budget, eating out, restaurants, saving money
Your Life

Enjoy Dining and Entertaining

7 ways to make the most of your restaurant dollar

Rewards programs, coupons offer more bang for your buck

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Dining out at restaurants is a wonderful way to connect with friends and family. It's also convenient when you're too busy or exhausted to cook at home. But let's face it: eating out adds up, and can put a dent in your wallet.

The good news is you don't have to sacrifice a meal away from home to save money. Here are seven ways to make the most of your time dining out:

1. Sign up for a rewards program

Many restaurants will give customers food and drinks on the house for their loyalty.

Vanessa Diaz and her boyfriend spend $80 a week eating out, often at their favorite Thai restaurant in San Diego. They collected points through a free customer loyalty program and redeemed a free Thai iced tea more than 10 times over the last two years. "It's so easy to use," Diaz shares. "You literally give them your phone number when you're at the restaurant to collect the points.”

Looking to make a reservation? Some services will send you complimentary gift cards if you book through their site a certain number of times.

2. Buy discounted gift cards

Diaz recently discovered that she can purchase restaurant gift cards for less than face value through her wholesale club membership. For example, some wholesale clubs sell gift cards to various restaurant chains worth $100 that cost only about $80. "A friend of mine told me about these gift cards and now I will definitely start getting them," says Diaz.

The discount will vary from store to store, but you can save up to 50 percent off your total. Make sure to read the fine print so there are no surprises, since some restaurants might have an expiration date or exclude certain purchases like alcoholic beverages.

3. Look for coupons

Terri Lynn has a folder where she keeps her coupons, which she collects by signing up for newsletters, following her favorite restaurants on social media, and sifting through local deal sites. She even takes pictures of the coupons with her phone so she has them handy whenever a craving calls. In one year alone, she estimates she's shave over $1,000 off her dining expenses. Lynn isn't the only one who shops around for a good deal.

Research suggests more than one in three diners will hunt for deals before heading to a restaurant, and even more will do so if they are eating with children.

"Some people can make a life out of clipping coupons but it really doesn't take a lot of effort,” Lynn explains "If you sign up for emails from restaurants, you'll start seeing savings right away."

4. Go right before the dinner rush

The early bird gets the worm—especially when dining out.

Many large chains and local hotspots have special deals right before the normal dinner rush kicks in. From half-off appetizers to two for one cocktails, these pre-dinner discounts are a win-win for your appetite and wallet.

Diaz loves taking advantage of happy hour because it's where she experiences the most significant savings—that is, if she's able to squeeze it in after work. "It can sometimes be difficult to get to a restaurant before 6 p.m., but some restaurants have happy hour during the weekends too," she says.

5. Eat lunch instead of dinner

Missing out on the pre-dinner deals? An afternoon meal is a great alternative. Lynn goes out to eat about three times a week with her husband, and she often aims for lunch instead of dinner because it's more affordable.

"If you put the lunch menu and the dinner menu side by side, you'll see there's a big discrepancy between prices," she says.

One of her favorite restaurant's lunch menu, for example, has significantly more selections under $20 than the dinner menu.

6. Serve yourself and save more

Restaurants that require less wait staff often charge less for food. Opt for self-service establishments such as all-you-can-eat buffets where you get more bang for your buck, depending on how much you can devour in one visit.

If you like some service, fast-casual restaurants are a happy medium. These types of establishments combine convenience and decent prices with a pleasant sit-down atmosphere. Over the last several years, fast casual chains have been one of the highest-growth segments in the industry, according to NPD Group, a market research firm.

7. Split a meal

Lastly, it's no secret that restaurant portions can be too large for one person. Save money by splitting an entree and a couple of small plates with your dining partner. You'll get to taste more options while spending only what you can afford. If you're dining solo, most appetizers are large enough to satiate your hunger and cost less than main courses.

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