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Food & Drink

18 easy ways to eat out on a budget

Fancy treating yourself to a restaurant meal without spending a fortune? Try these ways to eat out cheaply.

nando's pizza express logos and hamburger

Credit: (left) jgolby, (bottom) Hans Geel, (right) Chris Dorney, (background) MaLija Shutterstock

It's nice to have a little treat now and then – but not when eating costs the equivalent of your entire weekly food shop.

Luckily, there are many ways to keep costs down and eat out on a budget.

We reveal how to save money on restaurant food and drinks.

Unsure where to go out for dinner? See our list of the best restaurants for students.

How to save money at restaurants

Here are the best ways to eat out for less:

  1. Use vouchers and special offers

    save the student on laptop screen
    Yes, we know – predictable! But we couldn't have a guide on this topic without pointing you towards our deals page. It always has great discounts on eating out, like free food and drinks or discounted meals.

    Deals are often time-sensitive. To avoid missing out, you can:

    Signing up for a voucher code app is also a good idea. They can use GPS to highlight restaurant offers near you.

    And don't forget about Meerkat Meals. You can get big discounts at thousands of UK restaurants for a year when you buy a single-trip travel insurance policy for as little as around £1.

    Sometimes, 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 around £25. When you combine this with the £10 off codes they also advertise from time to time, you can save a lot of money.

    We post offers like these in our deals section, so keep your eyes peeled.

  2. Take advantage of your student discount

    Student discount is such a good way to save money.

    Loads of restaurants offer student discounts. This includes loads of large chains (check our student discount directory for more details). But, many local restaurants will give you a discount too, especially if you live in a uni town.

    For example, Pizza Express offers 25% off the bill for students between Sunday and Friday. Meanwhile, Zizzi offers a 30% discount (Sunday – Thursday) and Gourmet Burger Kitchen offers 20% off.

    Even if a restaurant doesn't advertise a discount, it doesn't necessarily mean they won't give you one. Always ask!

  3. Don't order alcohol with your meal

    Alcoholic drinks can cost the same as food in restaurants, if not more.

    One way to save money at restaurants is to stick to non-alcoholic drinks. Or look out for deals that have a free glass of wine included in the price.

    If you do want a drink, you could head to a bar afterwards. They might have lower prices than the restaurant – especially if you catch them during happy hour.

  4. Bring Your Own Booze (BYOB)

    Some restaurants will let you bring drinks if they don't have an alcohol licence. Look out for BYOB signs or, if in doubt, call and ask.

    Every venue has different prices and rules, but be careful of corkage fees. This means you could be charged per unit you bring.

    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 for the mixers.

    As you can get a bottle of wine for under £5 from the supermarket, you can save a lot of money by bringing drinks to a restaurant.

    Don't be afraid to call the restaurant in advance to find out what their BYOB policy is.

  5. Review restaurants for your university's student paper

    Find out whether or not your uni's student newspaper has a food critic. If not, you can apply for the role.

    People can make good careers out of being food critics for national newspapers. While you won't necessarily have the same sway at a uni paper, restaurant owners often recognise the profit to be made from getting their names in a uni paper read by thousands of students.

    You could even do this for your blog or social media accounts if you have a decent following.

    Approach the restaurant manager with a copy of your paper or social media credentials, and ask if they're happy to give you a complimentary meal to review.

    Highlight the reach of your newspaper/account, but don't promise anything you can't deliver (especially if you need the approval of someone higher up).

    If food reviews become a regular thing, add them to your CV!

  6. Look out for pre-theatre deals

    theatre seats

    Many high-end restaurants offer early bird specials for diners who visit earlier in the evening.

    These are normally called 'pre-theatre' deals. Traditionally, the idea is that you have a quick meal before heading to the theatre. They give you a few courses at a discounted price as they know you'll be in and out pretty quickly.

    The menu is set and there's usually not much choice involved. For example, it could be three courses with only two options per course. However, the prices tend to be lower than the normal menu.

    Note that pre-theatres aren't always offered on weekends.

    And if you are planning to see a show, read our tips on getting free or cheap theatre tickets.

  7. Don't pay for water

    Restaurants that serve alcohol in England, Wales and Scotland are legally obliged to serve tap water for free. If you ask for water and they bring you a bottle, send it back.

    Don't be worried about asking for tap water – it's your right! Bottled water can sometimes be pricey in restaurants, so don't waste your cash.

  8. Become a mystery diner

    A great trick to get meals for free (and even earn some money) is to become a mystery diner.

    Mystery dining involves signing up for an agency that sends you out for free meals at different restaurants. The catch? You need to complete a report on your experience, commenting on the service, cleanliness and other factors.

    We have a full guide on how to get started with mystery shopper jobs.

  9. Sign up for newsletters

    Many big chain restaurants like Pizza Express and Wagamama have newsletters.

    Now and again (and often on your birthday), they'll email you vouchers and special offers. It's worth being on the mailing lists as the savings can be pretty decent.

    We'd suggest just signing up for emails from your favourite restaurants. This way, you'll get the offers without clogging up your inbox. Or, even better, you can set up a special email address just for deals.

  10. Take home a doggy bag

    How many times have you gone into a restaurant with a rumbling stomach and completely gone to town on the menu, only 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 and have them for your dinner the following night. After all, you've paid for it.

    The alternative is throwing the food away, which doesn't help anyone.

  11. Go to an all-you-can-eat buffet

    A buffet may not be the most sophisticated night out imaginable. But, if you have a big appetite and want to get your money's worth, there's no better place to go.

    We have a lot of all-you-can-eat tips. Check them out before you put on your expandable-waist trousers.

    Think of it this way: spend some cash on a buffet and you won't want to eat again for a while. Although, you probably won't want to move either, so bring backup.

  12. Throw a dinner party for your friends instead

    This isn't technically eating out, but you can recreate the experience for less by doing a Come Dine With Me experience with your mates.

    Get a few friends together and take turns cooking something nice. You can even complete it with candles and scorecards (taxis home optional). It's pretty much the same as going out and can be even more fun.

    Read our guide on how to have a dinner party on a student budget (plus recipes, of course!).

  13. Eat out on your birthday

    Remember when you were eight 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.

    Countless restaurants have birthday schemes where they'll send you offers and a discount to be used on your special day. You might even get a free meal (although, if you have someone dining with you, they'll have to pay their way).

    Check out our guide to the restaurants, bars and cafes that offer birthday freebies.

  14. Check the restaurant's social media for discounts

    Social networks aren't just for chatting with friends, watching videos and job hunting.

    Restaurants are keen for you to follow them on social media. As an incentive, they might 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 (TikTok, Instagram and Facebook are particularly effective).

    You can use social media to find out about soft launches too. When a restaurant opens, they'll often offer food at a discounted price to give customers a taste of what they have to offer.

    Look on social media for newly opened restaurants in your area and Google "soft launch" followed by your town or city. The world is your oyster!

  15. Snack before you arrive

    We know it sounds counter-intuitive, but you wouldn't go supermarket shopping on an empty stomach, would you?

    If your stomach is at the stage of eating itself before you even leave the house, chances are you'll order with your eyes rather than your stomach. And this never works out well for your wallet.

    Grab a light snack (and we mean light – a piece of fruit or something similar will do) before you head out. This should stifle your hunger enough to help you make more rational decisions when you read the menu.

  16. Remove the service charge if the service isn't good

    All restaurant employees in the UK will be getting paid at least the minimum wage.

    It's a good idea to tip the waiting staff if you've enjoyed your meal (chefs often also receive a cut, so if the food is good but the service isn't, you might still want to tip). But, you shouldn't feel obliged to do so if you've had a bad experience.

    You might feel pressure to tip staff regardless, 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 on your bill. Keep an eye on this in case you end up tipping twice.

    Alternatively, if you want to pay a lower (or no) tip, you can ask for the service charge to be removed. If you haven't been happy with the service, or can't afford to tip as much as they've asked, you're entitled to pay what you want.

  17. Look out for loyalty schemes

    Loyalty cards

    Loyalty cards don't just exist for clothing stores and supermarkets. A growing number of restaurant chains have started offering them to encourage customers to keep returning... and it works!

    For example, Nando's has a loyalty card scheme (in fact, it's one of our top ways to get free Nando's). You'll probably find that lots of small independent restaurants do too. It's just a matter of doing your research.

  18. Use zero-waste food apps

    Lastly, it's worth checking out apps like TooGoodToGo and Olio. They're designed to prevent food waste and help people save money.

    Participating people, shops or restaurants will share food that will otherwise go to waste for free or discounted prices. It's an excellent eco-friendly way to save money.

Maybe you'd rather enjoy restaurant food from the comfort of your sofa? We have tips to help you save money on takeaways too.

Jake Butler

WRITTEN BY Jake Butler

Jake joined Save the Student in 2010 and is the COO. As an expert across student finance, Jake has appeared on The BBC, The Guardian, Which?, ITV, Channel 5 and many other outlets. He particularly enjoys sharing tips on saving money and making extra money with opportunities like paid surveys and part-time jobs.
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