Family and home

Family dining out on a budget

9490029104_066911291e_zAround July 4th of this year, our local HuHot had a buy one, get one offer on meals. This, being one of our favorite fast-food establishments, was a great deal. If you are unfamiliar with the venue, it is a Mongolian grill that caters to any diet, and has fresh veggies and meat of all types.

It’s a buffet, so, it’s not cheap. Well, not by any kind of budgeting standards.

I mean, you could justify the cost by knowing that you can go up for seconds, however we rarely do. We also could justify it since we sometimes get our food as takeout (which you cannot takeout if you eat in). Takeout usually lasts us a couple of days, but even then, it’s still difficult to justify the cost, especially when trying to be economically reasonable.

Many sites recommend that if you are on a budget, dining out should be one of the first things to go, and I generally agree with that. My family and I have been eating out a lot less due to meal planning and various budgeting efforts.

However, sometimes you want to have that extra treat, you feel like being waited on, you are already out and about, or you just want to.

I get that.

So, how do you save money on those times you decide to do a little dining out?

1. Use a coupon

Although I still find some restaurant coupons in my local paper, I’ve found that coupon sites such as Living Social and Groupon, or an online coupon aggregate such as Yipit brings me the best coupons at prices that are budget friendly. The problem here is that to save money most effectively, you must stay within the limitations of your coupon. For example, a current ad list $30 for $15. I pay the fifteen (with a fifty percent discount!), and go to the restaurant. Of course, once you are in the door, the upselling begins, and there are times where I want more than the thirty allotted. Of course, I do save money with the coupon, so that is always great. However, spending 45 at the restaurant still leaves me at spending thirty… and that may not be the best thing — depending on my allowance for the month. The best thing I’ve found using coupons is that I often get to visit an establishment I would never have thought of going to, and in some cases, wouldn’t have found on my own.

2. Review the online menu before going

Most sites have their menus online so you know what to expect before you even step foot in the door. How much would you normally pay for that steak? Would it be prudent to get some appetizers and just share those? Is the food really worth going out?

3. Find resources that show you when kids eat free

Do a search on Google with your city’s name, and the words “kids eat free”. Chances are you will not only find a few restaurants where kids eat free, but you may even find full lists with many restaurants on one page, or a website that can keep you up to date with the free eateries in your area. National restaurants almost all have a day where kids eat free.

4. Join their mailing list

How did I know about the buy one/get one at HuHot? I’m a member of their email mailing list. Although you may receive many emails with ads and specials, you will sometimes come across a coupon. Add to that the fact that many restaurants give you a free meal on your birthday through their mailing list. What a great way to celebrate your special day than going to your favorite place to eat.

5. Get alerts

Add a Google alert to notify you whenever something hits the Internet with the restaurant coupon of your choosing. In the case of HuHot, my alert is simply: “HuHot coupon”. If it is a local restaurant, be sure to add your city. Also, try to use Google’s search operators to narrow down your search, where applicable.

6. Mystery shop

Find a legit mystery shopping company through http://www.mysteryshop.org/ , and conduct a review of a restaurant, and get reimbursed for your meal. Although all shops won’t all you to take your children, they almost always allow you to take someone else with you. Keep in mind, however, that you must pay up front for your shop. Some companies allow you to use a coupon at the same time as conducting a survey.

7. Keep and check your dining out budget

If you are keeping a budget, be sure that you are recording every penny spent towards dining out and making sure it counts. My favorite app for this at the moment is Mint. Mint is a personal budgeting app that has read only access to the accounts you grant to it, and helps you setup and maintain a budget. However, a simple spreadsheet would work equally well… but, you would lose any convenience of things being automatically added for you.

Ultimately, to save money dining out:

  • Dine out only when:
    • You have a coupon
    • You are mystery shopping
    • You can share a meal across multiple people
    • It is a special occasion
    • You can stay within your budget