Eating out at restaurants can be an expensive habit or an economical one, depending on your expertise in the bargaining department. In an economy as annoyingly dismal as this one is, why spend any more money than you must?
Keep the following tips in mind the next time you’re in the mood to be wined and dined.
1. First and foremost, get happy. Seriously, have you ever studied happy-hour menus where you live? Even if you don’t drink, it still can be worth it to do a little sleuth work and find the best happy hours in your area. Many of them offer dirt-cheap drinks and food — even at really swanky places with fabulous views. Why not go there at the right time of day and spend $5, instead of the gazillions you might spend eating dinner during the peak dinner rush? In addition to happy-hour deals, many restaurants offer special deals that aren’t listed on their menus, and it never hurts to ask about them before you place your order. You typically can find the best deals Monday through Thursday.
2. Call ahead of time to seek out discounts. Children and senior citizens often qualify for fantastic deals at restaurants. Remember to seek out special sections for children or seniors on the menu, and find out whether the restaurant offers special price deals or free meals for kids on certain nights of the week. Also, remember that many restaurants offer early-bird specials for people who show up while the night is still young, typically from 4 to 6 p.m. These menus can really come in handy and help you avoid big dinner bills when you’re vacationing as a family.
3. Check reputable coupon-code sites. Restaurant meals may not initially strike you as something that could qualify for the kinds of coupon codes you can find on the Internet, but don’t be fooled: There are deals to be had. To find a coupon code, you can simply do a quick Internet search for the name of the restaurant that interests you. That can lead to frustration sometimes, though, because you’re likely to stumble upon codes that have expired. Codes are regularly verified and updated on CurrentCodes.com and DealHunting.com. Other sites that are worth checking include include FatWallet.com, CouponChief.com, CouponMountain.com, Rather-Be-Shopping.com, RetailMeNot.com and SlickDeals.com. (When browsing by category on these sites, click on “Food” or “Food and beverage” if you can’t find a “Restaurant” category.)
Important note about coupons: Remember, this economy is hard on everyone — including your server. Even in flush times, if you use a coupon, be sure to tip your waiter or waitress based on the full bill price, not the reduced bill price.
4. Remember good, old-fashioned paper coupons, too. Carefully peruse your mail, local newspapers, the Yellow Pages and area magazines for good coupons, especially two-for-one deals. You also can buy books of restaurant coupons that are valid for one year, but be sure to flip through the book first. It won’t be worth your money if you don’t like any of the restaurants or deals offered.
5. Pretendyou’re a tourist. Another great place for finding coupons that can be truly mind-blowing is your local visitors’ bureau. Swing by and pick up publications packed with special discounts and coupons for tourists. Locals can always take advantage of these deals but often overlook them.
6. If you simply want to go out on the town, you can have a blast at one or more great restaurants without actually ordering dinner anywhere. You could order coffee or a drink and an appetizer or dessert at one or more expensive cafés or restaurants or dark, romantic bistros. This is a tried-and-true way to have a fun night out and savor the atmosphere without emptying your wallet.
7. Order water with your meal and save a bundle on beverages. It’s one of the healthiest drinks you can opt for, and you can always ask to have a twist of lemon or a slice of cucumber added for free. If you want a drink-drink, just plan to have a nightcap at home for pennies on the dollar — literally.
More from TODAY.com
TODAY's Takeaway: Autistic boy's alternative therapy, worst layover ever
What you missed TODAY: Autistic boy wants to keep his chickens, man suffers through worst layover ever and Tyler Perry is ...
- Kanye West says he risks life like cops, soldiers
- Susan Boyle among those who find autism diagnosis a relief
- 'Sesame Street' spoofs 'Lord of the Rings'
- 'Friday Night Lights' producer: No new movie
- TODAY's Takeaway: Autistic boy's alternative therapy, worst layover ever
8. Go out for lunch instead of dinner. The same meal can cost 50 percent less on the lunch menu than at dinnertime. If you’re on a budget but still want to go out, make a lunch date with a friend. Depending on what you order, you can bring part of your meal home and have dinner that night and/or lunch for the next day.
9. Check out the combo meals. Combination meals can cost less than several a la carte items, even at fast-food restaurants. Still, do the math first to make sure you’re truly getting a good deal.
10. Visit a new restaurant. New restaurant owners and wait staff are usually eager to provide quality service and special deals at decent prices so they can develop a base of steady customers. Get in early and be treated like royalty.
© 2013 NBCNews.com Reprints