How to Eat Out on a Budget

Buy reduced-price gift cards and look up discounts before you head to the restaurant.
Courtney Neidel
By Courtney Neidel 
Edited by Kirsten VerHaar

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If you’re on a budget, money-saving advice tends to prescribe bagged lunches and dinners at home. But you don’t have to resign to a world of soggy peanut butter and jelly.

Here's how to save money and eat out at your favorite restaurants for less.

1. Buy gift cards below face value

You’ll get more food for your buck when you buy restaurant gift cards at less than face value., for instance, is a website that sells certificates for a fraction of their worth. You may be able to score a $25 certificate to your favorite Chinese place for just $10 (minimum purchases could apply). Warehouse store Costco, too, sells bundles of gift cards for less than they’re worth.

2. Ask for a discount

You could be eligible for a cheaper meal simply based on who you are. Children, seniors, students and members of the military are some of the most common candidates for discounts. Research a restaurant’s discounts online or inquire before your server brings the bill. It doesn’t cost anything to ask.

3. Join the club

Pesky marketers aren’t the only ones who want your email address nowadays. Many restaurants have mailing lists that they use to distribute news and promotions to customers. Sign up to stay in-the-know. You’ll usually get a special offer just for making an account and another the month of your birthday. But if you find the emails are tempting you to eat out more, hit "unsubscribe."

4. Make wise menu choices

When you eat at a sit-down joint, you’ll be expected to tip the server in addition to paying your tab, so keep that in mind when making menu selections and calculating your total payment. To offset the cost, look for more affordable dishes (try ones with fruits and veggies that are in season) or opt for a smaller portion size if it's available.

As for drinks, water is usually free, whereas soft drinks and alcoholic beverages can quickly add up. If you prefer a glass of wine with your meal, call ahead and ask the restaurant about corkage fees. Even with this fee, it may be more affordable for you to bring your own bottle than to buy one there.

5. Dine on national days

From National Ice Cream Day to National Chicken Wing Day, there’s a day of observance for just about any food you can name. Plan your meals around these offers to take advantage of free appetizers, entrees or desserts. Stay tuned to social media for promotional details.

6. Take a survey

Restaurants like to hear about your experience at their establishment, so if they ask you to complete a survey, take them up on the offer. You’ll sometimes be rewarded with freebies or coupons for doing so. Similarly, SurveyMini is a free app that unlocks discounts when you complete questionnaires about restaurants.

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7. Leave room in your budget

If dinners out at your favorite diner are an important family tradition, you still might be able to make room for a handful of restaurant meals in your monthly budget — even if it isn’t a necessity, and even if you can’t get a deal. (Don't forget to factor in a tip for your server.) For easy ways to incorporate needs and wants into your spending plan, see our advice on how to budget for both.