Going Out Without Going Broke

Even with menu planning, list-making, and shopping at discount stores, your food costs may still be out of hand if you’re frequenting restaurants. Many people budget dining as “entertainment,” but there’s nothing entertaining about paying exorbitant prices and having nothing to show for it except those extra pounds everyone wants to lose. Controlling your restaurant spending is the other side of the food cost coin. Here’s my three-tined approach to going out without going broke:

  1. Make it special
  2. Order less
  3. Pre-game

Make it special

Tune in to a different frequency of going out by making it a special occasion. As a daily or weekly habit, eating out fritters away your hard-earned money. Even a daily Chipotle lunch habit, at $7 per weekday (no drink, no chips), costs about $150 a month. That’s loco! I can feed my family of four for two weeks on that. We love Chipotle as much as the next gringo, but we save it for a special treat a few times a year, not a month. What motivates me is keeping in perspective how far that money can go at the grocery store. For example, I can cook a whole chicken, a pound of rice, and a pound of vegetables for $7. That’s enough for at least two family meals.

Going out for lunch during the workday plus other fast food stops causes a restaurant cost-creep. The individual bills aren’t large but they sure add up. As with grocery shopping and saving money in general, planning ahead is the best way to avoid this huge hidden expense. I hate being hungry and I hate spending money so I always have a plan to avoid both. Here’s how:

  • Decide how often you’ll frequent restaurants—fast or slow ones—each month. We plan for one dinner at a decent restaurant every month.
  • Pack a lunch of leftovers or a PBJ. It takes less time to pack than to drive to a restaurant and wait for your food. If I’m going to be gone more than a couple hours I pack food. Pulling a peanut butter sandwich out of my purse is pretty much my signature move.
  • Create an Energy Reserve. Keep a snack like nuts or granola bars in your car, desk, or bag to help you avoid the drive-thru when you’re too hungry to make it home.
  • Try copycat recipes for your favorite restaurant dishes (like Chipotle chicken).
  • Have a quick meal or leftovers planned for busy nights. Cook big batches and freeze meals to have on hand. Stocking one or two pre-packaged frozen meals is still less expensive than getting take-out. When all else fails, make spaghetti.

If you regularly depend on restaurants for sustenance, it’s time to cut back. Going out to eat should be more about socializing than survival. There are much cheaper, healthier ways to eat.

Order less

No one needs to order drinks and three courses. Skip drinks and get water. It’s healthy and free, and that isn’t true in every country. Alcohol is the fastest way to run up your tab. Even soft drinks add about $3 each after tax and tip. Pass on dessert and have a treat at home.

During our planned dinners out, we found ourselves spending too much and bringing home half our food. So we often split entrée’s, and sometimes a starter, too. Restaurant portions in our country are super-sized, anyway. (Fine dining is a notable exception, but you’re probably not still reading this blog if that’s your style.) We’ve never gone hungry from sharing food. And I’ve stopped feeling awkward about splitting. It’s our prerogative. Just don’t skimp on the tip.


So what about social gatherings at restaurants? We don’t want to miss out on good times with our friends just because we’re pretending to be poor. Seeking financial flexibility shouldn’t make us inflexible. I know it seems counter-intuitive, but eating before you go out is a great way to keep dining out more about socializing than sustenance. These outings are usually not to the greatest restaurants. Don’t feel obligated to spend a lot on food you don’t even like.

So how can you linger without loitering? Order a side item or half-price appetizer. I’ve even been known to split these. The cheapest items on a menu are usually French fries or coffee. While soft drinks are a huge rip-off, they’re also a low-ticket item if that’s all you get. If fries are too high-fat for you ask for a baked potato, side salad, or cup of soup (or oatmeal if it’s breakfast).

For spontaneous outings, hit a drive-thru dollar menu on the way, fill up for $2-3 and order as above at the restaurant. Your night out costs $6 instead of $20-30. Again, tip well on your tiny tab, 50-100%.

Not arriving hungry also has social advantages. You don’t care where people decide to go, you’re not crabby, and you don’t have to search the menu (while hungry) for a good deal. Pre-gaming leaves you free to focus more on conversation than food.

When travel or other circumstances necessitate fast food stops, stick with the dollar or value menu and order water to drink. In my opinion the Taco Bell bean burrito is the best fast food value for being filling, relatively nutritious, and inexpensive. Clip fast food coupons and keep them for “emergencies”—those unplanned times when you need to stop for food or go out with a friend. Don’t go just to use the coupon; spending money to save money isn’t saving at all.

So there’s our basic approach. Stick a fork in me, I’m done.

How do you keep restaurant costs under control?

19 Responses to “Going Out Without Going Broke”

  1. Indre Howell says :

    Great tips you have here! Something that my husband and I do when we really want to go out for our date, is go out to restaurants just for dessert. So we’ll eat a dinner at home then go explore some fancy restaurants to see what sorts of interesting desserts they have. It’s way cheaper but you still get to go out on the town.

  2. Joel says :

    One of my goals this year is to “pre-game” more when I go out. My main reason is that almost all restaurant food is unhealthy. It is really hard for me to resist a yummy entree that, with today’s bloated portion sizes, usually has over 1000 calories. I think a smarter approach is to pre-eat healthy things and then you only need a little bit at the restaurant. Again–the point of going out is socializing, not sustenance.

  3. Mark says :

    I like to try to be a “DIY” kind of person, but up until recently I put food in a sperate category for some reason. When it came to fixing the car, my first instinct is to see if I can fix it myself. But when it came to food, my first instinct is to eat out, because I want it to taste good. Now I’m trying to view cooking and everything associated with it as another way to DIY, just like I view fixing other things. My wife and I worked together to make Indian food last night from scratch, and it turns out to be a cool shared experience for us also – a way for us to DIY together.

    Also my wife has worked hard to learn to be a great cook, so a lot of her stuff tastes better than eating out now.

  4. Jeff says :

    PBJs all day! I do like your note on pre-game, I’m going to try and implement these ideas more. I know I’m spending way too much money on fast food. The 1$ tortinos frozen pizzas are my favorite though! Except for the healthy factor 🙂

  5. Brian says :

    Great tips on saving money while dining out (now I just to start using more of them!). There is one thing many people forget when saving money on food though – you mentioned the grocery bill for food cooked at home. The wife and I spend more than I care to admit on groceries. We could easily cut this in half — IF we wanted to buy unhealthy, processed foods. That’s a deal we’ve agreed to pass on, as long as we’re blessed enough to be able to afford better, and we’re both healthier because of it. Think of it this way: a heart transplant costs a lot more than a few organic or low-fat items at the grocery store!

  6. Jen at Frugal Millennial says :

    Great tips! Another thing I like to do is find free things to do with friends. When they suggest dinner, I’ll suggest doing something free instead. There are a surprising number of things that can be done for free. We’ve had board game nights, Wii nights, movie nights, gone hiking or gone on 5k walks, done outdoor yoga, and gone to free fairs and festivals.

    • Kalie says :

      I agree and hope to write a post sometime on free activity alternatives. There are lots of good websites with ideas on this already. But we have a large group of friends that hangs out every weekend and we can’t always host or set the agenda for that many people, so this is the solution we’ve come up with for restaurants 🙂

  7. Mike says :

    My wife and I say we’re just here for drinks (slightly before the dinner hour). Then, we’ll go to another place and tell the server where we came from, that we’re going on a crawl through a variety of places, and then order a small appetizer to share. At the next place, we tell them to same thing and get a dessert to share. Usually, after that, we’re actually done and don’t want to eat anymore! And we got to go to two or three nice places. We even did this for our 20 year anniversary (because there’s just no need to waste money) and we had a great time!

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