Would you like to eat out more but feel guilty for indulging in a luxury like that when the money could be spent on something more practical? You’re not alone. Most people are watching their money pretty closely these days, and while they may not be at the point where they’re borrowing from family and friends or taking out a payday loan, many are still on a budget. The good news is that being on a budget doesn’t mean you have to deny yourself the occasional respite from cooking, serving, and cleaning up afterwards. Here are some ways to save money (and keep from losing money) when dining out.
1. Opt for lunch or “off peak” dinner times. Many if not most of the finer restaurants have separate dinner and lunch menus, with the main difference being that the lunch items are generally a few pounds cheaper. Others have special fixed-price menus or special lunch entrees that give you a chance to sample their style without spending your entire month’s paycheck. By opting for daytime dining you can save a bundle even at the best restaurants. Or if you have a flexible schedule you might be able to find a bargain for dinner as well. Some restaurants have, for example, a pre- or post-theatre dinner menu that is less expensive than the menu they offer during peak hours. Call ahead, of course, so you’ll know what’s available.
2. Take advantage of online booking. You can go to the restaurant’s own web site (see the next item), but you can also take advantage of web sites such as OpenTable (formerly Toptable), Lastminute, and 5pm, which offer up-to-the-minute information about a variety of offers such as half-off, 2-for-1 and other promotions. Search for bargains in your area, pick a restaurant, and book a table. Remind your server once you’re there that you booked a special deal online.
3. Look for online promotional vouchers. Many restaurants offer promotional vouchers online, either on their own web sites or third-party sites. Make a habit of perusing newspapers for vouchers. And before you go out, visit websites such as VoucherCodes and HotUKDeals to check for deals and discounts.
4. Ask for tap water. Unlike many US establishments that automatically give patrons a glass of free tap water, restaurants in the UK often push expensive bottled water on their customers. What many UK patrons don’t realise is that the law now requires that restaurants serving alcohol give customers free tap water. If it isn’t offered, ask for it. As some restaurants charge £3.50 or more for a bottle of mineral water, opting for tap water can save you quite a lot of money over time.
5. Don’t make a pig of yourself, but if you do, don’t waste the food. Many people over-order and then end up leaving a lot on their plate. It’s tempting to order too much when you’re hungry, of course, but take some time and scope out the menu. Find out everything that comes with your main course so you don’t overdo it with appetizers, side dishes or soups and salads. If you do have a substantial amount left over anyway, be sure to ask for a doggy bag – and have a great lunch tomorrow. If you get two meals for the price of one, you’re still ahead of the game.
6. Be a conscious tipper. Heaven forbid that you’re an under-tipper or non-tipper; wait staff work hard for their money and deserve your every consideration. So tip generously, unless the service itself was truly atrocious (but in that case, take it up with the management; don’t just run out without leaving a tip). However you should also scrutinize your bill before you sign off on anything, as many restaurants include a service charge on the bill. In those cases you don’t need to leave an additional tip unless your server has been exceptionally wonderful or you are just feeling generous. When paying by credit card remember that any tip you add to the total will go to the employer and will then probably be divided among several staff members. Cash given to y our server belongs to her or him. The bottom line with tips is: don’t under-tip, but don’t inadvertently over-tip.
7. Guard your card. Using a credit or debit card can leave you vulnerable to fraud, including an ever more common crime called "skimming". After duplicating the details from the magnetic strip on the back of your card the perpetrator creates a "clone" card that, if used fraudulently, can end up wiping you out. Aware of this problem, many restaurants bring a handheld terminal to the table so customers can enter their own PIN. If the restaurant you’re eating at doesn’t offer this option, take your card with you to the checkout area if there is one. If at all possible, don’t let the card out of your sight. Of course there are other ways perpetrators can commit fraud besides sneaking your card to the back room whilst you’re there, so keep a close watch on your credit card or bank statements and immediately report any unauthorised charges.
8. Reap the rewards of loyalty. Lots of restaurants have loyalty or discount programmes, so if you really like the food and service, go ahead and sign up. Many restaurants are on social media these days, so check out your favorite restaurants’ Twitter or Facebook pages and see if they have a daily special you can take advantage of.