Dinner out is as much of a classic British past-time as a Sunday stroll in the countryside or binge watching 8 hours of Netflix in one sitting. But as with a lot of things, it’s best for your finances in small doses. Here are some tips to cut back on your spending.
While there’s nothing wrong with a treat every now and then, your approach to eating out can play a large part in the weight of your wallet at the end of the month. With the average household spending nearly £50 a week on restaurants, it all starts adding up before you’ve even got to the cheeseboard and coffee.
So, are you the type to order the simple but effective margarita pizza or the outrageous 24 ounce rib-eye steak? A glass of water or the most expensive bottle of wine on the menu?
If you chose option B in both instances, you may be the sort of person that is constantly wondering where your money has gone. If that’s you, there are a number of good budgeting apps that could work a treat.
Alternatively, we have a few pointers that could leave you with a little more when you need it, without cutting out the dining experience altogether.
Cooking at home
Saying that, the first of our tips does involve cutting down. But we’ll say it anyway. The cheapest way to save money on eating out is not to eat out at all.
Even just eating out less often could make a significant difference. Plus, you may discover a new-found love for home-cooking. Making your own meals for your friends from scratch is not only a lot of fun, but is up to five times cheaper than eating out at a restaurant.
Alternatively, you could test yourself and see if you can go a month without dining out. It may be easier than you think and once the month is over, the thought of cooking at home won’t be so daunting.
If you’re looking for inspiration when it comes to cooking at home, try out Simply Cook’s trial boxes. For £3 they send you a compact box with four recipe cards and the right spices and sauces to rustle up a delicious meal. Once you’ve got the basic ingredients yourself, you could be dining at home in 20 minutes.
Look out for the cheaper days
If you’re eating out on a Friday or Saturday evening, expect to pay full price. Restaurants can guarantee they’ll be busy no matter what so they don’t need to rely on nifty deals to lure you in.
Not so for the crafty midweek-diners. There’s often all sorts of bargains to be had midweek, such as two for one deals, free sides with a main, discounts on drinks and so on. Be a little less predictable, do your research, and head out when the restaurants are quieter.
On that subject, there’s a theory that most restaurants tend to receive their fresh-food deliveries on a Tuesday or Thursday, so you’ve a better chance of having a nice meal on those days. It’s the same theory that suggests Mondays are not a good day to eat fish.
The service poetically titled ‘bring your own booze’.
A lot of restaurants aren’t fully licenced to serve alcohol so they’ll let you bring your own free of charge. Alcohol has an enormous mark-up compared to the price you’ll pay in a shop, so thinking ahead and choosing a restaurant where you can provide it for yourself is a winner.
BYOB has seen something of a resurgence in recent years with even high-end London restaurants trialling this approach to cheaper dining.
If you know the portions are larger than you need, agree to share it with someone. That means less waste and more money in your pocket.
If you need a balance between a half and a full portion, split a side as well. One main and one side between two people is still cheaper than two mains.
Evenings are overrated anyway. Meet up with someone for lunch instead of dinner and be amazed at the reduced-price menus on offer.
Nando’s have launched a new cut-price menu to fit into your lunch-break, offering meals for just £5.95. It’s only a trial for now but if it works then it may stick around. Check out which restaurants are participating here.
Coupons and vouchers
There’s nothing glamorous about a coupon, but who’s the one getting 50% off? Not looking so silly now, huh?
You can find discounts easily enough simply by searching for your favourite chains on sites such as VoucherCodes. They’ll list any deals available to you and instructions on how to access it (such as needing to download an app).
Alternatively you can sign up for exclusive benefits with services such as TasteCard. You may have to pay a membership fee but if you’re the sort of person that eats out often, you’ll end up saving in the long term.
Become a mystery diner
Perhaps the most crafty of all our tips - become a mystery diner. Restaurants such as Wagamama and Giraffe employ mystery-shopping companies to send in anonymous members of the public (you) to review the experience they’re offering. You can not only get a free meal at participating restaurants, but also get paid for eating at them.
Requirements: you’ll need to be able to write clearly in English, have a camera (for the receipts), and don’t be picky (you’ll often be given specific instructions on what to order),
While you CAN be paid for being a mystery-diner, don’t rely on it as a source of income. The emphasis here is on free-dining, rather than making a living. Your meals will be reimbursed and you may occasionally get a few pounds on top.
Ask for tap water
Speaks for itself. You’re there for the food, not the drink, and it’s the drinks the restaurants are making the most profit on. Plus, we as a nation don’t drink enough water, so do your body a favour.
Restaurants are legally obligated to provide tap water for free, so save yourself some dollars when dining out.
If you are there for the drinks, go for Happy Hour
A lot of bars offer cheaper drinks (and sometimes food as well) during the early hours of the evening before they get too busy. Usually this is between 5pm-7pm, Monday to Friday, but it varies from place to place. If you want a drink before a meal, time it to match.
Stay in on Valentine’s Day
You know that tradition of booking a romantic meal out on Valentine’s Day? Well, it’s very expensive. As are all major holidays, whether that’s Easter or even Christmas day.
A simple (but still romantic) alternative is to stay in, buy a bottle of wine, and cook something up. Classy.
The much-loved Marks & Spencer’s dine-in deal received a Valentines overhaul in 2019, offering a starter, main, side, dessert, box of chocolates AND a bottle of prosecco for two people, all for £20. Keep an eye out for similar deals for 2020.
Grab a free snack on your birthday
This one doesn’t technically save on eating out, but if you can grab a free treat with minimal hassle then it would be silly not to mention it. A number of restaurants and cafes offer free food on your birthday in exchange for downloading their app or signing up to their mailing list.
Register on the Friends of Krispy Kreme rewards app and choose a free doughnut of your choice when your b-day comes around. Or how about a free birthday meal from Frankie & Benny’s? Check out this comprehensive list of birthday treats here.
Forage for free
The ultimate, and potentially most extreme, in money-saving life-hacks - go back to your roots (pun intended) and start foraging. Again, it’s not technically eating out (though you do have to leave the house), but we’ve included it anyway. Elderflowers, raspberries, blackberries, bilberries, samphire and dandelions can all be picked when they’re in season.
That being said, this does come with a word of caution. Only forage where you’re permitted, and ensure what you’re doing is legal. Though foraging for personal use is generally allowed in the UK, councils and conservation agencies can restrict foraging in specific areas.
While on this subject, we also have a responsibility to point out that you should avoid any species you’re unsure of (please don’t poison yourself), and avoid foraging alongside busy roads. It not only puts you in danger but exhaust-tasting berries are also particularly unpleasant.