Note: I forgot to add a note about serving and tipping.
First, please, please, please BE SURE to tip your server on what your bill would be without discounts. In my mind this means at least 15% for decent service. If you can't afford to tip adequately, you can't afford to dine out.
Second, if you have excellent service, please be sure to let the manager know. And if you get unacceptable or poor service, please be sure to let the manager know. Either way, make sure to be polite when doing so.
I would guess that those of us who live alone tend to eat out more than do those with a family to cook for. Buying a restaurant meal for one person is simply less expensive than buying for two or three or more. Plus, nobody's expecting us to have dinner on the table, so it's easy to pick something up. Also, it seems like so much of my social life revolves around food, so I'm often making plans for lunch or dinner with friends.
Eating out can be expensive. So, here are some tips on how to get the most out of eating at restaurants.
1. Drink water. That $2.50 soda probably costs the restaurant less than 15 cents. And for $2.50, you could buy 2 LITRES at the grocery store. Alcoholic beverages have a similar overhead.
2. Choose an appetizer as a meal. It's likely less expensive and just as yummy!
3. Split/share. If you are splitting an entree, some restaurants may charge a split fee. Also consider sharing an app or dessert.
4. Order from the lunch menu or order the lunch-sized portion if available.
5. Utilize sites like Groupon and Living Social. Each routinely offers discounts at local restaurants for about 50%. If you aren't familiar with these "daily deal" sites, they offer a deal or two each day that you purchase for a pretty big discount. The next day, you print a certificate that can be printed and used at your local establishment. Be aware to check for various restrictions including expiration date or whether the certificate must be used all in one visit.
6. Check out Restaurant.com. This site also offers dining certificates. Check out what's available in and around your zip code. Usually, the certificates are $10 or $25 and can be used on a minimum bill of $20 or $35, respectively. Be sure to check the fine print for whether alcoholic beverages are included and whether dining in is required. Restaurant.com often also has sales for up to 80% or 90% off its certificates.
7. Look for coupons in the paper and the phone book. This is not as common as it used to be, but occasionally you might find useful dining coupons here. Also, the Sunday coupon circulars sometimes include dining coupons.
8. Check online. Sites like Valupak may have local printable coupons available. Also, restaurants may offer their own printable coupons. Here's a good place to start.
9. Entertainment books and other local coupon books.
10. Sign up for restaurant email lists and birthday clubs. Recently, I knew I was going to Carraba's for dinner. I looked online, signed up for their email list and got a coupon for $5 off.
11. Holiday-time gift card deals. Often, restaurants will offer a promotion around Christmas where if you purchase say, $50 in gift cards, they'll give you an extra $20 in gift cards. If it's somewhere you eat often, or would if you were getting a good deal, then this might be a worthy investment.
12. Gift cards from rewards programs or credit card points. Both Starbucks and Panera have rewards programs. Also, you can earn points from sites like MyPoints which can be exchanged for dining gift cards.
13. Gift card swapping/selling sites. There are sites like Plastic Jungle where you can buy (and sometimes swap) gift cards at a discount of 10% or more. If you eat at chain restaurants a lot, this might be an option worth looking into. It's not a huge savings, but 10% is 10%!