Tips on Mastering the Art of Eating Out on a Budget

Are you a person who has a hectic evening life? Are you constantly running around in the evenings and thinking about what you can eat? Are you cramped for time during the day and constantly find yourself eating out? Trust me, I have two kids and a job that takes up 50 to 60 hours a week, so eating out is no stranger to me.

For me, there are two things I worry about when eating out a ton. One item is health; it’s very easy to fall into the burger and fries trap, not to mention a large soda to go with it. If you are constantly in a hurry and going through the drive-through, calories can add up fast.

Most importantly, what concerns me with eating out is the additional cost. With inflation rates through the roof, both the grocery store and restaurants have raised prices substantially. It used to be a fairly simple task to eat out lunch for under $10. Now, I would say you are doing good keeping it under $12-13 with the increased costs.

As I mentioned above, sometimes eating out is inevitable. No matter how much planning and scheduling you do, there just isn’t time to cook. Whether you are in between business meetings or running kids to different practices, finding the perfect balance of eating out on a budget is a tough one to master.

But like anything in life, if it’s worth doing, it isn’t easy. Eating out so much was an extremely tough pill to swallow for me as the “budget man,” but these tips have really helped me master eating out on a budget.

Price Shopping:

I don’t say this to make anyone feel silly, but a simple price check is extremely important. There will be plenty of times when you eat out that you go to a facility you are familiar with, but when going to a new place, it’s very important to check out the menu and make sure it isn’t outrageously priced.

Don’t get me wrong, there is a time and a place for a nice meal and I’m not against paying good money for a good meal. But when I’m running my kid to soccer and then trying to squeeze in a meal so they aren’t going to bed at 9PM on a school night, I’m more worried about efficiency.

For example, I know a burger, sub, and pizza place that are all priced the best. I like to give the kids or my spouse an option of what type of food, and then I’m normally forced to make the decision. At my burger joint, we can usually eat for under $10 a piece, at the sub place my kids can share a meal and be happy, and at the pizza place, there are plenty of leftovers for when the next needed mealtime arrives.

And while I have my “deal spots” in mind, I also know the places to avoid. My daughter loves to go to a salad shop where each meal is $15 a piece, and my son will eat absolutely nothing. Trust me, we still eat there, and it makes her day, but when focusing on eating out on a budget, it’s a place I avoid.

You may think to yourself that when eating out, all places are the same price, especially when looking at fast food. But I can assure you there are vast differences, and you can save 10-15 percent just by being careful about where you go.

Coupons and Loyalty Plans:

A guy I used to work with was the king of coupons and loyalty plans. He was constantly going to his car before lunch to dig out his coupons and asking everyone in the group if they had the loyalty program so he could collect any extra points.

There was a time when I thought he was insane and just wasting time, but after trying it out for a few months, I can see how much money he was actually saving. I know some people think that coupons are extremely tacky, but they have a ton of value. Let me clarify, I’m not recommending you use a “buy one, get one” at Applebee’s on a first date, but splitting a coupon with a guy you work with at lunch can save you both some money.

Go through those junk flyers that most of us (used to be me) throw away and check some of the deals. Oftentimes, new restaurants and food trucks will give out great discounts to get you to come and try their food. I would say at least twice a week I have a $5 off, 50 percent off, or a buy one, get one free coupon that I use for a meal. These are typically more for fast food establishments or pizza joints, but I end up at these types of places plenty of times.

The other big thing is loyalty cards. Almost every food chain in America has some sort of loyalty program where you sign up and collect points or rewards each time you go to eventually get a free item. I’ll be honest, I never worried about these programs much, but they typically do offer some nice programs.

One place we go to for burgers offers a card where you buy seven meals and get one free, and another place the family likes to go will oftentimes send out coupons for free delivery which can be extremely handy if you’re busy traveling.

Often, these apps or reward programs are also where you can get additional coupons. You don’t even have to be a past customer and they’ll blast out a coupon for something free just to get you in the door. I would estimate between coupons and loyalty programs, I can save anywhere from $10-15 per visit with a family of four.

Don’t Instantly Think Fast Food:

I know I have referenced fast food a lot tonight, but one thing I have learned when mastering eating out on a budget is you don’t always have to go the fast-food route. There are plenty of restaurants now that offer very competitive pricing and specials on food.

The biggest reason a restaurant is almost as competitive on pricing vs. fast food is because of the massive price increase on fast food across the country. My wife used to get a combo at Taco Bell that was $5.49 and included a drink. That exact same meal is now $9.99 just three years later.

The specials are where you can really hit it big when eating out on a budget. Maybe a pizza place includes a two-liter and a side on Monday night, a bar has boneless wings for half off on Tuesday, or you can get a $5 burger and fries at the local brewery on Wednesday. The more I am forced to eat out with our busy schedules, the more I learn about the deals at each place.

Not only has the pricing for a sit-down restaurant become much more competitive with fast food, but you’re also simply getting a better meal. The ingredients are a much higher quality and there is also a much lower chance of anything being heated up in a microwave. Typically (not always), it is easier and healthier to eat at a sit-down restaurant.

Fast food joints offer salads and healthier sandwich options, but they just don’t have the quality ingredients to compete with a real restaurant chain. I was a bit surprised myself when I realized that saving money while eating out didn’t mean I had to eat fast food every time.

Avoid Sitting Down:

I don’t want to sound like a complete fuddy-duddy when I say this, but one of the best ways to eat out on a budget is by doing takeout vs. eating in. Don’t get me wrong, I like the experience of eating in at a restaurant at times, but it’s way more efficient to just take the food home.

For one, restaurants have gotten much better at takeout after COVID19 shut insides down. Food is far fresher now, and kitchens learned how to time up orders far better than they ever have in the past. It’s been a long time since I got home and had a really bad batch of takeout food.

The money you save by not eating in is on drinks and a tip. You certainly can get water which helps, but if you’re like my family, you’ll want a soft drink which can be nearly $3 a piece nowadays. That is $12 extra on a bill and an additional $2 to $3 on a tip.

Don’t think I’m cheap and don’t tip on takeout, but I will admit I don’t give the 20 to 25 percent to someone who waits on me for an hour. I certainly give 10 percent especially if they bring it out to my car, but don’t feel it’s a service that requires the full tip.

So, between no drinks (which I have at home) and less of a tip, I can save anywhere from 20 to 25 percent on a bill just by doing takeout. Plus, with two kids and one who is still young, sometimes sitting in a restaurant is more work than just taking him home and letting him destroy my house haha.

Avoid the Extras:

Again, I don’t want to sound cheap, but if you truly want to eat out on a budget, avoiding all the extras can be huge. It doesn’t matter if you are struggling to get by and just want to treat your family to a night out, or are forced to eat out constantly because of your schedule, this tip can be helpful.

Let’s use a wing joint as the perfect example. The perfect order with no limitations may be a beer, 12 wings, ranch and celery, and a side of loaded french fries. I exaggerated my example a bit just to make a point, but if you change that order to water, 12 wings, a side of ranch, and split normal fries with your spouse, you can cut your bill almost in half.

All these extra add-on items and appetizers can equal an entire meal and you’re getting absolutely nothing out of it. Additionally, don’t get dessert. Go to Walmart on the way home and get a half gallon of ice cream the entire family can share once you get home.

Now, if you eat out once a week or even twice a month, feel free to splurge. Just a year ago, my family never ate out because there just wasn’t a need to. Now with soccer practice, games, and all different aspects of life, it’s much easier to go out to eat rather than cooking an entire meal.

Treat this process like peeling an onion. You don’t want to just cut it in half and dive in, or else your eyes will water like crazy and you’ll be miserable. Instead, work slowly and peel it back a layer at a time. Start by trying to find a few coupons to cut some costs, and then work your way up to cutting out soft drinks and extra cheese on your fries. Like anything, if you do it slowly and religiously, you’ll have a far better chance at long-term success than just cutting everything old cold turkey.

Remember, just because you look for ways to save some money, doesn’t make you cheap. I used to be the guy that worried people judged me for saving money, but let me tell you, nine times out of ten they are actually jealous they aren’t doing it the way you are!

As I mentioned before, when my life started getting hectic and we were eating out more and more, I started getting queasy when I saw that category breaking the budget. But now that I have learned to prepare for it and found a few strategies to help me figure out the art of eating out on a budget, life is back to normal.

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