Just the other day I pondered whether eating out would save me money instead of buying groceries and cooking at home for just two people. The comments I received were a mixed bag; many comments from single people or couples without kids agreed that maybe eating out could be more cost effective. A few mentioned freezing the excess self-prepared food and eating it later, but that takes time and planning something; I haven’t had a lot of lately (oh, and did I mention I don’t cook?)

But if I could save money eating out, which would be more cost effective: eating at a sit-down restaurant or a quasi-fast food joint that offers healthy meal options?

My husband and I wondered this ourselves as we sat down at Chili’s the other night. Chili’s is a chain restaurant that’s definitely middle of the road when it comes to its menu and quality of food choices. It’s not fancy by any means and markets itself as a bar/restaurant. We normally sit in the bar for dinner since it’s much quicker than being seated in the “family” section. Sharing a meal and ordering water as our beverage (because who wants to pay over $2 bucks for a soda?!) our bill came to a little over $12.00. But then we realized we needed to leave a tip! As a former waitress during my college years, I can’t scurry out of a sit-down venue without leaving a decent tip. Per person our meal cost $7.50 per person, not too bad.

Getting out of there for under $16.00 was still a great deal, but right across the street was The Habit, a quasi-fast food joint that offers some similar meal options; mainly burgers/chicken sandwiches and fries. Guess what we ate at Chili’s? We shared a chicken sandwich and fries! We had an epiphany as we were adding the tip onto our Chili’s bill; We could have eaten a similar item at The Habit for less and wouldn’t have had to leave a tip. Does this make us cheap or frugal thinking this way?

Of course McDonald’s would have been even cheaper, but the quality of menu items isn’t comparable to Chili’s or The Habit in my opinion. Next time we decide on a delicious burger and fries, I think we’ll head to The Habit, but not before remembering to bring our own drink! (or settle for water).

How do you save money eating out? Do you drink water or bring your own drink to save a buck or two? Am I a cheap b@st@rd or what?

30 Comments

  1. We almost always order water to drink when we go out. One thing you should remember, though, if you do this, is that you should tip on the amount that you would have spent on a comparable beverage. Since the waiter/waitress still has to go about serving and re-filling your water, it’s only fair that they don’t take a financial hit. In the end, this should add about $0.30-$0.40 cents per water drinker, which is still a good savings versus the $2 soda.

    • @Money Beagle – I’ve never thought about this, but thanks for clarifying the tip per beverage amount. I think I still tip pretty well, but maybe I now need to think about the missed amount on a beverage!

  2. I receive frequent flier miles at the restaurants, many have loyalty programs and they are part of my frequent flier dining network. I also use restaurant.com for coupons too.

  3. We save more by dining in, but we also keep our eating out to $15 or less per meal. A normal meal at home is about $5-$6 for the two of us ($3-$4 for the meat and $1-$2 for our sides). We usually eat out about 2-3 times a week and eat all other meals at home (breakfast, Smart Ones or Lean Cuisines for lunch, and 4 dinners at home). And yes, we get water as our beverage too. πŸ™‚

  4. When we go out for dinner we usually get pizza. $13 for our family of 4. can’t beat that. I pretty much consider any sit down/ get waited on restaurant to be fancy. haha.

  5. We haven’t shared a meal. However, a local group of restaurants was having a promotion buy $30 worth of gift cards and get an $8 bonus coupon. I purchased $90 worth of gift cards…It is like getting a free meal.

    • @Super Frugalette – That’s a great idea. That would also work great for my husband and I since we share meals, it would be like getting two free visits!

  6. We share a meal in lot of restaurants (it depends on the restaurant, some restaurant we just can’t feel full by sharing. We skip the fries too). But the main thing that saves us money is getting gift cards during the holiday season promotion for all the restaurants we regularly go it. We still have not run out of money and as the waiter doesn’t know how much we paid for the gift card we usually get better service than using restaurant.com vouchers.

    • @Suba – Do you ask for gift cards to restaurants ahead of time or does you family just know that’s what you want? That’s a good strategy I’ll need to keep in mind as the holidays start rolling around again. πŸ˜‰

  7. Sounds pretty clever to me. We have a chili’s and although it’s a decent restaurant, the setting isn’t worth double the price compared to The Habit…

    Good observation!

    • @Money Reasons – I totally agree! And that’s exactly how my husband and I started discussing this idea – the Habit is just about the same ambiance as Chili’s!

  8. $16 is good, but you’re right, if you can get the same quality for less, why not visit the Habit.

    We try not to go out unless we have a coupon or some other form of discount. I love restaurant.com and Groupon. It is a great way to try a new restaurant at a substantial savings.

    • @Melissa – Back in January we were doing really well with our coupons, even for restaurants. As the year has progressed, we’ve gotten lazy about that.

  9. I have to admit I’m not frugal enough in my restaurant choices. I rarely order water, but then I rarely eat out. My hubby and I prefer to order in if we don’t feel like cooking: less than $20 can get us a few meals worth of pizza or Chinese food. Plus we can drink whatever we want πŸ™‚

  10. We have a couple of quasi-fast food places (as you cleverly called them) around where we live, one Chinese and one Mexican. The takeout from them is reasonably good compared to some sit-down restaurants. And yes, we had the same thoughts as you on the tip. Color us all cheap.

  11. Nah not cheap, just money efficient! Nice tip about the water tip. No soda here, cheaper and healthier. Good point about comparing to the Habit. Try breaking down how much time and money it would have taken if you actually made that meal.

    • @Buck Inspire – If I factored in the time it takes to grocery shop and prepare a home-cooked meal, I’m guessing the restaurant is cheaper (if I keep it under $16 for two!) I’ll have to take this into consideration from now on. πŸ˜‰

  12. Interesting question. I have wondered about this because I always eat only about half of the plate at the restaurant and then have a second meal (sometimes a third meal!).

    • @Amanda – I guess if my husband and I didn’t share a meal, I’d be taking half the meal home for left overs. It’s rare when we want different things, but it does happen.

  13. Sometimes eating out here is cheaper than cooking at home, but lately, I’ve been cooking at home and freezing the excess. We do eat out maybe 4 times a month at a cheap restaurant (like Vietnamese noodles for $6 a bowl) and maybe once a month at a more expensive restaurant, like $15 per person).

    However, because of the HST (our restaurant bill is taxed at 12% now instead of 5% a year ago) eating out has been a LOT more expensive.

    • @Young and Thrifty – Whoa! A 12% tax for eating out?! That doesn’t cover the tip, does it? That would definitely make eating out less affordable.

  14. We usually just drink water as well unless we really want a beer or wine. πŸ˜‰
    We share a meal once in a while if we know the serving is large, but usually we order our own meal.

  15. I try to cook during the week and usually cut myself a little slack on weekends, and when I do go out, it’s to the “quasie-fast food” places, and I do like them. Fast and very little clean up, usually cheap as well.

  16. i’ve never really thought about it too much. we don’t go out to eat that often so when we do, it really is a treat and as long as we stay within budget, we can get whatever we want. we did used to frequent a local burger place where kids ate free but they did away with that promotion. it’s a shame, too, because their food is awesome!

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