Why We’ve Been Dining Out More (and how we’re doing it frugally)

posted by Andrea | 05/18/2015

dining out more

If you’ve read many of my blog posts from 3+ years ago, you most likely read about the fact that Dave and I rarely ever went out to eat. This was not because I thought restaurants were evil or worried that a few fast food burgers would give me a heart attack… but simply because it was expensive and not necessary.

Even though I worked outside the home, ran my blog from home, did tons of house and yard projects, and was extremely involved in our church and community, I still had PLENTY of time to cook and bake all sort of food… and I enjoyed doing it!

We saved SO much money the first 6+ years of our marriage by almost never (and I mean never) going out to eat unless we had been given a gift card to a specific restaurant. And even then, we would almost always search for coupons to use in order to stretch the gift card further (it’s amazing how long we can make a $30 gift card last!)

Then after Nora was born (and we had our 2 international students living with us) it felt like a massive chore to load everyone up “just” to go to a restaurant where Nora would most likely end up screaming the entire time… so we continued to stay home.

There were many years of our life where we literally spent less than $100 for the ENTIRE YEAR on any type of restaurant or fast food! One year, I think we actually spent $0.00 out of pocket on dining out.

However, as I’m sure you can guess by the title of this post, that has all changed a bit over the past couple of years… and not because Dave and I don’t care about our finances or our budget anymore.

I would say that on average, we eat out 3-4 times per month (roughly once a week) at various local restaurants, fast food joints, pizza places, etc. None of the places are expensive, none of them are “fine dining” in any way, but thanks to coupons, gift cards, email and facebook offers, and holiday specials, we’ve been able to enjoy dining out a bit more (and cooking a bit less!) for a VERY MINIMAL FEE.

Here’s how we’ve been able to keep our “dining out budget” in check while still enjoying this special treat.

1. We stay connected with our favorite restaurants.

I know you might not want additional emails or Facebook messages popping out at you every day — but this is hands-down the best way I’ve found to save on places you like to eat at.

Sign up for their email newsletters, their “e-club”, their birthday clubs, and any other “clubs” they offer for exclusive discounts. And don’t forget to “Like” them on Facebook so you know when special promotions are going on.

I can’t tell you how many times we’ve gotten coupons for completely free food (sometimes entire meals) just by being connected to the restaurant via email or social media.

In fact, my “inspiration” for this post came last week when Dave and I each got an email from Culver’s for a FREE value basket (we are both on their email list). That day just so happened to be a very crazy day with some unexpected things and events thrown in at the last minute, so it ended up working out extremely well to swing into Culver’s, pick up our free meals, and be on our way again.

Almost any franchised restaurant will have an email list and plenty of social media accounts to follow — and honestly, I really don’t know many mom and pop restaurants who don’t at least offer an email list for coupons and discounts.

NOTE: check out this list of national restaurants who offer birthday freebies.

2. Buy gift cards when they are discounted.

I’ve talked about this before — but we have saved a BUNCH of money on restaurants we plan to visit anyway, just by buying the gift cards during specific periods during the year when they offer additional perks and discounts (read more about it here).

For example, Applebee’s, Olive Garden, and TGIFriday’s have a few times each year when you can buy a $50 and get a $10 gift card free — that’s essentially a 20% savings. We also get a fair amount of $5 off Any Purchase coupons emailed to us (that we can then pair with the gift cards).

Although we don’t eat at places like this too often, we do love their lunch specials. So if Dave has a random day off of school, we’ll sometimes use our coupon plus discounted gift card to get a deal on lunch (which is much cheaper than dinner) and enjoy a special treat — plus the added bonus that we don’t need to clean up after ourselves!

NOTE: Here’s a recent post I shared about how I store, organize, and keep track of all our gift cards.

3. Don’t eat out during “prime time”.

As I just mentioned above going out for lunch (or even breakfast) is usually significantly less expensive than going out for dinner — but just as much as a treat.

Also, many restaurants offer happy hour and late-night specials with amazing discounts and deals.

We tend to eat dinner VERY early because the kids are always hungry; so for us, it’s usually no problem to get to a restaurant by 4:00pm and capitalize on the happy hour specials (no, you don’t have to order alcohol).

My sister and I recently used a $10 off any purchase coupon to get a few 1/2 price appetizers at Applebee’s after 9:00pm. Even after leaving a tip on the full price of the order, our bill came to less than $10 for 3 large appetizers and 2 little desserts. We actually ended up bringing almost half the appetizers home and at them with lunch the next day.

4. Remember that you don’t always need a full meal.

We get loads of coupons for free appetizers or free desserts with the purchase of an entree, and when we get these deals, Dave and I will often split a large meal and maybe order an extra salad to go with our free appetizer or dessert. Even with leaving a good tip, we still save a bunch, have a fun time away from home, and never walk away hungry.

Also, since our kids aren’t really old enough to warrant paying for a kids meal just yet, we always just share our food with them or bring something along from home that we know they’d like (especially for Simon). This saves us a bunch, and no restaurant has ever complained or made a comment about us bringing in some snacks for our kids.

Another favorite way to save but still enjoy a mini splurge is to only go out for dessert. Of course, we’re big fans of the Culver’s BOGO mixer coupons — which basically allow our entire family to eat all the frozen custard and delicious mix-ins we can handle for less than $4 — MUCH cheaper than “going out for ice cream” which could easily be $15-$20 for all 4 of us.

5. Skip the beverages.

I know this isn’t the most “fun” tip — but it is insane how much restaurants (and even fast food places) charge for drinks. I’ve seen soda for as high as $3.49 a glass… and don’t even get me started on alcohol!

While I personally have no problem if other people order drinks — and Dave occasionally orders soda or even a beer at restaurants — I will say this is probably the fastest way to cut your costs at restaurants. If you are always used to ordering drinks, you will probably be amazed how much less expensive your bill is if everyone drinks water!

6. Dine at Kids-Eat-Free restaurants.

Even though our kids aren’t quite old enough to really benefit from this, we have gone to a few kids-eat-free restaurants over the past year and it was really fun for Nora to order her own food (for free!)

As our kids get older, I could definitely see us benefiting from these types of deals 🙂

NOTE: If you’re not sure about where your kids can eat free, check out this massive listing of participating restaurants!

7. Ask for gift cards to your favorite places.

Many of our family and friends know that we really appreciate restaurant gift cards for Christmas and birthday gifts… plus, they are a super easy gift to find 🙂

Because of this, we often get a fair amount of gift cards instead of tangible gifts (that we might not necessarily want or need).

I think often times, people shy away from giving gift cards because they feel it’s impersonal; however if people know how much you enjoy getting specific gift cards, they will most likely feel more comfortable giving you what you want.

NOTE: here are a few creative ways to give gift cards!

These are just a few of the many ways Dave and I have been able to enjoy dining out A LOT more than we used to without adding much extra “strain” on our budget.

In fact, as of today (almost half way through the year) we have spent less than $200 out-of-pocket dining out — and that includes our Spring Break vacation where we took my whole family out to eat one night!

So while we are spending more than the $100 per year (or less) we did way back when we were first married, we are also enjoying going out to eat much more often.

It’s been a fun treat for our family (especially for me as I get a night away from the kitchen) and even more fun to try to do it frugally!

Do you have any other tips for dining out on a budget?

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17 comments

  1. mara

    07/23/2016

    Awesome post, thank you! I love looking for surveys at the bottom of our receipts, SO many good deals that way! We have Dairy Queen here in WI and there are BOGO dilly bar surverys at the bottom, love those 🙂

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  2. Links I Love: End of May Edition - Joyfully Thriving

    06/04/2015

    […] loved Andrea’s post on how to dine out frugally. She actually convinced me to sign up for a few more email […]

  3. Meredith

    05/20/2015

    We get most of our coupons in the mail through flyers. In fact, I just got a booklet of Culver’s coupons!

    Speaking of Culver’s, one of our tricks is to order kids meals. Culver’s has no problem with an adult ordering a children’s meal. It’s the same size burger as the one on the regular menu and the same size fries. Plus, they let you substitute sides AND you get a free custard with a topping. All for a little over 5 dollars. I don’t order kids meals when it specifies an age but some places don’t mind at all. I always ask first and most are happy to do so.

    Another place is Target. If you have the Target redcard and put your restaurant gift cards on there, you’ll get 5% off. This was one of the ways we saved on our Disney trip as well.

    Another thing that we do, is if we need to do fast food, we pick up a few sandwiches and then bring them home. We’ll just throw some fruit or chips on the paper wrapper and drink water. We usually eat outside on these nights too.

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    Andrea Reply:

    yes, we often get deals for kids meals (like $0.99 coupons) so Dave and I will both get kids meals and enjoy the “free” ice cream too!

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  4. Kristen @ Joyfully Thriving

    05/19/2015

    This is a great list, Andrea! Just the other day, I was having a rough day and texted my husband who used a gift card to bring us home a pizza so I didn’t have to cook. The gift card option and since my family lives far away, we all send each other food gift cards for gifts now. As teachers, we’re also fortunate to get those food gift cards. You’ve convinced me to sign up for more of the email lists! I have been fortunate to win several free food items from Culvers in their various sweepstakes. That’s been nice!

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  5. Debbie

    05/18/2015

    We look forward to eating out once a week. Sometimes it doesn’t happen but then another week it could be twice, depending on what’s happening. When we have guests visiting we often eat out at least once while they are here. We also celebrate birthdays and other occasions by dining out. Then we get invites from friends to dine out with them. All that being said, it’s often hard to get gift cards to restaurants when we don’t know where we will be invited. I guess my question is what advice do you have in these instances?

    [Reply]

    Andrea Reply:

    I’ll be honest, we usually eat at the same handful of places all the time… but that’s what we like and it works with our kids. We also almost never go out to eat with friends because all our friends have little kids and it’s just too crazy. We’ll do pizza at someone’s house if we want to do something with friends 🙂

    I know my parents dine out A LOT more now that all their kids are out of the house, and they use Restaurants.com a lot of times to find discounted deals on different places. Not exactly sure how it works but they are always coming up with random coupons and eating at all different restaurants.

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    Debbie Reply:

    Thanks for answering, Andrea. I’ll check out Restaurants.com if there’s anything there that could help me.

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  6. Jenny

    05/18/2015

    I use Discover card and this quarter they are giving and extra cash back bonus on movies and restaurants. I purposely limited my dining out in the first quarter so I’d be able to spend extra money this quarter and get move cash back. Discover publicizes what categories get the extra cash back bonus at the beginning of the year so I plan my spending accordingly.

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    Andrea Reply:

    wow — look at you. SO organized and disciplined! Enjoy your extra cash back and cooking less this quarter 🙂

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  7. erica

    05/18/2015

    Great tips! Thanks for sharing.

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  8. Stephanie

    05/18/2015

    Sams club and Costco also have restaurant gift cards at a reduced rate.

    [Reply]

    Andrea Reply:

    yes, so does the grocery store that I go to. I was going to mention that, but I wasn’t sure if it was available everywhere or not 🙂

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  9. The Busy Brunette

    05/18/2015

    Andrea, thanks for sharing an update about this area of your life. Even with just one child as we have, it can be difficult to find time to cook meals…especially meals everyone enjoys. We eat out about once a week, and I so look forward to it!
    “The Busy Brunette”
    http://thebusybrunette.blogspot.com/

    [Reply]

  10. Jen

    05/18/2015

    I have started putting all of my purchases/bills on my credit card and paying it off each month.

    In no time at all, I can cash my rewards in for a $25 or $50 restaurant gift card. I saved all of my gift cards for our trip to Florida – we ate free for several days!

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    Michelle Reply:

    I was just going to say this EXACT SAME THING!! We have found so many benefits to using credit cards and discounted restaurant gift cards is probably our favorite perk. And we, too, have used them for vacation savings: the past two years we’ve even scored quite a big discount at Disney.

    Keep up the good work, Andrea!

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    Andrea Reply:

    yes, I know lots of people who do this. We just do the cashback option with our credit card… but your idea is good too (and more fun than cash back!)

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