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How to Stick to a Budget When Dining Out

By splurging strategically, you can still dine out while sticking to your budget. Crystal Paine, author of The Money Saving Mom’s Budget: Slash Your Spending, Pay Down Your Debt, Streamline Your Life, and Save Thousands a Year, shares how.

• Look at the Price First. Instead of looking at the menu and deciding what you want to eat and then looking at the price and deciding whether or not you can afford it, start by deciding what your budget is for your restaurant dinner and then look at the prices to figure out which menu items are within your range.

• Use Coupons. A coupon for a free entree when you purchase another can definitely save you a nice chunk of money—especially if the restaurant has entrees priced at $10 or less. Also, look for coupons for 25 percent off your entire bill. has the latest printable coupons available for restaurants nationwide.

Two Ways To Get Gift Cards for Cheap—or Free!
1. Buy Them at a Discount. You can purchase discounted gift cards online from,,, or eBay. They are typically discounted by $5 to $10. It’s not much, but it can stretch your dollar just a little further.

2. Earn Them for Free. you can earn free gift cards through and Swagbucks gives you the opportunity to earn points toward gift cards and other prizes by doing web searches, watching videos, filling out surveys, or taking polls. You can also earn points by referring others. You can earn points toward gift cards from by reading emails, placing online orders through their website, printing coupons, and more.

• Look for “Kids Eat Free” Deals. If you have children, go to restaurants where children eat free with a paying adult. Some restaurants offer this all the time, others offer it on select evenings. allows you to search for kids eat Free deals in your local area. You can also Google your city name and “kids eat free” to see what it brings up. Call your store ahead of time to verify they are offering free kids’ meals with an adult purchase as deals may change or vary from location to location.

• Order Water. Water might be boring, but choosing it over other drinks at a restaurant can save you a big chunk. reader, Lorie, says: “If your family of four orders water instead of $1.99 soft drinks and you go out to eat once a month, you will save around $96 per year. Add in the extra 15 percent tip you’d pay for the soft drinks and you’re saving over $100 each year just by ordering water!”

• Go Out for Dessert or Coffee. When we were living on a really tight budget and eating out was a very rare occasion, we loved to have bookstore dates. I’d earn a $5 gift card to a local bookstore through (usually from reading hundreds of their daily points-earning emails) and then we’d go out and browse books and split a fancy coffee. It felt so extravagant and yet it cost us nothing out of pocket! A few years later, when we weren’t quite so poor, we started having weekly dessert dates. We found a sit-down restaurant that sold delicious and generously portioned desserts for just $5. We’d split one and could eat out for under $10, including the tip. We’d go the hour before closing so that we weren’t holding up a table during the busy dinner hour rush. It was so leisurely and luxurious to have weekly family date nights at a sit-down restaurant, but we were able to do it quite economically.

Short on Cash? Have a Loose Change Date!
During our first few years of marriage—when money was extremely tight—we put any extra pennies, nickels, or dimes into a change cup that we kept in our kitchen cupboard. When we were feeling particularly burnt out and in dire need of a pick-me-up, we’d take the change cup to the bank and exchange it for dollar bills. you know that money was tight because usually after a year of putting in our extra pennies, nickels, and dimes, all we’d have would be around $7 to $8 collected! but that $7 to $8 could mean we could rent a movie at the dollar movie store and get dinner at a fast-food restaurant with coupons. And you know what? A little splurge like that often did the trick to reinvigorate us on our frugal journey.

• Learn to Love the Dollar Menu. The Dollar Menu is every frugal family’s best friend! Should I admit that we know exactly what each fast-food restaurant in our city has on their Dollar Menu? And it’s always a sad day if they decide to move something from their dollar menu and start charging more than a dollar for it! We love that we can go and get a treat for everyone (we usually tell the children that they can have any one item they’d like to choose off the dollar menu) without making much of a dent in our Eating Out cash envelope.

• Sign Up for Birthday Freebies. If you haven’t taken advantage of all the wonderful freebies available on or around your birthday, you are completely missing out! You can get free ice cream from multiple places, free meals from a number of different restaurants, and more. Now, of course, these are only a good deal if you don’t bring the whole family and blow the budget while you’re getting your free birthday meal! My two favorite birthday freebies are the $5 gift card from Jason’s Deli and the free drink of your choice from Starbucks. (You have to register a Starbucks card to get this, so be sure to do so if you earn one from or someone gives you one as a gift!) you can find an extensive and frequently updated list of birthday freebies to sign up for at

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