We insist upon discounts for groceries, hotels, gifts, and just about everything else we buy. After all, spending your money wisely is one of the reasons you come to WalletPop as often as you do. But what about eating out? How can you save when you're on the business end of a napkin?
Let's round up some of the primary methods and compare them.
Some credit cards give you money back for purchases. Nearly 8 out of 10 of us select credit cards based on the rewards that come with them, often in the form of cash back or frequent flier miles. But you're unlikely to get more than 3% back for purchases. That's not even a sixth of a fair tip.
Even then, you have to keep on top of which places are eligible, because they change regularly as your credit card company rotates its partners and incentives.
There's a classic trap in credit card rewards: buying something because you earn points or miles for it. Spending money to save money is not savings. If you wouldn't have spent the money otherwise, then you haven't really saved anything.
Do you pay your credit card balance off in full every month? Then you're the only type of person who should be using credit card rewards as a regular way to save money on meals. For people who pay off their balances every month, credit card rewards are like free money, and they're the best coupon deal because they cost you no extra outlay. But it's unlikely that this describes you. Because if you pay anything at all in interest on credit card debt that you owe, you've lost that money you saved at the end of your fork.
Think about it. If you save $15 on dinner because of rewards points, but that month you pay $75 in credit card interest, you've really lost money on that rewards card. And let's not forget that cards with good rewards programs often come with higher interest rates. So you're paying a second way, too.
How are the returns? Some Capital One cards, for example, give you 2 points for every dollar you spend at a restaurant. One of the rewards from its MasterCard Business Rewards Catalog is a $50 gift certificate at Landry's Seafood house. That costs 5,000 points, which costs you $2,500 to accumulate.
That's only $50 for $2,500 of spending. Always poke around the rewards values of any credit card you're thinking of applying for. Consider it found money only if you were going to spend that $2,500 anyway. Otherwise, you'll find the rate of return isn't very good -- nowhere near coupons.
Even if everyone paid off their balances each month, rewards still cost us money. How? Interchange fees are paid on every credit card transaction by your merchant's bank to the people who issue your card. They vary, but they're generally a few percent points of your transaction. The better the rewards on your card, the more likely the higher your interchange fee is. That fee goes to fund your rewards, so technically, the merchant has to raise his prices slightly higher to make some of that money back. In a sense, we're all paying for rewards through higher sticker prices.
Some restaurant reservations websites also offer rewards. If you make reservations using OpenTable.com, typically you might earn 100 points, unless there's a special promotion going on. Then when you reach 2,000 points, you get a $20 voucher. That's free money as long as you were going to eat out anyway.
Then there's that old student fund-raising standby, the Entertainment coupon book. They're promoted as having some $17,000 in savings all for the price of an annual book that costs around $35 (but as cheap as $21 if you get it online).
That dollar figure is a trick, because it's only true if you blow the bank using every single deal in food, shopping, and attractions. Zero in on the casual dining, fast food, and fine dining options. A typical Entertainment coupon will let you get 20% off your food bill -- if two people spend $40 together, that's $16 saved. Do that twice and you've already paid for the book.
For me, the catch is I've never heard of most of the restaurants listed in there. There also seems to be a preponderance of frumpy fast food and Indian restaurants that are sometimes desperate for business -- often for a good reason -- and maybe they're even boarded up by the time you get around to visiting them. Rarely are the Entertainment books good for the romantic night out you probably really want to save on.
Some of the coupons really stink, too, like just $5 off at Planet Hollywood if you spend at least $20. You're going to spend a lot more than that eating there if you want more than a couple of appetizer plates. You can preview a few of the places in the book at entertainment.com. Maybe they'll be to your tastes, but they're not to mine.
Check these two sites, too: Groupon.com and LivingSocial.com. They offer temporary deals for half-off restaurant meals (for example, you pay $20 for $40 worth of food) but those gimmes are not offered every day, so you can't always rely on them. Still, a 50% payoff is worth waiting for, don't you agree?
GrubHub.com, available in seven major American cities, is for restaurants near you that deliver. You can click a box that limits your local search results to "Has Coupons" and then click the "info" tab for each restaurant to see what those deals are. Mostly they're typical, like 20% off if you spend $25 or more. Not bad if you can get a coupon for where you wanted to eat anyway. And you don't have to leave home.
All you'll need is a printer and an appetite.
There are some other tricks. Join the birthday club of your favorite restaurant, or if they give free dessert or appetizer on anyone's birthday, go then. But it's only good for one day a year, it's usually only good for one small part of a meal, and sometimes, it's only good for kids. Still, it's free, even if you have to sign up (and give away your name and e-mail address) for a club to get it.
If you live in Los Angeles or New York you could check out a new deal site called BlackboardEats.com, which sends subscribers a deal alert via email to a specific restaurant in town, usually on the higher end. If you like the deal, you have 24 hours to get your promo code, and a month to redeem it at the restaurant.
Many cities also have organized Restaurant Weeks, when the best kitchens in town offer deals on prix fixe lunches ($20 to $30) and, sometimes, for dinner, too. They always fall during pre-announced weeks on the calendar, sometimes as often as twice a year, so there's plenty of time for you to hit a bunch of places during the run. It's a fantastic way to get a discount gourmet meal at a place you normally couldn't afford.
Lunch could cost you $60 or more at some of these places, but during Restaurant Week, you're getting it for two-thirds off. And the restaurants don't look down their noses at you for being a cheapskate -- they're participating because they want to show off to new customers. (A huge list of areas that have their own Restaurant Week appears below.)
At Restaurant.com, you can buy "gift certificates" (okay, they're really vouchers) good for a certain dollar amount of food, at much lower rates. For example: The restaurant 5 Ninth, in Manhattan, charges $10 for a voucher worth $25. In that case, as long as you buy two entrees, you subtract $25 from the bill, but you only paid $10 for the honor. Instant $15 savings!
You just go to the site and search around your neighborhood for which places are offering deals. Then you buy your restaurant-specific voucher for the price listed. Paying $4 for $10 (both are 60% savings) vouchers or $10 for $25 vouchers are standard on Restaurant.com.
In most cases, a minimum purchase of $35 is required for the coupon to take effect. Do the math. You buy $40 in food, but deduct $25 = $15. But you paid $10 for that voucher, so you really pay $25 for $40 in food. Split between two, that's $12.50 each instead of $20 each. You've saved nearly 40%.
But remember, that's before tax and tip. You are expected to tip your server based on the real price. That platter isn't lighter just because you used a coupon for it!
It does feel a little cheap to have to walk in and announce you're there with a coupon. But don't fall for Coupon Shame. The restaurant is participating because it wants you there. Just make sure the waiter knows you're going to tip him or her properly, and everything will go fine.
The deals may have some exclusions, like no Friday or Saturday nights, or no Lobster Specials for you. But not always.
There's another danger: Sometimes you tend to order more than you normally would. "Sure, let's get wine! After all, we have $25 off!" To really save, you have to be as frugal as you normally would be, even if you know you've got a discount coming.
Frequent flier miles
Here's what isn't cost-effective: using frequent flier miles for meals, which many major carriers, like Delta and United, allow you to do. (United uses Restaurant.com anyway.)
For example, United gives you one $25 Restaurant.com voucher for 2,000 miles. Sounds good, but we just learned those cost only $10 each if you buy them with cash. So you're really getting about $40 back for the 2,000 miles you had to work to get. That's a rate-of-return of just 2%. (You can also get just one certificate for 1,000-- a 1% rate of return!)
If you have a lot of miles racked up, that won't make a difference, but you get a better rate of return if you use the miles directly with the airline to book a plane ticket -- a round-trip costs about 25,000 miles and saves you the entire cost of that flight, barring luggage.
And whatever you do, don't buy airline miles just for the restaurant reward. United charges $99.50 for 2,000 miles... even though those same miles only get you Restaurant.com certificates that would have cost $40 in cash.
In a twist on the "mileage-dining" game, some credit cards, such as the United Mileage Plus Visa card, give you reward miles if you dine at one of its registered restaurants and use the card to pay the bill. So while you may not get anything off on the meal, you may find your frequent flier balance suddenly 500 miles fatter. Keep in mind you have to register for these programs, though; see your frequent flier credit card's web site for details.
The bottom line
Deals which require a credit card or mileage program to use are naturally going to be of lesser value because there's a middle-man siphoning value off what you've earned. Their rate of return isn't the best.
Better to go with coupons issued by the restaurant itself. For everyday value, I pick Restaurant.com, not least because it lets you choose the places you'd like to go. But for those times of year when it's Restaurant Week, there's no better way to get gourmet for cheap.
There is a hidden danger in all of these methods: They entice you to go spend money at a restaurant when you might have stayed home and cooked for yourself. But if you love eating out, and you were going to do it anyway, they're great ways to save.
Cities/areas that have Restaurant Week include:
Bethesda Chevy Chase
Hoboken and Jersey City
Long Island (and The Hamptons)
New York City
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