By Kristy Wilson
One of our Chambanamoms readers recently asked the question, “My family loves to eat at restaurants but it is SO EXPENSIVE. I am looking for ideas so we don’t have to blow our budget every month. How do you save money when eating out? All ideas appreciated!”
Let’s face it: Some families like to eat out, some families have members who don’t like to cook so eating out is a necessity, and some families save eating out as a necessity or special treat option. Wherever you fall into the categories above (or maybe you fall into multiple) we asked the question and our readers responded with great suggestions.
Below you will find the reader’s suggestions, along with a few of my own. Please be aware that specials, coupons and rewards programs can change on a regular basis so the information that is being provided is what we know to be applicable to date.
1. Apps and rewards members/loyalty programs: Each of these vary. Some programs offer options were you have to eat so many meals and then you get the next one free. Some offer free meal/dessert/appetizer in your birthday month. Some programs email out coupons that offer a free kids meal with a paying adult. Some places, like Fridays, offers all over the above.
2. CiSAVES and other coupons: CiSAVES was, hands down, the most mentioned solution to the eating out budget problem. CiSAVES often offers a 50 percent discount on the vouchers that one might purchase. For example, there is a coupon (really more of a voucher that you purchase) for Papa Murphy’s where you pay $8 for a gift certificate worth $16. Other people mentioned buy one entrée get one free coupons Meatheads and Fridays.
3. Credit card cash back programs: One reader said that her credit card allows her to redeem her credit card points for restaurant and retailer gift cards as opposed to the more traditional airline miles. She reported that just by putting her regular expenses on her credit card (things such as gas and groceries) that her family is able to eat out for “free” 1-2 times per month.
4. Dining at Mexican restaurants: While several people suggested this due to the prevalence of free chips and salsa, this suggestion would hold true for other restaurants that serve some type of free snack while you wait on your food. Things like rolls/bread (this makes me think of O’Charley’s and Biaggi’s) or peanuts (Texas Roadhouse). Fill up your belly a bit on the free things places provide, then split a meal.
5. H2O is the way to go: It seems like this one would be applicable whether you are in C-U or otherwise. Soft drinks cost $2 each on average. Save this money and put it toward the cost of food by having your kids drink water at place where drinks are not included in the cost of the meal.
6. Kids eat free nights (or discounted): We’ve compiled lists of these options in the past. The problem is that they change so often! Be sure to double-check before you leave home.
7. Money envelope: My husband and I took a money management class early in our marriage to learn more about being money conscious. One thing that was highly suggested was using the “envelope system” in which you categorized your spending, budget amounts for each category and withdraw the cash to put in said envelopes. One reader suggested that she used an envelope system for eating out. She puts that amount that her family budgets for eating out in at the beginning of the month and “once it’s gone, it’s gone until the start of the next month.”
8. Partially eat out: I loved this idea! One reader said that her family loves to eat out, but to save money they make part of the meal at home and then get takeout for something that they love that complements the meal.
9. Salad Bars: These are becoming more and more few and far between, but for the places that still have them it can help on the cost savings. For example, when we go to The Ribeye we order an entrée which comes with a salad bar then add on another salad bar for the kids. The cost of adding on a salad bar to the meal is about $5, which is much less than ordering the kids their own entrée and affords the luxury of having many different food choices.
10. Sam’s Club: Two suggestions here. One reader recommended purchasing gift cards from here to particular restaurants in town. She said that most of the restaurant gift cards are offered at a discounted rate (she pays only $39.98 for a $50 gift card). My thought about Sam’s would be to eat in its café. It is not the healthiest food. However, if you are a hot dog eater I will say they have some of the best hot dogs in town and for just $1.47 one can be yours.
11. Share meals: Portion control has long been a problem in the restaurant industry, so why not use it to your advantage? Order a couple of different meals and split them..
12. Stretch out the savings: Our kiddos like to eat at Culver’s. Each kid’s meal comes with a coupon on the side of the bag to get a free scoop of ice cream. Our kids are rarely still hungry at the end of a meal here, so I save the coupon and use it as a special treat on another day! Bonus: The coupon booklets that come in the mail monthly typically have coupons for Culver’s that include things like “buy one sandwich get one free.”
13. Watch for specials: Watching for specials and planning your dining out day/evening around those particular specials will help.
Kristy Wilson considers herself a “townie” having lived in the community for over 26 years. She grew up in Unit 4 schools and attended the University of Illinois. Kristy is passionate about her professional work as a social worker. In her spare time she enjoys food! In particular she loves to try new recipes and sample new dishes at local eateries.