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Eating Out on a Budget

Even families who are diligent about planning inexpensive meals at home enjoy going out to eat once in a while. Everyone likes a break from their everyday routine, but some budget-minded folks may be hesitant to eat out, fearing the cost. Indeed, eating a meal at a restaurant can get expensive, even at so-called fast food eateries, where hamburgers can cost as much as $3 or $4.

Budget-wise diners generally take time to investigate restaurants in their area to see which are the most affordable. That’s certainly the first step to planning a meal out that won’t drain your wallet, but there are several other tricks as well, and if you use some or all of them on your next restaurant visit, you won’t get sticker shock when the bill arrives.

o Look for coupons – Restaurants have been hit by the slow economy, just like any other business, and these days, it seems easier to find 2-for-1 coupons or other special offers for many dining establishments. You may be able to find them in your local newspaper or in packets of coupons that arrive in the mail. However, don’t forget to check the internet. Many restaurant chains post printable coupons on their website. Also consider the purchase of an “Entertainment Book”. These are books full of coupons for eateries and various other activities and attractions in your area, usually sold by organizations as fundraisers. (Or you can purchase them from the company’s website.) Many of the coupons offer 2-for-1 meals or 50% off for single diners.

o Kids Eat Free – If you are dining with children, look for restaurants that offer free meals for kids during certain times of the day or on certain evenings. These offers generally refer to items on the children’s menu, but can still mean a substantial savings when all is said and done.

o Eat lunch – If you simply feel like eating out and you have a flexible schedule, head out at lunchtime instead of dinner time. Lunches are always less expensive than dinners. Often the portions are smaller, but this is an extra perk for those who are calorie-conscious.

o Look for a salad bar – If you choose a restaurant that offers a sizeable salad bar (with your entrée) that features lots of variety and perhaps even a selection of soups and breads, you can fill up on the salad bar at the restaurant and bring all or most of your entrée home with you for the next day’s lunch or dinner.

o Share – Not all restaurants allow you to share a plate with a fellow diner, but if they do, consider this option, especially if the restaurant is known for serving large portions. You may want to order your own soup or appetizer and then split an entrée and dessert.

o Don’t order drinks – These days, a soft drink or cup of coffee can cost as much as $4 each! And even though it’s a “bottomless” beverage, allowing for as many refills as you’d like, it still adds a lot to the bill. A family of four can save up to $16 by simply ordering water instead. Ask for lemon slices to give your water some extra zing.

o Carry it out – If you just don’t feel like cooking but don’t mind eating at home at your own kitchen table, consider visiting a restaurant that offers carry-out service. These can range from the neighborhood pizza place or Chinese restaurant to some of the more popular chain restaurants, like Applebee’s, Ruby Tuesday’s, or Outback Steakhouse. This so-called curbside dining is becoming increasingly popular, and while the food is the same price as if you eat in, you can supply your own drinks and also avoid the necessity of leaving a tip.