Dine on a dime, feast like a king: How to eat out on a budget

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If you love going out to dinner, you’re not alone. Americans spent more money eating out than they did on groceries in March 2015 -- for the first time ever, according to Commerce Department data and reported in Bloomberg. The National Restaurant Association credits millennials, who view dining out as a social event, as the main demographic driving this trend.

So, what should you do if you want to continue dining out but you need to save money? We’ve got good news. You can still eat out on a budget without taking the fun out of the meal. Take a look:

Be happy

Ok, this is a great tip for life in general but, when it comes to dining out, partaking in a restaurant’s happy hour can stretch your dollars and put a smile on your face. Happy hours are a great way to get together with friends and eat like a king for under $10.

Keep in mind that restaurants usually offer these events each day a week and can feature different appetizer items, such as $5 chicken wings on Tuesdays and $5 burger bites on Wednesdays. You might also discover that some restaurants offer discounted appetizers for those also ordering meals.

My favorite restaurant, for example, offers its "Appy Hour" on Mondays from 4-7 p.m. Every Monday, all appetizers are 50% off. To find out which restaurants near you offer happy hour deals, we suggest downloading apps like the Happy Hour Finder or Untappd; following your favorite eateries on social media; and checking out local hot spots on Yelp.

Be social

Speaking of social media, restaurants often post dining specials and promotions on Facebook and Twitter. By following your favorite watering holes and dining spots on their top social channel, you can be the first to hear about their two-for-one special or a free appetizer night.

You can also sign up for a restaurant’s email list as they often send special deals to their loyal customers and email subscribers. You may even get a free meal coupon for your birthday or anniversary. One of my favorite restaurants, Eat With Jack O’Neill, often posts contests and deals for free food items on Facebook. Recently, they asked fans to use just one word to describe their new pizzas. If your answer was a favorite, you’d win a free personal pizza.

Be a savvy deal shopper

My husband makes fun of me for being a bargain hunter -- and then he thanks me when I scoop up a great deal by prepaying for restaurant meals on daily deal sites like Groupon and LivingSocial. I get Groupon daily deals delivered to me via email, and if I have time, I peruse through the promotions to see if anything catches my eye. If I spot a restaurant that I already patronize or one that I’ve been wanting to try, I often snag the deal as this saves us big bucks. I just purchased a dining deal to my favorite Lebanese restaurant for $60 worth of food for only $35. I can use the deal to dine any night of the week and have about three months to use it. Before you buy these restaurant bargains, however, make sure you read the fine print. You often can’t use them on weekends and restaurants typically ask you to tip servers on the full price of the meal.

Drink water

If you want to enjoy a glass of wine or two, invite friends over to your place to share drinks and appetizers before heading out to a nearby restaurant for dinner. The bottom line: Not ordering alcoholic beverages will save you money on your dining bill. Plus, you’ll also save money by not ordering appetizers once you get to the restaurant. To keep even more cash in your pocket, don’t even order soda. Instead, stick to water. I like to spruce up my boring yet free water by asking my server for water with a lemon wedge.

Don’t get stuck paying the full tab

To fully reap the cost savings here, you should still try to adhere to the first four strategies above. With that said, if your friends are the types who come to dinner without enough money to pay their portion of the restaurant bill, you may be the one stuck paying the full tab. This means you’ll be eating through your entertainment and dining out budget pretty darned fast. In fact, my 20-year-old son often found himself in this predicament. Not anymore. He now uses Venmo or Square Cash to split the bill, collect money, and send payments instantly. By using one of these payment apps, you too can pay the bill in its entirety and everyone else in your dinner group can send you money instantly. By the time you leave the restaurant, everyone has chipped in regardless of whether they left their cash or credit card at home.

Regardless of which strategies you use to spend less while dining out, remember that it’s important to first create a budget and stick to it. As a parting tip, you can even consider a night out at your favorite restaurant as a fitting reward for hitting your savings goals each month. Bon appetit!