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 favourites doesn't have to leave you penniless. Here's how to eat out without breaking the bank.
Making a habit 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 now and again. Who says eating out has to cost the equivalent of your entire weekly food shop?
But surely a three-course meal and a glass of wine for £7.50 is a thing of the past, right?
Wrong! It's still a thing. Play your cards right and you could spend less than you would by dining in. Did we mention you might not have to pay the service charge either? Keep scrolling to find out more...
How to save money at restaurants
Here are the best ways to eat out for less:
Use vouchers and special offers
Yeah, 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 50% off your bill, two-for-one pizzas or a free drink with your meal.
Many deals tend to be time-sensitive. To avoid missing out, you can:
- Sign up to our weekly newsletter for a deals roundup
- Check out our Facebook page where we post our best deals every day
- Sign up to our Telegram group.
Signing up to a voucher code app is also a good idea. They'll use GPS to point out offers in restaurants close to your current location.
And don't forget about the Meerkat Meals programme. You can get big discounts at thousands of UK restaurants for a whole year when you buy a single-trip travel insurance policy for as little as around £1.
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 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 always post these offers in our deals section, so keep your eyes peeled.
Take advantage of your student discount
Your student discount is amazing at saving you money, so always bring your student card. This way, you can take advantage of the discounts available whenever and wherever you possibly can.
Loads of restaurants offer student discounts. This includes almost all 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.
Even if a restaurant doesn't advertise a discount, it doesn't mean they won't give you one. Always ask!Already graduated and your student card has expired? We've got a sneaky trick that lets you get a TOTUM card as a graduate.
Don't order alcohol with your meal
If you're drinking alcohol with your meal, drinks alone may cost the same (if not more) as the price of your food. What's more, most restaurant vouchers don't cover booze.
One way to save money at restaurants is to stick to non-alcoholic drinks. Or, you can watch out for deals that have a free glass of wine included in the price.
If you're in the mood for a drink, 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 let you bring your own booze if they don't have an alcohol licence. Look out for BYOB signs or, if in doubt, just 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. If you choose bottles of beer over a bottle of wine, you could be paying 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 for the mixers.
Don't be afraid to call the restaurant 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 critic. If not, you can apply for the role.
People can make long careers out of being food critics for national newspapers. While you won't necessarily have the same sway at a uni paper, restaurant owners 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. Whatever your publication of choice, approach the restaurant manager with a copy of your paper or social media credentials. You can then 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, you can even add it to your CV.
Look out for pre-theatre deals
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 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 quickly.
The menu is set and normally there's not much choice involved. For example, it could be three courses with only two options to choose from per course. However, the prices are normally much lower than if you choose from the normal menu.
Note that pre-theatres aren't normally offered on weekends.
And if you are planning to see a show, read our tips on getting free or cheap theatre tickets.
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 a bottle, send it back.
Don't be worried about asking for tap water – it's your right! Bottled water can sometimes cost a lot of money in restaurants, so don't waste your cash.
Become a mystery diner
A great trick to getting your meals completely free (and even actually earning some money on top of this) is to become a mystery diner.
Mystery dining involves you signing up to an agency that sends you for free meals at different restaurants. The catch? In return, you need to complete a report on your experience, commenting on the service, cleanliness and other factors.
We've got a full 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.
Now and again (and almost always on your birthday), they'll email you vouchers and special offers. It's 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. 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.
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 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.
It may seem like more of an American thing to do, but we Brits need to get over the embarrassment of asking to take our food home. It's a compliment to the chefs. The alternative is throwing the food away, which doesn't help anyone.
Go to an all-you-can-eat buffet
A buffet may not be the most sophisticated night out imaginable. But, if you've got a big appetite and want to get your money's worth, there's no better place to go.
We've got a lot of all-you-can-eat tips (for food, not tip-eating). 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.
Throw a dinner party for your friends instead
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.
Get a few friends together and take turns cooking up 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.
The great news is, we've got a whole guide on how to have a dinner party 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.
Countless restaurants have 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 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 with friends, watching videos and job hunting.
Restaurants – big and small – are keen for you to follow them on social media. 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, Instagram 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 offer food at a discounted price to give customers a taste of what they have to offer.
Check social media for newly opened restaurants in your area and Google "soft launch" followed by your town or city. 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, 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'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.
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 want to consider tipping anyways). But, you shouldn't feel obliged to do so if you've had a bad experience.
There's a tendency for British people 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 directly on your bill. Keep an eye on this 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 out for loyalty schemes
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, La Tasca and Nando's have 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.
Use zero-waste food apps
Not heard of them? These are zero-waste food apps. They're designed to prevent food waste and get you a good deal on your restaurant favourites.
Participating restaurants will put food that they need to shift on these apps for a discounted price. If you see something you like, you simply click, reserve and grab it. It's an excellent eco-friendly way to save money.
Or maybe you'd rather grab a discount on a takeaway from the comfort of your sofa?