We love eating out once or twice a week. Having those date nights is important for us and a priority. It can get expensive though! Here are some tips and tricks from Tori Galatro to consider when looking to stretch your eating out budget.

Tips for Maximizing A Eating Out Budget

Eating out budget

Eating out is notorious for being an everyday temptation that can be a lot more expensive than its DIY alternative. With most meals, especially dinner, you’re looking at a 150% increase or more. Not only that but, while grocery prices are falling, restaurant prices are gradually increasing. This widens the gap, and makes the benefits all the more clear. Despite all this, the temptation of work-free food can be strong. Luckily, there are some ways to curb that outrageous markup when you’re feeling lazy.

Boiling Down Your Restaurant Bill

No matter how charming the mom-and-pop restaurant you patronize is, they are a business and they need to make money. One way they do this is by upselling you with extras. This is not a scam. These items may have a steep markup, but it’s your responsibility to know the cost and order wisely. The only thing the restaurant might be exploiting is your fear of appearing cheap by inquiring. Consider asking anyway. It may be worth that awkward moment to know that the fountain soda you were about to order costs $5 with no free refills. Or that adding avocado to your sandwich will raise your bill by $4.

When we browse a menu, we tend to get sucked into its world. We stop comparing prices relative to their grocery counterparts. Instead, we compare prices relative to other things on the menu. For example, judging the price of an appetizer relative to the entree, instead of judging what that appetizer is really worth. This isn’t the end all factor, but it’s worth considering. Appetizers and sides like edamame and even guacamole are often grossly overpriced. Vegetarian dishes too, although cheaper relative to meat and fish dishes, are highly marked-up. The steak is often the better deal. Value need not be the end all of your decision. But it’s something to consider.

3 Reasons You Hate to Budget (And How To Get Past Them)

Perfect Your Menu Ordering Skills

Can Bigger Actually Be Better?

Take advantage of restaurants with giant portions by joining forces with a money savvy friend or partner and splitting an entree. Pitch the idea before you even choose a spot. That way, you can spend more time choosing the most delicious option, rather than guessing how your companion might react to the proposition.

When portions are big, there’s great money saving potential in taking your leftovers to go. Plan for this in advance by ordering dishes that keep well for several days, like pasta. Don’t order a sandwich that’ll be soggy in a few hours.

Don’t underestimate the power of free bread and chips to save you money. We all think with our stomachs when we’re hungry, and those free extra carbs can curb impulse decisions. Better yet, eat a quick carby snack before you go out. Then you can concentrate on quality rather than quantity when you look at the menu.

Personal budget percentages: Here’s where our money goes

Avoiding Surprises when You Get the Check

Never take your money stresses out on the server. At $2.13 an hour, they’re just as much a victim of tipping as you are. But for counter service and to-go orders, a 10% tip is more acceptable, because the employees are making at least minimum wage, and fast food employees are often forbidden from accepting tips altogether. Foregoing the server could save you 10% per meal!

Depending on where you live, taxes can factor heavily into the price. If you live near a state or city line, check out the differences in prepared meal taxes. It’s not nickel and diming if it’s saves you dollars.

A great trick for keeping your restaurant spending in check is to set a goal for how much your meal should cost before looking at a menu. Once you’ve chosen a number, you can even search for meals online that fit within your budget before heading out. This way you can judge prices relative to your wallet, and not relative to other things on the menu.

Reconsider The Benefits of Cooking

We’re always deciding whether to DIY or hire a service for household tasks. But often the upfront cost is what stands in our way. With cooking, you’ve already spent most of it. Unless you live in a storage unit, you probably already pay for the use of a kitchen. You also pay for a refrigerator, the energy to run that refrigerator, a stove, that whole extra room… sure, you could nix the kitchen and return to the dorm room standard of a mini fridge and a microwave. Or you could spend the additional $50 it takes to buy the essentials, and start collecting on this investment you’ve probably already made. This investment you continue to make payments on monthly.

How to eat a half million dollars

The benefits of cooking extend beyond the wallet. It’s healthy, it’s social, it’s a useful (and impressive) skill to have… There’s a modest learning curve, but the educational resources are plentiful, and the basics are easy. So cook when you can, but when going out, at least be smart about it.

[By the way, if you aren’t budgeting because it seems too complex, you should check out the 50/20/30 rule of budgeting. It’s one of the easiest, most flexible budgeting options available.]

Tori Galatro is a freelance writer, blogger, and copywriter based in Austin, TX, specializing on topics such as food, film, child development, and personal finance.