By David Bakke, MoneyCrashers
In today's rough economy, people are finding ways to cut back, and entertainment budgets have taken a hit. What this means is that people aren't eating out as much as they used to. But if your family really likes to dine out, there are simple ways to reduce your tab without giving up the experience entirely.
1. Skip the appetizer. Since most restaurants offer some form of free munchies to start off your meal, there's no need to tack the cost of an appetizer onto your bill. Simply chow down on free bread or chips, and you can cut out the appetizer expense entirely.
2. Order water. I like ordering water with my meal for a few reasons: it's free, healthy, and allows me to enjoy my food better. I don't like to affect the flavor of my dish by washing it down with a sugary soda or iced tea. Just make sure you specify tap water or else your waiter is liable to bring you bottled water, which definitely isn't free. For a family of four, this can reduce your bill by $10 or more, especially considering tax and tip.
3. Have an after dinner drink at home. If you like a glass of wine or beer in the evening, let this be your dessert, so to speak, when you get home. The markup on alcohol at restaurants is atrocious - you can buy a bottle of wine or an entire six-pack at the liquor store for what a restaurant charges for just one or two drinks.
4. Pass on dessert. Again, while the options offered up at your local eatery are sure to be tempting, they're also very costly. If you want to finish off the night with a sweet or two, pick up a gallon of ice cream at the grocery store and eat your dessert at home.
5. Use deal of the day websites. Many of the discounts offered at daily deal websites, such as Groupon and Living Social, are for restaurants. If you look regularly, you might find restaurant deals and discounts up to 80 percent off. Just make sure you read the fine print for any restrictions and exclusions, and keep in mind that virtually all daily deal vouchers come with expiration dates. Also, most featured restaurants are typically lesser-known establishments in your neighborhood, which means you might find a new favorite eatery to enjoy on-the-cheap!
Lastly, while saving as much as you can when dining out is important, skimping on the tip is not the way to go. Most servers live off their tips alone, as their hourly wage isn't substantial. If you use a coupon, tip on what the amount would have been. The percentage you decide to tip is up to you, but these days, 18 to 20 percent is respectable if everything went well.
What other ways can you think of to save at restaurants?
David Bakke is a former restaurant manager who now writes about saving money and staying fit on the blog, Money Crashers Personal Finance.