How to Cut Your Food Spending – Scaling Back on Eating Out

For those looking to cut back on their spending, eating out is a prime target.  While there are some people for whom eating out has become a lifestyle, we all know that it is totally optional!  This post will help you find ways to cut back on how much money you spend on eating out as well as get more for the money you do spend.  Planning in this area will pay off big time in forestalling buying convenience food or take-out or over-ordering at a restaurant.


As in the grocery spending reduction post, the tips herein will fall into three broad categories:

  • don’t eat out
  • cut back
  • spend less


People who prefer abrupt, drastic change should start at the beginning of the list and work toward the end and people who prefer slow, gradual change should work from the end to the beginning.


Don’t Eat Out


You don’t need to eat out.  Ever.  Stick to groceries and use the spending-reducing strategies I outlined to keep those costs down, too.  I don’t mean to say that you can’t go out I often go to restaurants and bars with friends and abstain from ordering anything.  (This doesn’t take as much willpower as you might think.)


I believe that eating out as an occasional treat is a part of a balanced budget, and I have no qualm with people who are meeting all of their financial goals and choose to outsource cooking and clearing up.  But if you aren’t meeting your goals or are in debt, I think Dave Ramsey’s “you don’t see the inside of a restaurant unless you’re working there” is on the more realistic side of the spectrum.


Try an eating-out fast for a month – resolve to spend zero money on food cooked outside your home.  Invite friends over for food or find ways to see them that don’t involve food.  Brown-bag your lunch, even when eating with coworkers.  Recapture the special-ness of eating out!


Cut Back 

employing the salad+appetizer strategy


When you do choose to eat out, there are a myriad of options for ordering less expensive food.


  • order an appetizer or salad instead of an entrée
  • order a la carte instead of a combo dish, eliminating the components you don’t want
  • skip the alcohol
  • actually, just stick to water
  • split food with your dinner companions
  • don’t order appetizers or desserts
  • choose less expensive dishes such as vegetarian, pasta- or rice-based, pork or chicken
  • ask for half your dish to be packed up before it’s served to you to take home (at least you defray the cost of a second meal)
  • meet friends for coffee or dessert instead of an entire meal


Spend Less


An option less dependent on deprivation is to simply pay less for the food you would have ordered anyway.


  • use daily deals sites (Living Social, Groupon) to find coupons for restaurants you planned to patronize anyway
  • buy gift certificates from to restaurants you frequent to get $25 of food for $10 (or for about $2 if you find coupon codes)
  • buy a coupon book for your city
  • participate in mobile check-ins (Foursquare)
  • eat at off-times and order from a prix fixe menu (e.g. Sunday night)
  • go out during your city’s Restaurant Week
  • “Like,” follow, or subscribe to your favorite restaurants for birthday deals and promotional coupons
  • go out for lunch instead of dinner to restaurants with lunch portions/menus
  • pay for yourself only – don’t split checks evenly with your companions or pick up someone else’s meal
  • patronize restaurants with free or reduced-price meals for kids on certain evenings
  • order take-out instead of dining in and save on extras, drinks, and tip
  • student discounts!


What’s your favorite tip for cutting your eating out budget?  Have you gone through a period when you at out quite rarely?  How do you use restaurant deals and gift certificates without inducing additional spending?


References: Money Saving Mom, PT Money, Money Talks News


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40 Responses to "How to Cut Your Food Spending – Scaling Back on Eating Out"

  1. Emily too says:

    Sensible tips! We both really love eating out, particularly for dates, and our city has an awesome restaurant scene, so we try to maintain some balance and make eating out really worth the money. Balance-wise, if a friend wants go out for a special occasion, or we want to go somewhere nice for an anniversary or birthday, we’ll make more of an effort to eat at home for a couple weeks before and after, because that’ll be more than we’d usually spend. In terms of making it worth the money, if friends just want to order takeout to a bar or go somewhere we’re not very excited about, we’ll usually have a drink but not order food because that seems like a waste of an eating out opportunity. We almost never eat out just for convenience, it’s always a planned “special” thing, and take-out seems like all the spending and none of the excitement. For pricier special-occasion places, Restaurant Weeks and prix fixes are very worth it, too.

    That’s all just basic, sensible stuff though – not so much not spending money as not spending your whole paycheck principles! Where we could probably use some work is not over-ordering, as you point out. I was better at that back in college, wonder what happened!

    1. Emily says:

      I really haven’t taken advantage of the food scene in Durham as much as I should have. I’ve been out to three nice restaurants this summer (paid by my department) and ordered off their prix fixe menus and the food was just wonderful. We should save up our eating-out dollars to go to these types of restaurants more.

      I agree that eating out is special and if the occasion doesn’t warrant it (not excited about the establishment) just don’t eat! If you avoid over-ordering you can probably eat out 50% more often than you are now. 🙂

      1. Emily too says:

        Yup! We’re pretty good at not over-ordering at expensive restaurants (where we go probably 3-4 times a year), but if a place is cheap we aren’t as good about holding back.

        And department meals are the best, take advantage of those all you can! My department doesn’t do them with students but my husband’s does, seems like a chance to live large 😉

  2. Nick says:

    YES!!! I’m a former restaurant guy, so you know I’m biased, but I’m with you on avoiding restaurants to get your finances in order for sure! That was the biggest expense cut when my wife and I got our act together.
    Nick recently posted..Extreme debt repayment: where’s the line?

    1. Emily says:

      Haha glad to know I’m not too extreme for some!

  3. Daisy says:

    But I like eating out!

    haha, in reality, eating out is a big part of my “fun” budget. I don’t like cooking in the kitchen we have, and I enjoy it, so I won’t be cutting it out of my budget anytime soon. Plus, entertaining at my apartment? Not fun.
    Daisy recently posted..Universal Health Care – What It’s Like

    1. Emily says:

      As long as eating out fits into your budget, that’s fine! This post is geared for people who are struggling to find ways to reduce spending in that area.

  4. Great tips – we dont have groupon/living social deals where we live, but usually use these when eating out. Our main strategy is to not eat out, but that doesnt really work well when you dont have a kitchen. We’ve been getting better, but still spending too much eating out. We are close to having a stove though!
    Jeff @ Sustainable Life Blog recently posted..Measures for making a home secure

    1. Emily says:

      Our main strategy is not to eat out, too. I hope you at least have a microwave or toaster oven while you’re without your stove!

  5. bogofdebt says:

    We try not to eat out too much. Basically it has to fit into our date budget. And as that is limited, we’ve learned a few tricks to keep it at a low cost. I stick to water normally and we split any appetizers if we order them at all. We’ve found by ordering a appetizer we normally won’t eat the entire meal so we ask ourselves if the main dish is something we’ll actually eat at home warmed up. If not, skip the appetizer. If so, we’ll split one.
    bogofdebt recently posted..Spending Recap 8/6-8/12

    1. Emily says:

      That’s a good point about ordering food that reheats well if you know you can’t finish it all. Last time we went out we got fried seafood and that wasn’t so great the next day!

  6. Great tips! I have definitely been eating out a lot more than I used to over the last few months. I need to get back into the habit of cooking – it’s just so easy to fall out of it and then take the lazy option of eating out. When I do eat out, I always try to save half my meal for lunch the next day at least so I don’t have to go out for lunch but all the meals still add up. Thanks for the motivation to do better at this!
    Young Professional Finances recently posted..The Next Two Months

    1. Emily says:

      There is a lot of momentum either way with cooking vs. eating out. If you know you have produce and meat waiting at home you’re a lot more likely to eat in!

  7. Modest Money says:

    I used to be so bad about wasting a ton of money on dining out. There are just so many good restaurants around here. It was a particular problem when I lived downtown within walking distance of a lot of restaurants.

    For me I had to gradually phase it out. Quitting cold turkey just wouldn’t work for me. First I downgraded to very few expensive restaurants and then shifted down to mostly just take out. Now I rarely go to restaurants.

    Now I’m starting to date again though. So it is pretty tough to avoid. I definitely wouldn’t go to a restaurant without ordering anything at all.
    Modest Money recently posted..Advanced Keyword Strategy For Your Blog

    1. Emily says:

      Perennial debate: Do you use a coupon/gift card on a date?

      1. Modest Money says:

        I think with me it depends on how early in a relationship it is and how hard I’m trying to impress them. With some girls it just seems more comfortable using coupons. I probably wouldn’t use one on a first date though.
        Modest Money recently posted..Mid August 2012 Favorite Blog Posts

  8. Justin @ The Family Finances says:

    My wife and I eat out maybe once a month. My wife loves to cook, and she’s really good at it. Most of our meals at home are restaurant quality anyway. When we eat out, we almost always have a coupon, and I always order water. But I don’t skimp on the tip. Using a coupon is being frugal, but basing your tip on the discounted total is being cheap.
    Justin @ The Family Finances recently posted..Dirty Laundry: Revisited

    1. Emily says:

      That’s wonderful that your wife is such a great cook! I’m pretty mediocre but investing in a cooking course or something is a great idea to keep us eating at home.

      I totally agree on your point about tipping!

  9. My eating out comes and goes in waves. I’ll go a while with no interest in it, but then I’ll get in moods where I have no desire to be in the kitchen. Just this past Saturday, the idea of reheating leftovers seemed like too much work so we went to Golden Corral.
    Edward Antrobus recently posted..Trying to Get a Raise is Overrated

    1. Emily says:

      We have Golden Corrals near us too and have been a few times. Kyle likes to eat A LOT. If you want to cut back on that spending area, though, maybe you can find a little room in your freezer for some oven-ready options?

      1. Actually, my appetite has decreased a lot over the years, and especially after my gallbladder was removed last year. Buffets aren’t as good a deal as they used to be.
        There are usually some quick meals ready to go, but I was so wiped Saturday that not eating seemed preferable to pushing some buttons. I was actually the same way yesterday and that time I just skipped dinner all together!
        Edward Antrobus recently posted..Procrastination is Bad: Mm’kay?

  10. IdaBaker says:

    I almost never eat out, and love cooking at home, hence my website. That way it’s easy to save money.
    IdaBaker recently posted..Healthy Pinto Bean Oatmeal Raisin Cookies

    1. Emily says:

      Do you bake foods that other people would typically buy?

  11. jefferson says:

    we hardly ever eat out… maybe once every few months as a family.. and once or twice a month at work (for about ~$5/meal)..

    no doubt it saves us a ton of cash each month, and no doubt we eat much healthier and much more appropriate portions as a result.
    jefferson recently posted..The Job Interview Question That Is ALWAYS Asked: “Are there any questions that you have for us?”

    1. Emily says:

      You guys are very minimalist on this front! Do you think that will change substantially when you’re out of debt?

  12. We don’t eat out very much at all right now- maybe once a month. This is mostly because our kids are little- ages 3 and 1- and it’s a giant pain to try to keep them happy at a restaurant for too long =)
    Holly@ClubThrifty recently posted..My Bucket List – What Being Debt Free Means to Me

    1. Emily says:

      I’m glad you haven’t succumbed too much to the take-out trap or something similar, then! It’s nice to have a very low-spending category that you haven’t actively tried to cut back in.

      1. You know what’s crazy? My daughter has only been to McDonald’s 2 or 3 times (all when we were driving across the country to see my in-laws) and she can point out the golden arches everywhere we go. She will say, “McDonald’s! Can we go?” It’s crazy. That just shows how powerful their marketing to children is.

        Yeah, Not to sound snobby but most fast food is disgusting. I will eat an occasional baked potato and cup of chilli from Wendy’s and that’s about it! It’s just gross.
        Holly@ClubThrifty recently posted..My Bucket List – What Being Debt Free Means to Me

        1. Emily says:

          I don’t like fast food either. Kyle used to have a fast food budget category but “we” eliminated that soon after we got married.

  13. Heather says:

    While it’s not only driven by saving money, avoiding menu items with meat is the cheaper way to go!

    1. Emily says:

      I prefer to order meat when I eat out because I can get types and cuts of meat that I wouldn’t buy for home. 🙂

      1. Emily too says:

        We save a lot on our grocery budget by avoiding cooking meat at home, so unless a restaurant has interesting and varied vegetarian options (like at my favorite southeast Asian place), I’ll usually spring for a meat dish. Even if the vegetable pasta is $3 cheaper, if it’s something I could easily make at home, what’s the point of going out for it?

  14. Savvy Scot says:

    It does make a heck of a difference not getting take out food or eating out. We did a fast for a month and have continued to do so (or almost) since!
    Savvy Scot recently posted..The Sunday Review – Top Posts of the Week

    1. Emily says:

      I love the fasting approach because it’s psychologically easier to tackle but usually results in lasting behavior change! Great job!

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