18 easy ways to eat out on a budget
Cheeky late-night KFC? Yes please. Side order of guilt? No thank you. Indulging in your faves doesn't have to leave you penniless though. Here's how to eat out without breaking the bank!
Making a habit out of eating out every other night can put a bit of a strain on your finances, especially on a student budget. However, we all deserve a little treat every now and again, and who says eating out in restaurants needs to cost the equivalent of your entire weekly food shop!
But surely a three-course meal and a glass of vino for £7.50 is a thing of the past, right?
Wrong! It's still a thing. Play your cards right and you could even spend less than you would by dining in! Did we mention you might not have to pay that sneaky service charge? Keep scrolling to find out more...
How to save money at restaurants
Here are the best ways to get the cheapest deals on dining out:
Use vouchers and special offers
Yeah, we know – predictable! But we couldn't have a guide on this topic without pointing you in the direction of our deals page which always has great discounts up for grabs on eating out, like 50% off your bill, two-for-one pizzas or a free drink with your meal.
A lot of these deals tend to be time-sensitive, so you can also sign up to our weekly newsletter for a deals roundup, check out our Facebook page where we post our best deals every day, or sign up to our Telegram group to make sure you never miss a thing!
Signing up to a voucher code app is also a good idea, as they'll use GPS to point out offers in restaurants close to your current location.
And don't forget about the Meerkat Meals programme that'll get you two meals for the price of one at thousands of UK restaurants for a whole year when you buy a single-trip travel insurance policy for as little as £1.08. It's worth it even if you never use it!
Top tip: A few times a year, daily deals websites run promotions for Prezzo, Bella Italia, ASK Italian and other restaurants offering a three-course meal and a glass of wine for just £25. When you combine this with the £10 off codes they also advertise from time to time, you can get your three courses and bevs for just £15 (that's £7.50 each)!
We always post this offer in our deals section so keep your eyes peeled!
Take advantage of your student discount
Your student discount is so good at saving you money, it might as well have the Queen's head printed on it somewhere so it can pass for hard cash!
Keep your student card on you at all times so you can take advantage of the discounts available whenever and wherever you possibly can.
Loads of restaurants offer student discounts – including almost all large chains (check out our student discount directory for more details) but a lot of local restaurants will give you a discount too, especially if you live in a uni town.
For example, Pizza Express offers 30% off food AND drink for students, Zizzi offers a whole host of discounts that change from day to day and Gourmet Burger Kitchen offer 25% off on all food via their app.
Even if a restaurant doesn't advertise a discount, it doesn't mean they won't give you one, so always chance your arm!
Bonus tip: Already graduated and your student card has finally expired? We've got a sneaky trick that lets you get a TOTUM/NUS Extra card as a graduate.
Don't order alcohol with your meal
You've probably noticed when your bill arrives that, if you're drinking alcohol with your meal, this alone will cost the same (if not more) as the price of your food. What's more, most restaurant vouchers don't cover booze!
To keep costs down, stick to soft drinks with your meal or keep an eye out for deals that have a free glass of wine included in the price.
If you're feeling particularly up for a night on the slosh, just head to a bar afterwards – they'll have much lower prices than your average restaurant. It'll be even cheaper if you catch them during happy hour!
Bring Your Own Booze (BYOB)
Alternatively, some restaurants will actually let you bring your own booze along if they don't have a full drinks licence. Look out for BYOB signs, or if in doubt, just call and ask.
Be careful of corkage fees though! Every venue has different prices and rules, but choosing bottles of beer over a bottle of wine for the table could see you being charged per unit (meaning you'll splash out way more for the lager).
Also, some restaurants will only allow you to bring wine and beer, whereas others are happy for you to bring a bottle of spirits and charge you just for the mixers.
Don't be afraid to give the restaurant a ring in advance to find out what the BYOB policy is.
Review restaurants for your university's student paper
Find out whether or not your uni's student newspaper has a food critique, and if not, apply for the role!
People can make long careers out of being food critiques for national newspapers, and while you won't necessarily have the same sway at a uni paper, restaurant owners do recognise the profit to be made by getting their names in a uni paper read by thousands of students!
You could even do this for your own personal blog/social media if you have a decent following. Whatever your publication of choice, approach the restaurant manager with a copy of your paper or social media credentials and ask them whether or not this is something they'd be interested in.
Be sure to highlight the reach your newspaper/account has, but don't promise anything you can't deliver (especially if you need the approval of someone higher up!). And if it does turn into a regular thing, this is definitely something you can add to your CV further on down the line.
Look out for pre-theatre deals
Many high-end restaurants offer early bird specials for diners who visit earlier in the evening before the place gets busy.
These are normally called 'pre-theatre' deals, as traditionally the idea was that you come for a quick meal before heading off to the theatre. They give you a few courses at a discounted price as they know you'll be in and out pretty quick.
The menu is set and normally there's not much choice involved (for example, three courses with only two options to choose from for each course), but the prices are normally much lower than if you choose from the normal menu.
Note that pre-theatres aren't normally offered at weekends.
Don't pay for water
If a restaurant serves alcohol, it's also legally obliged to serve up tap water free of charge. If you ask for water and they bring you the bottled stuff, send it back!
Don't be worried about asking for the stuff out of the tap – it's your right! Bottled water can sometimes cost a ridiculous price in restaurants, so don't waste your cash.
Become a mystery diner
A great trick to getting your meals completely free (and even actually earn some cash on top of this) is to become a mystery diner.
Mystery dining basically involves you signing up to an agency that sends you for free meals at different restaurants. The catch? Well, in return you need to complete a report on your experience that comments on the service, cleanliness and other factors. Not bad!
We've got a stellar guide on how to get started with mystery shopper jobs.
Sign up for newsletters
A lot of the bigger chain restaurants like La Tasca, Pizza Express and Wagamama have a newsletter that you can sign up for.
Every now and again (and almost always on your birthday), they'll email you vouchers and special offers. It's definitely worth being on their list if you like eating there, as the savings can be pretty decent.
We'd recommend keeping your sign-ups to two or three of your favourite restaurants, so you get the offers without clogging up your inbox, or even better – set up a special email address just for deals.
Take home a doggy bag
How many times have gone into a restaurant with a rumbling stomach and completely gone to town on the menu, only then to be left fit to burst with half your meal still on your plate?
We've all been there, but the worst thing you can do is let your uneaten food go to waste! Take your leftovers home with you and have them for your dinner the following night (or for breakfast if you're that way inclined). After all, you've paid for it!
It may be seen as more of an American thing to do, but us Brits need to get over the embarrassment of asking to take our food home and realise that it's actually a compliment to the chefs! The alternative is that you let the food go to waste, which doesn't help anyone.
Go to an all-you-can-eat buffet
Alright, so it's not the most sophisticated night out imaginable. But if you've got a big appetite and really want to get your money's worth, there's no better place to head to than a buffet restaurant!
We've got a whole load of all-you-can-eat tips (for food, not tip-eating) for you to consult before you get your expandable-waist trousers at the ready.
Think of it this way – spend some cash on a buffet and you won't want to eat again for an age. Although, you probably won't want to move either, so bring backup.
Throw a dinner party for your friends instead
Ok, so this isn't technically eating out, but you can recreate the experience for way less by doing a sort of Come Dine With Me experience with your mates.
Club together with a group of friends and take it in turns to cook up something nice, complete with candles, scorecards and drawer searching (taxis home optional). It's pretty much the same as going out and can even be more fun.
And the great news is, we've got a whole guide on how to do this on a student budget (plus recipes, of course!).
Eat out on your birthday
Remember when you were eight years old and birthdays at Pizza Hut were the best thing ever? Well, whether you're eight or 28, this is the birthday gift that keeps on giving!
Loads of restaurants offer birthday schemes where they'll send you offers and a discount to be used on your special day. Loads even offer your entire meal free of charge (although, if you have someone dining with you, they'll have to pay their way)!
Check out our extensive guide to all the restaurants, bars and cafes that offer birthday freebies.
Check the restaurant's social media for discounts
Social networks aren't just for chatting to mates, watching cat videos and job hunting, you know!
Restaurants – big and small – are really keen for you to follow them on social media, so as an incentive they often run competitions for free meals, offer limited-time discounts or post vouchers for money off your bill.
The best thing to do is to follow all your favourite places (Twitter and Facebook are particularly effective) and keep an eye on what they're up to.
You can use social media to find out about soft launches too. When a restaurant opens, they'll often kick things off by offering food at a discounted price to give customers a taste of what they have to offer.
Check Twitter and Instagram for newly opened restaurants in your area and give the term 'soft launch' a Google followed by wherever it is you live. The world is your oyster!
Snack before you arrive
We know it sounds counter-intuitive, but you wouldn't go supermarket shopping on an empty stomach, now would you?
If your stomach is at the stage of eating itself before you even leave the house, the chances are you'll order with your eyes rather than your stomach (which is unfortunate for your wallet).
Grab a light snack (and we mean light – a piece of fruit or something similar will do) before you head out and this should stifle your hunger enough to make you capable of making a more rational decision when you've got the menu in your hand.
Remove the service charge if the service wasn't good
Unlike in the US, all restaurant employees in the UK will be getting paid at least the minimum wage for their shifts.
As such, although it's a good idea to tip waiting staff if you've really enjoyed your meal (chefs also receive a cut, so if the food is good but service isn't, you might want to consider still tipping), you shouldn't feel obliged to do so if you've had a rotten experience.
There's a tendency for British people to tip staff regardless, just for fear of seeming rude or tight, but this is not how tipping culture works.
Many restaurants (particularly in cities like London) will already include a service charge directly on your bill, so keep your eyes peeled in case you end up tipping twice!
Alternatively, if you want to pay a lower tip (or none at all), you can ask for the service charge to be removed. If you've not been happy with the service, or simply can't afford to tip as much as they want, you're entitled to pay what you want!
Look for loyalty schemes
Loyalty cards might seem like something more suited to clothing stores and supermarkets, but a growing number of restaurant chains have started offering them in order to encourage punters to keep returning... and it works!
Villagio, La Tasca and Nando's all have a loyalty card scheme (in fact, it's one of our top ways to get free Nando's), and you'll probably find that lots of small independent restaurants do too. It's just a matter of doing your research!
Use zero-waste food apps
Lastly, it's worth keeping an eye on apps like TooGoodToGo and Karma! Not heard of them? Basically, there zero-waste food apps designed to prevent food wastage and get you a good deal on your restaurant faves.
Participating restaurants will put food that they need to shift on these apps for a discounted price and if you see something you like you simply click, reserve and grab!
Or maybe you'd rather grab a discount on a takeaway from the comfort of your sofa?