How to Eat Out, Save Money, and Not Fall for Restaurants' Mind Tricks

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CRJ3GM Couple examining menus in restaurant  couple; examining; menu; restaurant; business; business; carte; du; jour; scrutiniz
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Restaurants rely on more than ambiance and the aroma of your favorite foods to get you to spend. They favor tricks to appeal to your mind -- to get you in the door and push your bill higher.

Restaurants hope that we don't realize it, but a lot of energy goes into developing menus. They focus on every detail -- layout, font, color scheme and so much more -- every aspect designed to entice us to spend more money.

For example, have you ever noticed that many restaurants don't put dollar signs next to prices? It's similar to why casinos make gamblers bet with chips instead of real money. Dollar signs make us mentally associate numbers with a real cost. Leaving them off subtly makes us feel that the number isn't associated with quite so high a price.

Most menus in national chains do not list food and prices in a straight vertical line down the menu. Customers can compare prices too easily this way. Instead restaurants often offset them from one another. It's little tricks like these that force customers to work a little harder to understand and compare costs.

Mind Your Portions

Watching your portions can do more than help you keep your weight down -- it can help you conserve your budget too.

American restaurants continue to serve ever larger portions. Of course, with these increased portion sizes comes an increase in the price.

The worst thing that a consumer can do is simply ignore the fact that portions are excessive. You have to have a plan. Will you take half of your meal home with you? Split it with a dining companion? Or should you simply look for a smaller alternative? Your wallet and your belly will thank you for having a game plan and sticking to it.

Don't Fall For 'Free' Gift Cards

I am a sucker for restaurants that offer deals if you buy their gift cards. You typically see these offers around the holidays or special occasions. Many restaurants offer a free additional $10 gift card if you purchase $50 in gift cards.

While that's technically a nice deal -- about 17 percent off that $60 worth of food and drink -- there are downsides. First, are you really going to use those gift cards? How long will they sit in your wallet? And, if you do spend them, will that mean you ultimately go to the restaurant more often than you would have if you didn't have a gift card burning a hole in your pocket? Might the "deal" cause you, in the end to spend more than you otherwise might have?

It is easy -- and common -- to spend more money per trip when you are using a gift card or credit card instead of cash. McDonald's (MCD) found that customers' average transaction sizes rose significantly when it started allowing the widespread use of credit cards at franchises in 2003. Mentally, it's easier to justify and seems less like real money. It is a lesson in behavioral finance.

'Loyalty' Only Goes One Way

It seems like a good idea to sign up for restaurant loyalty programs. They often give away free food or drinks after a certain number of purchases or on your birthday. A recent report from Colloquy, a research branch of LoyaltyOne, a global loyalty program design and implementation firm, found that only 44 percent of consumers are active participants in loyalty programs they sign up to use.

It's important for you to understand what loyalty programs really are -- a tool for tracking your purchases and shopping behavior. This allows restaurants and retailers to better focus their marketing efforts on you based on your spending patterns. And loyalty cards also lure you into spending more money. They induce you to shop more in order to receive more rewards.

Skip the Emails and Daily Deal Websites

I am a sucker for Groupon (GRPN) and daily deal websites. I have signed up for many companies' email newsletters to know about the latest sales. Companies inundate me with offers and coupons daily directly in my email inbox. I am tempted to buy more with an email every day and buy more items than I really need.

The same is true with restaurants. Be careful which restaurant email newsletters you sign up to receive. You will be tempted to go to that restaurant more than you may otherwise have gone.

Do you fall for these restaurant tricks? Do you find yourself spending more at restaurants than you have in years past? How do you combat these mind tricks that restaurants and retailers are using against us and entice us to spend more?



Hank Coleman is a financial planner and the publisher of the popular personal finance blog Money Q&A, where he answers readers' tough money questions. Follow him on Twitter @MoneyQandA.

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