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Dining Out: 5 Tips to Save Money

In these days of high energy prices and higher grocery costs, you may wonder if there are any ways to make the cost of dining out a bit more affordable. That too, seems to be getting more prohibitive -- by the minute -- in terms of price. Well, there is some good news for you... if you are perhaps willing to work just a bit to accomplish a less expensive meal when you head out to a restaurant. It's not really work, but getting anything done more inexpensively today requires that you spend some time doing a bit of research.  Believe me, it can pay off!

Dining out

1 - Dine When Others Don't

This is almost a no-brainer, but Fridays and Saturdays have always been the nights to dine out. If you have ever tried to get a last-minute reservation or simply just go without one on one of these nights, I'm sure you'll know what I mean. The results are no fun. So why not go out on one of the nights that are typically slow at many restaurants?

Many venues offer specials on both meals and beverages on typical off-nights during the week. A little snooping and these nights and specials are easily located. (For the Fox Valley area, you can check out this event calendar for weekly restaurant specials.) By the way, for those diners with families, there are numerous places that offer discounted or even free meals for the kids on these nights as well. And, if you can find a way to combine these nights with either the Entertainment Book or an OpenTable reservation -- or both -- (see Tips #4 and #5 below) you're now working on a triple-whammy!

2 - What Comes With It?

Before you blindly walk in to a new restaurant for dinner, take a moment or two to look online and see if a menu is part of the website of your intended destination. If so, see what is included with the price of the dinner.

Many restaurants have entree prices that seem expensive... until you notice that the entree comes with soup, salad, main course, veggie and potato -- sometimes even dessert. Others offer only the entree -- the rest is a la carte... leading to a much-inflated check at the end of the meal! If an online menu is not available, make a quick phone call to find out. It just might save you enough to have that special dessert after all!

3 - Use Frequent Diner Reward Programs

Many programs are available -- Mileage Plus (United Airlines) for instance -- that will reward the dining member with miles or points once a credit card is registered and then used at specific restaurants that are also registered in the program.

TGIFriday's has a Rewards card and Hilton and American Airlines also have frequent diner programs in which points are earned. Rewards are earned in all of these programs. Obviously it takes time to build points... But even if you are an infrequent diner, the points will build eventually, and the rewards are there. So why not take advantage of them?

Smartphone

4 - Use Coupons

This may in fact sound quite easy, and I suspect that many of you will say: "I already do that!" However, the days when we used to scour the newspaper for coupons should be long gone... should be that is, since more and more people are using their phone rather than their fingers to do the proverbial walking. Besides, newspapers and magazines create a lot of clutter and we often throw them -- and the coupons they contain -- out with the trash. And it is also difficult to even remember just where we put the coupons after they have been clipped.

So, online things are easier, faster, cause no mess, and are available 24-7-365! There are many places that coupons/certificates are available... all you have to do is take a moment to find them. Three easy places to start: Groupon, the Entertainment Book and Restaurant.com. Both offer pretty deep discounts. The only catch is locating the restaurants that offer these possibilities...

Restaurant.com usually has discounts of 50% or more, and the Entertainment Book offers more than 1200 dining venues in any given area, and hundreds more attractions (like movie theaters, bowling, museums, baseball and more...) -- will pay for itself after as few as two outings. Now that's some kind of savings!

Make Reservations Online

When using the OpenTable reservation service and completing the service (i.e. actually going out to dinner at the place the reservation was made), the diner accumulates 100 points. One thousand points are actually available when dining on a night when restaurants are less busy and, you can easily combine the effects of Tip #1 above with this one, to create the old "double dip" effect!

After accumulating 2,000 points, one earns a $20 OpenTable Dining Cheque, available to use at an OpenTable venue; 5,000 points will earn you a $50 cheque. (OpenTable recently added the option of turning points into an Amazon gift card!) Imagine buying a $25 gift certificate at Restaurant.com for $12.50 and making a reservation through OpenTable at your favorite restaurant and earning 1,000 points and paying for the remainder with your credit card that earns miles... all in the same night!

Regardless of any discounts, always make sure to appropriately tip your server based on the pre-tax total before any coupons are applied. View an online tip calculator.
There are only two caveats that I would offer to accompany the above tips:

First, make certain to always read the fine print. Restaurant.com offers some great deals, but often drinks are not included in the deal, gratuities are sometimes added automatically and there are set minimums required to get the deal. If you read and are knowledgeable, the offers are incredibly good deals.

Second, do your homework before you head out. Knowledge is power. And armed with some knowledge of how things work, you will be able to not only have great meals for better prices, you can save money and get a handsome reward to boot. Bon Appetite!