By Ruth Bushi, an editor at Save the Student – the UK’s largest student money advice site.
Food you haven’t had to cook yourself or scrape out of a jar always just tastes that little bit better! If you’re on a budget, you might think that leaves you with schlepping to the kebab shop or phoning your mum – but dining out without destroying your Student Loan or pay cheque can be done.
A few tweaks to your everyday spending is an easy way to save up for a splurge but, even when cost isn’t a concern, there are always options to get more bite for your buck. Why pay more?
1. Sniff out the offers
Following restaurants on social media or via newsletter is the easiest way to have loyalty offers sent directly to you – keep an eye out for treats for signing up, too. Otherwise, check newspapers and voucher sites for special offers.
The golden rule: if there’s no give in your budget, be flexible and follow the offers rather than fixating on a particular day, time or venue.
2. Take cues from the venue
Restaurants like to get diners in and out early, so flexibility pays. Lunch menus are usually cheaper, and come with an added bonus: it’s harder to booze through a pay cheque in the middle of the day! Alternatively, look for Happy Hour or pre-theatre menus – both should have cheaper plates from the main menu, with the proviso that you clear off before the evening rush. If it’s peak time or nothing, check for a set menu, which at least gives you a fixed price for one, two or three courses at a discount.
3. Get a discount card
If you’re a student (or you’re with someone who is) you’ve got a ready-made discount! Not all restaurants do them, but it’s always worth asking.
Next try: Tastecard, a discount dining scheme that lets you claim 2-for-1 or 50% off at 6,000 restaurants around the UK. Membership usually costs £79.99/yr, but grab it during one of the frequent trial offers and it can cost as little as a quid. It can take a bit of planning, but if you regularly eat out as a group, you could even rotate trial periods between you for year-round savings.
4. Make the most of your birthday
You only get one (legit …) birthday a year, so make the most of it! Some birthday freebies are tied to the venue’s newsletter or loyalty scheme, so sign-up in advance. Otherwise, mention your birthday while booking and ask what they’ll throw in. Treats vary, but you could be looking at free bubbly, a slice of cake, or money off your bill.
Want the food but not fussed about the tablecloth? See if you can have dinner delivered or collected: it’s usually the same menu but cheaper without the overheads. If you’ve got a real hunger, there’s always the buffet option: it may not be posh nosh, but it’s a good standby.
There will always be times when only the best will do – and that’s OK! Cutting back on takeaways or putting a tenner in a jar every month can help you spread your costs. Once you get there, there’s also an argument for ordering (and really savouring) the nicest stuff you can afford: you can always buy spag bol from the supermarket, but a gold-leaf cappuccino is a one-off!
6. Cut your restaurant bill
Whether or not you walk in with coupons and discount cards, you can make savings at the table, too:
- You might think being ravenous will mean you really enjoy your food, but you’re more likely to end up hangry and over-ordering.
- Booze massively inflates your bill, so either pre-drink or stick with soft options. Some venues will let you bring your own bottle (BYOB), but check in advance for corkage charges.
- Share starters or desserts. If you’re drinking, jugs or bottles for the table will work out cheaper, too.
- If a restaurant serves alcohol, they have to provide free tap water. So if that’s all you want, ask for it – don’t order drinks ‘just to be polite’.
- Put any loyalty points or stamps you’ve been collecting towards a free dessert, drink, or anything else that knocks a few quid off the bill.
- Know where you stand on service. If it’s already included in the bill, leaving a tip might be overkill. But if things weren’t great, you might want to negotiate the service charge or not tip at all.
- Can’t finish your dish? Get a doggy bag! There’s no sense sending a meal to the bin if you might fancy polishing it off later.
7. Tackle the shared bill
Dining out with friends and family can be brilliant, but it also has the potential of resentment over that time you didn’t have a dessert but Karen from accounting had half your chips. Sharing the bill usually works out cheaper or roughly even stevens in the long run, so it’s a good tactic for group saving. If not, or money is really tight, don’t be shy about speaking up or paying your own way – we’re just talking dinner, after all, not trial by jury.
There are tons of tricks for shaving down restaurant bills but the one you can’t beat is simple forward planning (and a bit of persistence). Give it a go next time and see how you fare.