a very high markup and this increases profits. Plus, coffee drinkers sometimes order dessert, which has a higher markup than main courses.”

Zagorsky says coffee markups can be as much 300 percent and soda markups can be up to 90 percent, so consider asking for water first. 

Photo credit: Getty

12. Use social media to get discounts

Some eateries share discounts via social media networks like Facebook and Twitter.

Other places offer discounts or freebies to customers who “check in” via location-based social media networks such as Foursquare, which calls them specials.

What’s your favorite way to save money when eating out? Let us know in the “Comments” section below or on our Facebook page

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