During tough economic times, consumers can (and should) cut back on eating out. Simple math shows that the cost of eating out is probably anywhere from 3 to 10 times the cost of eating the same food prepared at home. But eating out is still a nice treat from time to time, so you probably don't have to cut it out of your budget completely.

Restaurants are feeling some economic pain too, largely in response to increased food costs. Menu prices increased almost 4% in 2007 to reflect increasing costs, so plan on spending more than you used to when eating at a restaurant.

Here are a few tips from SmartMoney.com on saving money when you eat out... One easy (and obvious) tip is clipping coupons for dinners out. With the restaurant industry feeling the pinch, more and more are offering bargains with coupons, so choose wisely and look for discounted dining or "buy one, get one free" meal offers.

Keep an eye out for specials too. It's often much cheaper to dine out for lunch than dinner. And restaurants often run specials for mid-week dining in an effort to get more customers through the door. Forgo dining out on the weekend, and take advantage of midweek specials at your favorite restaurants.
You an also join dining clubs, which work like typical rewards programs at retail stores. After you spend a certain amount with the restaurant, you receive a gift certificate toward a future meal. This makes sense if you have a favorite restaurant that you frequent.

One creative way to save money on dining is with the clever use of gift cards. Some restaurants run specials on gift cards, taking a discount off the face value when you buy it. The restaurant is offering the discount as an incentive for you to buy, because gift cards guarantee them business and cash in hand. But there's no rule against buying these discounted gift cards and using them yourself (instead of giving them as a gift). You can often save 10% or more on your meal this way.

Eating at restaurants is a complete waste of money, but is a favorite recreational activity for many Americans. So even on a budget, you may still be able to eat out from time to time if you're willing to be a bargain hunter

Tracy L. Coenen, CPA, MBA, CFE performs fraud examinations and financial investigations for her company Sequence Inc. Forensic Accounting, and is the author of Essentials of Corporate Fraud.

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