No one willingly spends more than they need to – and meals out are no exception. The good news is that there many ways to push your money further when eating out - both at the restaurant and even before you leave home.
CUT YOUR COSTS BEFORE YOU HEAD OUT
Get the timing right
Timing is often everything when it comes to cutting costs when dining out. If you’re flexible, you can eat at some great restaurants quite cheaply.
Some of the best restaurants offer diners a chance to sample their style and their special dishes with a cheaper, two-course fixed price menu at lunchtime.
If it is an evening meal you are after, take a look at restaurants that offer a pre- or post-theatre menu, as it is often cheaper than what's on offer during peak hours.
What’s more, how much you save depends not only on the time of day, but the time of the week too.
For instance, some eateries will off midweek specials with discounts as much as 50% in an attempt to entice customers to dine on slower nights.
A good time to look for deals is on Tuesdays and Wednesdays as these days are typically the slowest nights of the week for restaurants.
Be a loyal follower
While social media can feel like an overload of friends' updates, family portraits and holiday photos, it can also serve as a tool to save money.
Bargain hunters after a cheap meal should follow their favourite restaurant on Facebook and Twitter as many post exclusive deals and coupons, so check these sites before heading out the door.
Many restaurants offer great deals and coupons for newsletter subscribers too. These tend to be free to sign up to via email and are run by large chains such as Pizza Express, Wagamama and Gourmet Burger Kitchen.
Once you're on a company's mailing list, you'll get details of special deals and exclusive previews sent straight to your inbox as soon as they are launched.
Join the club
Signing up as a member to chain restaurants’ loyalty clubs can save you a lot of cash on eating out.
For instance, at Nando’s diners earn one Chilli stamp every time you spend £7 or more per visit. Collect three, six or ten chillis to earn free meals.
If you are a dim sum fan, worth a look is the Ping Pong loyalty scheme where you can collect points with every visit and redeem to buy food or cocktails. You will receive 2 points for every £1 spent. Pick up a loyalty card at any London Ping Pong; you can also request a card when you register online.
In a bid to get away from paper loyalty cards, restaurant chain Giraffe offers a virtual loyalty card, just scan the special codes to fill your cards and reap the rewards. What’s more, the family chain also offers double stamps when you visit on the first Monday of every month.
Collect a stamp every time you spend £20 or more and when you have 5 stamps you will be entitled to 50% off food on your next visit.
Party like it’s your birthday
Your birthday only comes once a year, so why not make the most of it and dine out for free during the whole month at many restaurants? All you need to do is hand over your email address. If you are worried about spam, set up a new free email account just for these messages.
For instance, sign up to the birthday club with Frankie & Benny’s for a free main meal, while TGI Fridays offers you and six guests free desert or a round of cocktails. Sign up with Las Iguanas and receive a voucher for a free main course during the week after your birthday.
Make reservations online
Websites such as opentable.co.uk, 5pm.co.uk and lastminute.com specialise in discounts at thousands of restaurants across the UK. Typical deals are two meals for the price of one, 50% off the bill or a free bottle of wine with a meal. Just book a table online - you might have to download and print off a voucher - and off you go.
Using a money-saving app on your smartphone is one way to reduce your bill. Vouchercloud, for instance, uses GPS technology to pinpoint offers and discounts nearest to you – wherever you are in the UK.
Just pick the offer you want by pressing the redeem button and the voucher is delivered directly to your phone screen. The restaurant staff will scan the bar code or input the reason code to make the necessary discount.
Keep multiple loyalty cards on your phone by downloading Zwallet. With this app, you can also redeem vouchers from Myvouchercodes.co.uk and join loyalty schemes at the touch of a button, offering you instant access to rewards and bonuses.
Make the most of supermarket schemes
If you regularly use a specific supermarket, you probably already have a loyalty card that gives you points to spend on your purchases. If you spend these points on groceries, stop now, as there are ways to get more from your points. Tesco's Clubcard points, for instance, are worth three to four times more if you use them to get Clubcard Deals restaurant, pub and cafe vouchers.
For instance, just £15 worth of vouchers would give you £60 to spend on meals out at chains such as Prezzo, Pizza Express, Strada and Chimichanga as well as independent local eateries.
Cash in on kids deals
Who said there’s no such thing as a free lunch? Some restaurants offer free meal deals for kids.
For instance, children under the age of 10 can get a small carvery for free one for free when dining with an adult on Sundays, while kids can eat for free every day before 5pm at pub restaurants Table Table.
Go undercover to save
Big restaurant chains use mystery-shopping companies to keep staff on their toes and ensure the food, customer service and premises are up to scratch. What’s more, you often get free food in return for your time.
Become an assessor with the Mystery Dining Company and you could cover the cost of a meal you and a partner or even a whole family.
According to Moneysavingexpert.com, you don't need any previous experience to apply; just good written English, a camera (to take a picture of receipts) and access to the internet so can file a report by noon the next day.
If you're accepted as a reviewer, you can choose assignments from a regularly updated list in your area and you could complete as many as 20 shops a month.
Savings for commuters
If you are working very long hours, chances are you don’t get out for midweek meals that often. But that doesn’t mean that you must pay over the odds for grub on the go.
Commuters who sign up for a free Bite card will save 20% off food and drink at stores in railway and coach stations such as Burger King, Camden Food Co., Upper Crust and Millie's Cookies. To register visit www.bitecard.co.uk.
WAYS TO SAVE WHEN AT THE RESTAURANT
Bring your own bottle
Want to save as much as half of your bill the next time you go out for a meal? Why not try a BYOB spot and bring your own wine?
Some charge a corkage fee of anything from £1-£15, so check before you go. Just remember to chill your white wine, beer, or sparkling wine so it is ready to drink when you arrive.
Find a restaurant in your local area that allows you to take your own booze here.
Chose your tipple carefully
If you opt to buy your booze at the restaurant, bear in mind that cheapest is does not always mean best value.
Many diners order the second-least-expensive bottle on wine in an attempt to avoid looking cheap. Knowing this, restaurants place the highest markup on that very bottle.
Watch out for staff that verbally list wines in a certain order to encourage diners to choose a more expensive bottle. Here they bank on the fact that you will be unable to remember the first two choices and, so as to not look rude, will not ask to have them repeated.
What’s more, servers who keep filling your glass may be trying to sell another bottle by timing it so that the bottle is empty in the middle of the meal, so you are likely to order another – and this can soon add up to a hefty bill.
Tap in to savings
Reduce the amount you spend on beverages and opt for tap water over a bottle of costly still or sparkling.
Establishments that serve alcohol are now required by law to give customers free tap water - so don't be shy about asking for it. Some restaurants charge more than £3.50 for a bottle of mineral water, so frequent diners who eat out once a week could save almost £200 a year by switching to tap.
Don’t get caught out double tipping
When it comes to paying the bill, it is often up to you if you choose to leave a gratuity. However, a growing number of restaurants some will include the service charge in the bill total, while others will also leave a space on the bill – or give you the option on the chip-and-pin machine – to add a service charge, meaning you could be caught double-tipping.
Bear in mind that if you have pre-dinner drinks in the bar you will be billed separately from your meal, which may make you feel obligated to tip both of your waiter and bartender.
Make no bones about a doggy bag
Doggy bags are part and parcel of eating out in Canada and the US. So why are UK diners often too embarrassed to ask for them? If your eyes are bigger than your stomach, love your leftovers and ask to take them home.
Wagamama, for instance, offers doggy bags at its 100-plus UK locations if diners request one, and even the more upmarket eateries such as Wahaca and the Gaucho restaurants are willing to assist.
Figures from Wrap show that the weight of three double decker buses is wasted in food per restaurant per year and a third of this comes directly off diners' plates. With this in mind, there should be no stigma attached to taking home leftover food – and it will save you money on lunch the following day.