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Frugal Foodies: 4 Tips to Eat Out On a Budget

Indulging your love of good eats doesn't have to mean forgoing your frugal foodie status.

When you’re a self-avowed foodie, eating out may be a regular part of your routine. According to a 2017 Bankrate study, the average millennial dines at a restaurant or picks up takeout food five times per week. In actual dollars Bankrate also found that, on average, millennials spend $2,796 on restaurants annually and about $50 more per month than other adults on restaurant dining and takeout.

Between the opening of the latest fine dining restaurant, trendy pop-up spots and upscale gourmet food trucks, there’s always something new to try. The downside? Frequenting your local restaurant scene can take a toll on your wallet.

If you’re a frugal foodie, you can still indulge your appetite for high-end dining and eat out on a budget. Check out these tips for eating out on the cheap without sacrificing your love of great food:

1. Get the timing right

When you head out for a meal is just as important as where you go when you’re trying to find ways to save money eating out at restaurants. Marilyn Anderson, author of “How to Live Like a MILLIONAIRE When You’re a Million Short,” says happy hour is one of the best times to visit fancy restaurants if you’re trying to eat out on a budget.

Anderson says that dinner at some high-end chain steak houses can easily run from $150 to $200 for two people. Visiting at happy hour can bring the tab down to $20 or $30.

“You still get the ambiance and good food but it costs so much less,” Anderson says. The only trade-off is that your menu options may be limited to lower-priced items.

Some restaurants make happy hour more enticing by including expanded menu choices. For example, Anderson says FIG Restaurant, a Mediterranean-influenced bistro located in Santa Monica, California, offers half off most menu items daily from 5 p.m. to 6 p.m. It’s worth checking around your local area to see which restaurants feature similar deals so you can eat out on a budget. If you have a hard time leaving the office in time for a traditional happy hour, all is not lost. Happy hour can run later at some restaurants, with specials starting at 8 p.m. or 9 p.m.

Michelle Stansbury, editor of Eat, Drink, Be San Diego, a blog showcasing the best restaurants, bars and culinary events for San Diego foodies, recommends scoping out special events, like restaurant weeks, which are an opportunity for restaurants to highlight their fine dining fare at a discount.

At New York City’s Restaurant Week, for instance, participating restaurants offer three-course fixed-price menus for lunch and dinner, at discounts ranging from 20 to more than 50 percent off the regular price. That can mean significant savings for frugal foodies who are looking for ways to save money eating out at restaurants.

On average, millennials spend $2,796 on restaurants annually and about $50 more per month than other adults on restaurant dining and takeout.

– 2017 Bankrate study

2. Dine with other frugal foodies

One of the simplest tips for eating out on the cheap is banding together with other food lovers.

Maya Krampf, founder of Wholesome Yum, a recipe website, says sharing is a great idea if your foodie friends are also frugally inclined.

“Sharing allows you to try more things and still keep cost in mind,” she says.

One of the ways to save money eating out at restaurants for parties of two, for example, is to share an appetizer and one entree. Krampf says this “is cheaper than getting two entrees and is usually still enough food.”

Stansbury says that eating with friends who are in the same financial situation as you can be a stress reliever when you want to eat out on a budget and not worry about how to keep up with friends with money.

“Dining with other frugal foodies means that you’ll be on the same page about ordering with price in mind,” she says, “taking away the sticker shock of a bill that’s more than what you expected.”

If you’re eating out with friends who have pricier tastes, Stansbury says to be upfront about what you want—and can afford—to spend. Ordering separately, if necessary, is one of the key tips for eating out on the cheap.

3. Go online for savings

One of the easiest ways to save money eating out at restaurants is to look for coupons or discounts online. Anderson recommends sites like Groupon and LivingSocial to find dining deals in your area.

In addition to featuring local restaurant specials, these sites may run sales or offer additional savings for email subscribers. Anderson says both sites allow users to stack deals by combining coupons or discounts sent out via email with the existing deals already on the site. For example, you might receive an email that includes extra savings of 20 percent or $30 off restaurant promotions.

She also suggests Restaurant.com for purchasing discounted gift certificates to restaurants.

Even if how to eat out on a budget is top-of-mind, be selective about how often you look for deals. Krampf recommends only searching for coupons or promotions after you’ve decided that you’re going out.

“Constantly looking at deal emails will just tempt you to go out and spend money when you weren’t planning on it,” she says.

4. Get rewarded for dining out

To round out the list of tips for eating out on the cheap, consider how you pay for your meals. Using a cashback rewards credit card or a debit card tied to a rewards checking account to pick up the tab can put cash back in your pocket. Think of it as a discount on dinner. If you’re using a cashback rewards card and another discount, that amplifies the savings.

If you’re going out to dinner with a group, Anderson has a savvy tip for increasing your cashback earnings. “Let them give you cash and pay for the entire meal with your credit card,” she says. “You’ll get cash back for everyone’s dinner, not just yours.”

Just remember that if you’re looking for tips for eating out on the cheap and go the cashback rewards route with a credit card, consider charging only what you can afford to pay in full each month. Otherwise, anything you saved on dinner might be nibbled away by interest charges.

If you don’t have a cashback rewards card, Stansbury says apps like Mogl pay you cash back at many restaurants and is a way to save money eating out at restaurants. You link your debit or credit card to the app, dine at partner restaurants and earn cash back automatically. She also suggests looking into offers like the Passport dining card from Passport Unlimited, which offers exclusive discounts at top-rated restaurants.

“Dining with other frugal foodies means that you’ll be on the same page about ordering with price in mind, taking away the sticker shock of a bill that’s more than what you expected.”

– Michelle Stansbury, editor of Eat, Drink, Be San Diego

Be open to new possibilities to eat out on a budget

If you’re a frugal foodie hankering for filet mignon on a Big Mac budget, don’t be afraid to broaden your dining horizons as a tip for eating out on the cheap.

“Remember that the best restaurants are not necessarily the most expensive ones,” Stansbury says. “You can have incredible (and incredibly cheap) meals at mom and pop or hole-in-the-wall restaurants.”

Casting the net a little wider could satisfy your appetite without straining your budget.

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