Dining out is still considered by many one of life's luxuries: no prep-time, no dirty dishes to clean up, and no menu to plan. Unfortunately, it can also be a vacuum for your monthly food budget. While the restaurant industry continues to feel the effects of less-disposable income among consumers, this puts you in the driver's seat as they try to gain new customers via promotional techniques. Here are 10 ways to use their promotional avenues to save money on your next meal out:
Dine mid-week. Stay away from dining on weekends if possible. To entice customers to dine on slower nights, many restaurants offer mid-week specials that can save you up to 50 percent off your entrée. Typically, these specials occur on Tuesdays and Wednesdays--historically shown to be the two slowest nights of the week for restaurants.
Early-bird specials. Dine before 6 p.m. and take advantage of the early-bird special. While these specials are typically associated with the elderly, they are available to all consumers and offered at many dining establishments. These specials are also a great way for families with young kids to save money and still be home for bedtime.
Dine at the bar. A number of restaurants offer a special bar menu that is considerably cheaper than the regular menu. If you are dining alone or "with the guys," this is an especially useful money-saving tactic. Also, many restaurants offer a happy hour period every afternoon, which includes drink specials and appetizer deals.
Have a snack first. While this tip alone may not save you money, it will help prevent the condition of your eyes growing bigger than your stomach. Grabbing a light snack before you head out to dinner can curb the desire to order a huge meal.
Share a large entrée. Take advantage of big portions by splitting one with a dining companion. Additionally, many restaurants offer a "Meal-for-Two" special of, say, frajitas--an order guaranteed to save you some money.
Expensive drinks. Be aware of the high costs of specialty beverages, as they can easily cancel out the savings you get from strategies like dining early, coupon usage, or the splitting of large entrees.
Dine out for lunch. On average, lunch menus are 25 percent cheaper than dinner menus. Oftentimes the lunch menu is similar, with the only difference being portion size. If you have the flexibility to dine at lunch it can save you some substantial money.
Discounted gift cards. Mid-priced restaurants are becoming more and more promotional in recent years in an attempt to get customers in the door. Some chain restaurants, for example, are directly discounting their gift cards as a backdoor way of lowering menu prices. Keep an eye out for offers like a $100 gift card discounted to $80.
Get social. Follow the Facebook page or Twitter feed of your favorite restaurants and eateries. Many post exclusive deals and coupons, so give these social media outlets a quick glance before heading out the door.
Use coupons. Your ability to find a discount or coupon directly depends on you taking the initiative to search the Internet or your local newspaper, so spare a few minutes to search for a restaurant coupon before dining out. After all, there's no sense paying full price on your next meal when a free coupon is available for the taking.
Kyle James operates a website called Rather-Be-Shopping.com, which offers a free iPhone coupon app loaded with dining coupons to dozens of nationwide restaurants, bakeries, and fast-food establishments.