My friend Carmen, who’s been known to pull folded bills from her bra to pay for dinner and dip a spoon into a smuggled carton of sour cream at a Mexican restaurant, taught me a lot about dining out on the cheap.
While I’m not one to bring in outside food, I’ve learned a thing or two about how to have a good meal at a restaurant for well under $10. Initially, every time Carmen and I went out to eat and paid our separate bills, mine totaled $12 to $20. Her bill was more like $5 to $6.
“How can your bill be so cheap?” I’d ask.
“A la carte,” she’d reply.
That was the first trick I learned: To stop ordering combo platters with an entree, rice and beans at a Mexican restaurant when I can load up on free chips and salsa before the main course. Carmen and I went out for Mexican food every week, and I could easily get two tacos, drink water with the meal, and still leave a reasonable tip, all for under $10.
Even better, on Mondays and Thursdays, our favorite restaurant had buy-one-get-one-free tacos and enchiladas, so a great meal and a good time cost around $5, including a tip. This tactic doesn’t apply to only Mexican restaurants, though.
You can go out to breakfast with your friends and get one huge $5 pancake that fills you up just as much as everyone else’s $12 omelets. The idea is that you don’t have to eat like this is your last meal ever. Also, you don’t have to simply order whatever combination the restaurant offers. Ordering ala carte is the way to go for those who like to dine out on the cheap.
But there’s more than one way to get a good deal on lunch or dinner. One of my favorites is finding out which restaurants offer specials and then planning your dining experience with that discounted meal in mind. For example, here are some weekly specials at restaurants close to my home…
- Monday: 3 tacos for $4.50 or $1.75 each
- Tuesday: Chicken A la Mer with shrimp and crab parmesan cream sauce, veggies, rice and bread $5.25 (half price)
- Wednesday: 2 for 1 gyros
- Thursday: Spaghetti with salad and garlic toast $8.30
- Friday: Half a barbecued chicken $3.99
- Saturday: 3 tacos for $2.95
And those are just the ones I know about. Admittedly, they’re not the healthiest foods but all of these specials allow you to get out and socialize with friends at least one night a week for around $6 or $7 total. You could even have a beer with your tacos and still stay under 10 bucks.
Here are a couple more suggestions:
- Take a few minutes to flip through those coupon envelopes and flyers that come in the mail. I find great deals in there all the time, and it’s not always fattening, salty food. One of my favorites is $2 off a Wendy’s salad, which makes a healthy lunch for around $5. Another frequent coupon is for “buy one burger, get one free” at one of my favorite restaurants.
- Sign up for restaurant e-mail and birthday lists. You’ll get free food and coupons for your birthday, and you can always set up a special e-mail account just for restaurant e-mails so you don’t get bombarded. Then you can check it any time you’re in the mood.
You don’t have to be a hermit cooking macaroni and cheese at home every night just because you’re trying to chip away at some debt.
While only the boldest diner can pull off Carmen’s uninhibited bra-stash, with a little restraint, research and careful restaurant choices, you can still dine out at least once a week for next to nothing.