So last year we had a plan up our sleeve when the New Year started. We had many lofty financial goals, but we enjoy the little things in life, like eating out.
But eating out hasn’t always been our friend. In fact, eating out was one of our debt pitfalls. It’s an embarrassment to say, but no matter how low our bank account got, we still went out to eat. And that meant that the bill piled onto our credit cards to contribute to the over $100K ($108K to be a bit more exact) load of our consumer debts.
Eating out had really become an evil nemesis. But we enjoyed a dinner out here and there. So as we implemented our 2×2 plan, we budgeted for eating out.
Our eating out budget has varied through the years, mostly due to a growing family. But a couple of years ago, it looked like this:
Eating Out (one of our favorite luxuries)
- 2014: $160 per month
- Date Nights $60 mo.
- Alex lunch with clients $20 mo.
- Mom and Kids lunch outs on field trip days $35 mo.
- Family Meals out $45 mo.
- 2013: $200 per month (this adds up to $195, with a $5 buffer)
- Date Nights $80 mo.
- Alex lunch with clients $35 mo.
- Mom and Kids lunch outs on field trip days $35 mo.
- Family Meals out $45
- 2012: $200 per month (no change)
- Lowest in our budget history: $40 a month
So when we hit 2015, we wanted to try something new. We would “keep” our $160 per month eating out budget for a family of 8, but we wanted to try and beat the system and beat it well…that was to eat out for nearly nothing! Basically….eat out for FREE!
I know I am telling you about this so late – I mean we are over 2/3rds way into 2016 and I am just now telling you about our year of eating out for nearly nothing from 2015. Trust me, I have SO much I want to share that the list is super long. But this came to mind today again when we’ve been sticking to our same rule the past couple of months – that is eating out for nearly nothing. So I thought it was time to share it!
This is important to understand before we begin telling you about our free eating out year… we still tipped and tipped well (minimum 18%, but we try to hit 20% unless there was a blatant reason not too). And we didn’t tip on the discount, we tipped on what the bill would have been despite the discounts. This is important. Discounting your tip is rude and unfair to the wait staff who are working hard just like you! Regardless of your eating out discounts, please consider still tipping on the full amount. In most cases, our tip exceeded our bill!
Now while our goal was to eat out for free…we were about 80% successful. But it does have caveats and I will explain where the other 20% factors in later.
One of those caveats was that while at the actual restaurant, our goal was to have the smallest bill possible for our family of 8, or sometimes just the two of us. No matter who was eating out, the goal was to pay nearly nothing! Again, this was successful about 80% of the time.
What it doesn’t mean is that it was completely free! We had some “before we hit the restaurant” expenses and that is where the cost is factored in, but our little experiment meant that we ultimately dropped that $160 eating out budget to less than $50 a month! We also didn’t eat out at many fast food restaurants. Most all of the restaurants were sit-down. In fact, the only fast food restaurants we ate out at were Subway, Panda Express and Chick-Fil-A. We ate at each of these just a couple of times throughout the year.
The sit-down restaurants we ate at most were the chain restaurants like Chili’s, Outback, Olive Garden, Red Lobster, etc. There was an occasional local restaurant visit, but not often. Why? Because most of the restaurant discounts are for the chain restaurants.
Another caveat is that we only ate out once every other week. This was not every meal. It was only for our already budgeted and planned eating out trips, which is not super often.
The other caveat is that if we were invited out to eat with friends, for work, with family for a family celebration, we tried to use many of the tricks below, but those eating out trips were not as low because we didn’t have as much control over them. But overall, it was an incredibly successful eating out year!
So here’s how we ate out for nearly nothing all year:
Step #1 – Discounted Gift Cards
Grabbing gift cards for a discount before heading to the restaurant is one of the smartest ways to drop your eating out budget quick. But it’s not just the discount, it’s the rewards for referrals too!
For the past several years, we have purchased all of our discounted gift cards through CardPool. We’ve bought dozens of gift cards, mostly restaurant cards. We’ve never had a bad card.
What is CardPool – it’s a place where people sell their unused and unwanted gift cards. They get paid up to 90% for selling their gift card to CardPool. CardPool turns around and sells these gift cards (after verifying the values, etc.) for a discount. Most retailers discounts are like 5%ish. But Restaurants have a higher discount. Like 10-20%. And then they will have sales on these for up to 24% off!
But it’s not just the trick of buying the card at 24% off, there’s a few ways I STRETCH this too.
With CardPool, when you tell your friends about their discounts, you get a $5 referral code for each friend that tries Cardpool (plus your friend gets $5 off their first order). This is a coupon code that you can apply towards a discounted gift card. I receive about four referrals a month – this is $20 in referral credit. How do I use this?
Well, I would use it on the restaurant gift cards with the biggest discount at the time. That is usually 18-24% depending on stock and the month.
Then I would go in and buy the lowest amount gift cards which would either be $15, $20 or $25. I would buy two of the lowest to the same restaurant. For each gift card, I could apply two $5 credits to each gift card, no matter the value. This means I would get $10 off a $15 card or $10 off a $50 card (note that this was 2015. In 2016, they now only allow you to use one referral credit on each card for $5 off, but it is still an amazing plan to eat for nearly free). And since I receive about four referrals per month, I can get two cards for $10 off the discounted price per month, using it for our once a month family meal out. Months that I happen to have more than four referrals, I would usually buy Subway gift cards to keep on hand as this is one of the only fast food restaurants we eat out at that everyone has something they are able to eat and we can eat on travel too.
Let me show you how this works numbers wise using an example like Applebee’s:
Let’s say Applebee’s is the discounted gift card PLUS additional sale gift card of the month at 24% off (as this is this month’s extra-discounted offer).
This makes a $25 gift card $19. I would add it to my cart at $19.
Then I would apply two $5 credits for $10 off total = $9 for $25 gift card.
I would repeat this again for a total of $50 in gift cards that I paid $18 for.
That’s step #1. 🙂
As a side note, we love, LOVE CardPool’s electronic gift cards. In 2015, we mostly waited and used the physical gift cards, but this year without such a strict plan, if we decide to go out to eat last minute – I can hop on CardPool and look for the best restaurant discounted gift cards, apply my $5 referral coupon code and checkout. A few minutes later, my electronic gift card is in my inbox. I print it off and off to the restaurant we go for INSTANT SAVINGS GRATIFICATION!
Step #2 – Free Gift Cards
Okay – so I shared with you my trick to get a monthly supply of discounted (deeply discounted) gift cards. I take advantage of these opportunities whenever I can and stock up on gift cards. That way when we say, “Hey let’s go out to eat!” We start making the decision by checking our stock of restaurant gift cards and then moving on to steps 3 – 5 for additional savings to stack with it.
So, I also cash in free gift cards. I do this a couple of different ways.
The first way is through surveys. I know that survey companies can get a bad rap because it seemingly takes such a long process to earn cash. You can earn cash, and I have but it is a bit more work and time to earn cash. And even with a lot of time and effort, you will not get rich. Period. It’s just a way to pay a bill or two by redeeming some of your down time online in a productive way. But not a job replacement.
However, I started to prefer to take surveys to earn gift cards instead of cash. In my experience, my time goes much further when I redeem my points or rewards for gift cards instead of asking for cash. I can earn faster and I can earn more. Enough for a $20- $25 gift card or two per month. I figure if I can screw around online for 20-minutes per day – I should “redeem” that time and make something of it that will benefit my family. And that’s what I do.
Add this free gift card to my discounted gift cards and I am at $75 or more per month.
How to get started earning gift cards for restaurants?
There are many survey companies around and many that have varied levels of ways to earn gift cards. My advice is to join 2-4 as the more groups you are a part of, the better chances you have of earning those gift cards.
Here’s some recommendations on ones to join that I have had success with.
Global Test Market – They are highly rated, popular and reliable. Becoming a member is easy and free!
- Just click the Get Started button on the page HERE.
- Fill out the registration form.
- You will receive a validation email in your inbox. Check your email and click the validation link as you can’t get started without validating your account!
- Head to the site HERE.
- Fill out the registration form.
- Head over to your inbox and check your email and click the validation link as you can’t get started without validating your account!
Valued Opinions – Another one that I have spent a good amount of time earning gift cards. I really like this one!
Sign-up is very similar to the others, except that there will more questions initially as they want to put you in the right survey groups.
- Head to the Valued Opinions HERE
- Fill out the registration form and answer the questions for demographics, etc.
- They too require an email validation to ensure you have registered and ready to take legitimate surveys. Just click on the link they send in your email. This is required to get started.
Toluna – I don’t have as much experience with this one as it seems to take a lot of rewards points to cash-in but I have this one in my back pocket too and have heard of others that have done well with it. So it can’t hurt to be a part of several = more opportunities.
- Head to the Toluna HERE
- Fill out the registration form and answer the questions for demographics, etc.
- Finally, like the others, you need to also validate your account by clicking on the link they send to you in your email. This is required to get started.
Tips for successful survey earnings and management:
- Use a separate email address not connected with your main email address. You will get a lot of emails for surveys. They have hundreds, to thousands daily. DON’T worry you won’t be emailed on all of them. Only the surveys that fit your demographic and interests based on the registration questionnaire.
- When you get the emails for possible surveys, apply quickly. The longer you wait to take a survey, the less likely you will be able to. Let me explain: you will receive emails based on your demographic and profile. They will send these out to everyone that has the potential to qualify based on the information you shared in your profile (like family size, interests, gender, age, etc.). However, each survey has a limit to how many can take it, but the limits are also per demographic. So they may want half men and half women in a certain age group. You will receive the initial email if you are in that age group/gender. Then you will respond to the email to see if you qualify based on a few other factors. If you do, you will move on. If you don’t you will have to try the next email that comes along (or check your account as opportunities are also available in your account). NOTE: surveys looking to fill spots for women fill up FAST, mostly because a lot of women and stay-at-home-moms are taking surveys (like me) in their “free time” at home. So the sooner you can respond, the better chance there will be an available opening for your demographic and interests.
- Redeem for gift cards, which is just as good as cash because this is the BEST value in my opinion. Cash takes a lot longer to accumulate. For example $25 cash will take longer than a $25 gift card. I redeem for restaurant or Amazon gift cards. Most of the companies will give you the option of cash or gift card.
Step #3 – More FREE Gift Cards
Another way that I get free gift cards is through Swagbucks. I have been using swagbucks for over 7+ years. Every year, I nearly pay for Christmas and earn around $50 in gift cards each month (and I have generally turned them into Amazon gift cards for Christmas, which is what I did in 2016…more on this later). But for 2015, I redeemed for restaurant gift cards instead.
This is honestly a VERY EASY way to earn gift cards. All you need is a bit of time. When I first started, it was slow, but as time went on, I am regularly building up credit for free gift cards. However, start today and a year from now you will be earning gift cards regularly instead of sporadically.
What is Swagbucks? In a nutshell, it’s an alternative search engine to Google, still producing fabulous results. Basically,I just do all of my internet browsing through them instead and get rewarded for it. We talked about this in more depth HERE.
The best news is that it is free to join, very limited information collected to be a part of it and just for signing up, you get a $5 sign-up bonus! So there you have it….$5 towards your next eating out bill. 🙂
To get started and get your $5 bonus simply sign-up through this link HERE, which only takes a few minutes. Then each day, log-in through Swagbucks before you start doing anything online, even get paid for going to Facebook! The pay you receive is in the form of gift cards, thus one way we paid for eating out that year! You will earn even more by telling others about it!
Step #4 – Coupons and Promotions
The beauty of buying discounted gift cards or earning free gift cards with the ways mentioned above is that they are treated like cash. No matter what coupons or other restaurant discounts you have, your gift card does not count for any of it. It’s just as good as cash and you can apply as many other applicable discounts that you can.
Pretty much EVERY TIME we eat out, we use coupons or take advantage of the current promotions.
Where do we find the coupons? Here’s a quick list that nearly always lends at least one coupon from somewhere:
- Verizon rewards – did you know that Verizon users have a free rewards account and you can turn points into coupons for restaurants and activities in your area? Just log-in to your online account and find the rewards section and redeem for any coupons you want.
- Entertainment Book – this is a key spot to find 50% off coupons! Most of them will be local restaurants and not chains, but there are a few coupons for chain restaurants.
- Social Media – Online by checking the restaurants websites or Facebook pages. They often will post coupons.
- Registering for restaurant email newsletters – nearly all restaurants offer a coupon of some sort if you register for their email newsletter. However note that most send the coupon in 24-hours, not immediately to avoid the “going in an hour” type of email sign-ups. So if you are planned at least a day ahead, you can get these coupons. Most are free app, free dessert, free entree, etc.
- Newspaper– the Sunday newspaper will very often have coupons for the “chain restaurants” included in the coupon inserts
- Mailbox coupons – we have a few local companies that provide coupons to local restaurants, along with the nation-wide mailer: valpak.
- Groupon and Living Social (and like companies) – again a great source for local eateries at 50% off (plus any coupon codes you can use on Groupon or Living Social on top of that).
- A quick google search – at the end of the day, one of the easiest is to do a quick Google search for any current available coupons.
- Any suggestions that you have? We would love to hear any ways that you find restaurant coupons.
Next category to discuss is the in-restaurant promotions, no coupon needed. We watch for things like:
- Birthday freebies
- Four square or “check-in” social promotions
- Bogo meals
- Gift cards promotions (especially around the holidays)
- Free appetizers and desserts
- And the MOST popular for us are the Kids eat free deals or the .99 kids meal deals.
- Rewards programs like at Chili’s, Papa Johns and Dominos (although the last two are not sit-down restaurants, they are technically eating out)
Step #5 – Creative Ordering
Finally, our last trick is being very creative when ordering. I can’t give an exhaustive list because every restaurant is different, but let me give you some ideas.
- We never order drinks. We figure that enjoying these at home for MUCH less means we get to eat out an extra few times per year. It’s a sacrifice we make and have made for many years. Saves us several dollars per bill.
- The second biggest trick is doing a late lunch/early dinner to get lunch prices and options – especially for buffet. If we go to a buffet around 2pm, we can make it a one meal day (except for breakfast at home) and then have a snack for dinner. We get the lunch prices, but it is late enough that a full dinner is not needed. But chain restaurants have much better prices until 3 or 4 pm. Again, if we want to go out to eat as a family on a Saturday, we will go at the later lunch time = less money and less people!
- Using the free appetizer coupons as a kids meal. In most cases, the regular entrees we order more than fill us up and we still frequently take food home. An appetizer merely means we are taking even more food home, so why not turn it into one of the meals for the kids?
- Kids splitting adult entrees. Kids meals at these chain restaurants are often $3.99-$5.99. A basic adult entree with merely double the food is $7-$10. We can get an adult-sized entree for two kids to share.
- Helping the kids pick foods that will fill them up!
- Picking kids meals that have actual value. One kids meal that drives both of us insane is the “Mac and Cheese.” It rarely comes with sides because it is a pasta – but most of the time, it’s just Kraft Mac and Cheese that I can make at home for pennies. We ban this kids meal from our kids. 🙂
- Getting every child (even the baby) a kids meal on the .99 or free kids meal promotions. Knowing that the baby will be fine with a few bites from mom and dad, this give the bigger kids an extra meal to share.
- Splitting the $5 burgers at Red Robin is one of our favorites – they are big burgers and kids are happy and Red Robin is always happy to split and still provide the unlimited fries.
- Choosing restaurants with unlimited tummy filler refills (like Red Robin) in the french fries or Sizzler for the pilaf/rolls/potatoes.
- Eating at the chain restaurants that provide the free food like the Red Lobster cheddar biscuits. These allow the kids to split meals easier with the free unlimited biscuits. Texas Roadhouse, Olive Garden, Outback, etc. all have these.
- We’ve also ordered the bottomless chips at Chili’s often as this is a great way to fill tummies and split meals.
- Always ordering the .99 salad add-on, even if the owner of the entree’ doesn’t want it..what I mean is that if we order entrees and we can add on salads for .99, we always do as our kids are getting bigger and often need more than a kids meal.
- Ordering food that can serve as an additional meal at home later. For example, pastas are great to add extra at home. I can take half of my chicken alfredo home and make more fettuccine noodles and add it to the leftovers for an additional meal. Although it won’t be quite as creamy with adding more noodles, it’s still incredibly delicious. We do this from the Old Spaghetti Factory quite often because they allow you to order a “double-portion” for just a few dollars more!
- Ordering large – when we have eaten at places like Texas Roadhouse or Outback, we will order the largest steak. Once you are paying the base price for the 6oz, it’s not a lot more to double up to 12oz and then take half of it home. At Outback, we have also ordered the largest steak entrees of the more affordable cuts and split between three kids. Each kid gets 8oz+ of steak. That’s a BIG meal and often just barely a little more than 3 kids meals, but they are getting a big steak dinner instead of chicken fingers. Sure, it may be a $20 entree, but divided by three….that’s about a $6.50 steak dinner for kids! The kids meals around that price are often quite pathetic.
Real Life Examples:
I know this is a long post…but it takes a lot of creativity to eat out for nearly nothing and eat well while doing so! Eating out for MUCH less is certainly something that we feel like we have a ton of expertise in. When we want something bad enough, you figure out how to make it work!
Some of our favorite restaurants are Outback, Olive Garden and Red Lobster. If you have ever attempted to take your family or BIG family like ours, you will walk out with a pretty penny. Well, I can get my discounted gift cards and I usually work up to $75 in gift cards for these two restaurants and generally our bill is just the tip or less (gift cards can also cover tip). These three restaurants are also some of our favorites because there are coupons frequently and the meals can be upgraded for cheap and fill up everyone in a few entrees.
As a funny example, one Saturday our family had hiked for 5.5 miles (that’s a lot for a 5 year old) and we were starving. I try to keep gift cards and coupons in my jockey box for those “unplanned” trips and to have them all on hand all of the time. We wanted some good carbs and so we found two Olive Garden gift cards and a $5 off coupon in my pouch in the minivan after the hike. So we were able to indulge on all you can eat pasta at Olive Garden. We showed up with dirt on our faces, sweaty and tired…not to mention that one son jumped into the little creek and got very wet..thus when his clothes had dried, they had mud and water stains when we arrived. I am sure we were a sight with this dirty, tired looking family of 8 walking into an Olive Garden and gorging like we haven’t had a real meal in a long time! We would have gone home and cleaned up and then gone out…but our hiking snacks did not do our famished bodies justice and we still had a 45 minute drive home. Then to add to the confusing situation to all of those around us…walked out paying less than $15 out of pocket for everyone.
We also enjoy Applebees, Red Robin and Chili’s and these gift cards (especially Chili’s) are very easy to come by as well through all of the ways above, but they will have in-restaurant promotions quite frequently, such as free kids’ meals, free apps or desserts or $5 burgers (that can be split for cheap kids meal options).
Another example is from Applebee’s on .99 kids’ meal night, along with happy hour (half price appetizers early or late) and any other discounts and still pay with my $50 of gift cards that I paid $18 for.
I could go on…but I will stop here for now! Feel free to ask questions, provide your own suggestions and ideas and enjoy the savings!
Again, just as we have mentioned in the beginning, we always tip on the full, non-discounted amount. It’s important enough that we want to mention it again and highly suggest others do the same. The wait staff are hard-working individuals trying to make a living too.