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How to Eat out at Your Favorite Restaurants for Less

Gregory DeVictor enjoys dining out as well as saving money and offers tips on how to do both.

Eating out can be expensive, but there are ways to save.

Eating out can be expensive, but there are ways to save.

The average American family spends over $3,000 every year on restaurant meals and takeout, compared to about $4,000 annually on groceries. Over the past several years, dining out at restaurants and ordering takeout food has become the norm for many American households.

Beware Restaurant Markups

DontWasteYourMoney.com tells us that restaurants mark up the price of favorite menu items such as hamburgers, burritos, and pizza from 155 percent to a whopping 636 percent. For example, meat or vegetables added to pizza both have a 525% markup; sour cream added to burritos has a 426% markup; and cheese added to hamburgers has a 417% markup. But that’s not all: City Pages reveals that most restaurants mark up pasta dishes from 600% to 1,000%. (No wonder Americans spend nearly as much at restaurants as they do at grocery stores.)

Keep Eating Out, But Spend Less

While you may have little control over your mortgage or car payments, you can save hundreds of dollars every year on dining out. This article teaches you how to eat out at your favorite restaurants for less.

For your convenience, I have divided this article into the following categories:

  • 10 ways to save money when dining out
  • 15 popular restaurant rewards programs
  • 25 restaurants where kids can eat for free or nearly free
  • 35 restaurants and coffee shops that will give you free food or beverages on your birthday
  • Free food days

Author’s note: Although I have made every effort to provide you with accurate, timely, and trustworthy information, I cannot guarantee that such information is up-to-date at the time of your access. Furthermore, I do not endorse any of the restaurants or customer loyalty programs mentioned in this article.

10 Ways to Save Money When Dining Out

If eating out at restaurants and ordering takeout food has become the norm for you, here are 10 things that you can do right now to improve your financial well-being:

1. If you've been eating out more than twice a week, consider eating out no more than once a week, once every two weeks, or even once a month. You will appreciate dining out more and be amazed at how much money you can save.

2. Stop spending $5.00 or more on a latte and muffin every morning on the way to work.

3. Stop spending money on prepared foods at your supermarket deli. For example, at Pittsburgh-based Giant Eagle, a 16-ounce package of boneless chicken wings costs $5.99.

4. Use apps like Groupon and LivingSocial to save money at local restaurants, pizzerias, and coffee shops. Here are some of the restaurant deals for the greater Pittsburgh area that I found recently at LivingSocial.com:

  • $19 for Chips and Queso, Two Entrees, and Two Fountain Drinks at Qdoba ($27 Value)
  • Thai Cuisine at Little Bangkok in the Strip (50% Off)
  • Donuts and Coffee at Peace, Love and Little Donuts (44% Off)
  • $9 for $18 Worth of Bagels, Schmears, and Sandwiches at The Pittsburgh Bagel Factory
  • Italian Lunch Cuisine for Two or Four at Cucina Vitale (Up to 40% Off)

5. Skip the appetizer and dessert and focus instead on the salad and entree. (You might not need the extra calories and carbs anyway.)

6. Look for half-price dinner specials at websites like HalfOffDeals.com. If you live in the greater Pittsburgh area, you’ll find lunch and dinner deals at EatDrinkDeals.com. Likewise, New Yorkers will discover 50 cheap eats at NY.Eater.com, and San Diego residents will find half-price dinner specials at Get1Free.com.

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7. Eat out on a Monday or Tuesday. Because the first of the week is generally slow for restaurants, you’re likely to find tasty dinner bargains that are not available on other days.

8. Buy restaurant gift cards that sell for less than face value at Gift Card Granny. Recently, I found Jamba Juice, P.F. Chang, and Pei Wei cards discounted up to 40%. I also found Atria, Einstein Bros. Bagels, and Smashburger cards at 35% off.

9. As an extreme measure, leave the debit or credit card at home and pay cash for all restaurant meals and espresso-to-go.

10. Here are some of the markups on restaurant beverages:

  • Coffee: 300%
  • Domestic beer: 694%
  • Mixed drinks: 1,150%
  • Soda: 300% to 600%
  • Wine and champagne: 400%

With that in mind, drink ice water with your meal instead of ordering a bottle of wine or beer.

Do You Eat Out Often?

Rewards programs can help you save.

Rewards programs can help you save.

Be sure to sign up for every restaurant rewards program that comes your way. Restaurant loyalty programs offer everything from free appetizers to free meals to customers who dine out. So, how much value can you expect from a restaurant rewards program? Nick Ewen reveals the return on spending for seven popular programs:

  1. BJ’s Restaurant and Brewhouse: Up to 7.1%
  2. California Pizza Kitchen: 5%
  3. Dunkin’ Donuts: Up to 10%
  4. Jamba Juice: 8.6%
  5. Jersey Mike’s: 8.3%+
  6. Moe’s Southwest Grill: 10%
  7. Rita’s Italian Ice: Up to 14.3%

What Is a Return on Spending?

Using Moe’s Southwest Grill as an example, let’s clarify what a return on spending means. If the ROI at Moe’s Southwest Grill is 10%, you’ll earn 10 cents in rewards for every dollar you spend.

Here are 15 loyalty programs that can save you money at restaurants, pizzerias, and coffee shops:

Auntie Anne’s Pretzels: Join My Pretzel Perks and receive 10 points for every $1 you spend. Once you accrue 300 points, you can redeem them for a free pretzel.

Black Angus Steakhouse: Join the Prime Club and receive a free dessert when you register and a free steak dinner on your one-year anniversary.

Brio Tuscan Grille: Join My Brio Rewards and receive $10 for each sixth visit.

California Pizza Kitchen: Join Pizza Dough Rewards and earn a $5 voucher for every $100 you spend.

Caribou Coffee: Join Caribou Perks and receive a complimentary beverage. You also earn two points for every $1 that you spend on beverages, food, coffee beans, and merchandise. Once you accumulate 120 points, you can redeem them for a free drink.

Counter Burger: Join their loyalty program and receive complimentary shoestring or sweet potato fries plus 10 points for every $1 you spend. Once you accrue 500 points, you can redeem them for $5 off a future purchase.

Domino’s Pizza Rewards: Receive 10 points for every order of $10 or more. Once you accumulate 60 points, you can trade them in for a free medium two-topping pizza.

Dunkin’ Donuts: Receive a free beverage when you sign up with DD Perks and five points for every dollar that you spend. Once you earn 200 points, you can redeem them for a free drink.

Jamba Juice: Receive $3 when you sign up with Insider Rewards and one point for every $1 you spend. Once you accrue 35 points, you can trade them in for $3 off your next purchase.

Kings Family Restaurants: Sign up for Kings Rewards and receive one point for every $1 that you spend plus double points on Tuesdays. Once you earn 130 points, you can redeem them for $5 off a future purchase.

Moe’s Southwest Grill: Receive a free cup of queso for signing up with Rockin’ Rewards and one point for every $1 you spend. Once you accumulate 1,000 points, you can redeem them for $10 off a future purchase.

Pizza Hut Rewards: Receive two points for every $1 that you spend on Pizza Hut orders. Once you accrue 200 points, you can trade them in for a free medium-size pizza with your choice of toppings. You can also redeem 250 points for a free large pizza.

Red Robin: Join Red Robin Royalty and receive every 10th item for free plus $20 toward your 6th visit.

Rita’s Italian Ice: Sign up with Rita’s Rewards and receive a free regular-sized Italian ice on every 8th visit.

Starbucks: Join Starbucks Rewards and earn stars (points) with either a card or an app. Receive two stars for every $1 that you spend on beverages, food, coffee beans, and merchandise. Once you earn 125 stars, you can redeem them for a free drink.

Some restaurants offer free meals for children, which is a good way for families to save money.

Some restaurants offer free meals for children, which is a good way for families to save money.

25 Restaurants Where Kids Can Eat for Free or Nearly Free

Here are 25 restaurants where kids can eat for free or nearly free. Please note that offers vary by location and that some restaurants require you to sign up for their loyalty program or register with them first to receive the free offer. I also suggest that you call the restaurant ahead of time to make sure the offer is still valid.

Applebee’s: Kids eat for free on Tuesdays at participating locations when accompanied by a paying adult.

Atlanta Bread Company: One kid 12 and under eats for free when accompanied by an adult who purchases a meal.

Brewzzi: Two kids 12 and under eat for free on Mondays when accompanied by an adult who makes a minimum purchase of $12.

Cafe Rio: Kids six and under receive free niño quesadillas every day.

Captain D’s Seafood Kitchen: Two kids eat for free when accompanied by an adult who purchases a meal.

Chevy’s Fresh Mex: One kid eats for free on Tuesdays with the purchase of an adult meal.

Denny’s: One kid eats for free on Tuesdays between 4:00 PM and 10:00 PM when accompanied by a paying adult.

Famous Anthony’s: One kid eats for free on Sundays from noon until closing and on Mondays from 3:00 PM until closing with the purchase of an adult meal.

Fazoli’s: Two kids can eat for 99 cents each on Tuesdays from 5:00 PM to 8:00 PM when accompanied by a paying adult.

Fuddruckers: Kids 12 and under can eat for 99 cents on Mondays from 4:00 PM to 9:00 PM.

IHOP: One kid eats for free from 4:00 PM to 10:00 PM every day when accompanied by an adult who purchases a meal.

IKEA: Two kids 12 and under eat for free when accompanied by a paying adult.

Marie Callender’s: One kid 12 and under eats for free with the purchase of an adult meal.

McAllister’s Deli: Kids’ meals are 99 cents every day at select locations.

Moe’s Southwest Grill: One kid 12 and under eats for free when accompanied by an adult who purchases a meal.

Moretti’s Ristorante & Pizzeria: Kids eat for free after 4:00 PM.

Pop’s Diner Company: One kid 10 and under eats for free when accompanied by an adult who makes a minimum purchase of $8.00.

Ruby Tuesday: One kid eats for free on Tuesdays from 5:00 PM until closing with the purchase of an adult meal.

Ruby’s Diner: Free kids’ meals are available every day from 4:00 PM until closing.

Ryan’s: On Thursdays, two kids 11 and under can eat for 99 cents each when accompanied by a paying adult.

Steak ‘n Shake: One kid eats for free when accompanied by an adult who purchases a $9.00 meal.

TGI Friday’s: Kids eat free on Tuesdays with the purchase of an adult meal at participating locations.

The Chartroose Caboose: One kid eats for free on Thursdays when accompanied by an adult who makes a minimum purchase of $8.00.

Uno Pizzeria: One kid 12 and under eats for free when accompanied by a paying adult.

Zarda: One kid 12 and under eats for free when accompanied by an adult who purchases an $11 meal.

How Do You Pay?

Try dining out on your birthday—you may be able to get a free meal.

Try dining out on your birthday—you may be able to get a free meal.

Free Food and Beverages for Your Birthday

Here are 35 restaurants and coffee shops that will give you free food or beverages for your birthday. Please note that offers vary by location and that many establishments require you to sign up for their loyalty program or register with them first to receive the birthday freebie. You might also want to find out whether the free offer is valid only on your birthday or if you can use it anytime during your birthday week or month.

A&W: Join their Mug Club and receive a free root beer float for your special day.

Applebee's: Depending on your location, you may get a free appetizer, entree, or dessert for your birthday. However, you must sign up with their e-Club to qualify for the offer.

Au Bon Pain: Sign up for their email newsletter and receive a coupon for a free birthday salad or sandwich.

Auntie Anne’s: Join their Pretzel Perks Rewards Program and receive a free signature or classic pretzel during your birthday month.

Baja Fresh: Sign up with Club Baja and receive a free burrito for your birthday.

Baker’s Square: Join their e-Club and receive a free slice of pie for your special day.

Baskin Robbins: Sign up for their Birthday Club and receive a free scoop of ice cream for your birthday.

Benihana: Join their Chef’s Table email club and receive a certificate worth up to $30 for your special day.

Bonefish Grill: Join their Bonefish Grill Insider and receive a Bang Bang Shrimp appetizer or piece of coconut pie for your birthday.