5 tips for dining out on a budget

Written by
Peter Dunn

I love eating out. I love it so much that if I'm traveling to a new city I'll pick the restaurant, and the meal I'm going to have, months in advance. Some say weird, I say super normal and smart.

People attribute their dining out to a host of reasons, but most often it's convenience and entertainment. You're dining out because you're so busy you don't have time to properly plan, shop, and cook a meal, or dining out is what you do with friends to socialize. Neither of these is necessarily a bad excuse, but you do have to watch yourself. You may set a goal of only dining out on the weekend but eating out is often a slippery slope which leads to 3 lunches and 4 dinners out in a single week. Count your dining out transactions for the last 7 days. How many times did you eat out this week? The restaurant industry brings in over half a trillion each year, so your 5 meals out this week isn't surprising, but it can be damaging to your budget.

Ideally you should spend under 12% of your take-home pay on food and 5% for entertainment. For some, it's natural to combine these two. But a word of caution, if you choose to combine the two for the sake of dining out more, you need to be careful not to spend over 6% of your take-home pay on dining out. Anything more is not a good use of your resources.

Here are 5 tips for dining out without totally blowing your budget:

1. Determine your meal budget before you go out to eat.

You can either set a monthly goal, a weakly goal, or a per-meal goal, it really doesn't matter, just stick to it. Know your number and don't spend a penny more.

2. Take advantage of special offers, promotions, and discounts.

From senior citizen and military discounts to Groupon, it's pretty easy to find great deals these days. Don't forget to look up your restaurant of choice online too. Many restaurants have active social media accounts which offer deals and specials. Many major cities also have restaurant week style events throughout the year. Participating restaurants offer major discounts for a three-course meal. If you're going to eat out anyway, a coupon or discount is worth investigating.

3. Keep your bar tab down.

Toast to a lower bill by keeping your alcohol consumption to a minimum. Bars and restaurants markup drinks a lot. Like 300-400% a lot. Have a drink at home before or after dinner, or limit yourself to just one at dinner. Mixed drinks can often cost nearly the same amount as an entrée, so foregoing a drink can nearly cut your bill in half.

4. Consider splitting an entrée.

Portion sizes have gotten totally out of hand at most restaurants, but you can use this to your advantage. Splitting an entrée means you'll save a lot of money. Or if you don't split your meal, at least take home half and you've essentially paid once to feed yourself twice.

5. Plan ahead by looking at menus online.

As I mentioned earlier, I love planning my meals in advance. I totally geek out over online menus. If you know where you are going to eat in advance, check out the online menu and hopefully it will help you make a budget-friendly choice. Especially if you are going to a pricier restaurant, looking at the menu in advance will help you make the hard decision to skip a drink or order an appetizer for your meal. It's exactly this kind of clear-headed decision you are unlikely to make in the heat of the moment at the restaurant.

Dining out is often a delusional act. You convince yourself you're too busy to cook, or a $5 hamburger is cheaper than going to the store to buy ingredients, or you've worked hard and deserve the treat. All these reasons are crap. If you're going to eat out, admit it's because you want to eat out, and then make sure your financial life can justify the expense. Keep your dining out expenses under 6% of your take-home pay and you'll be okay.

Step up your financial wellness game.

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