16 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 dining out every other night can put a bit of a strain on your finances, especially on a student Maintenance Loan 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. Our penny-pinching team have come together to share our favourite tried and tested ways to score a cheap dining out experience that your bank account will thank you for.
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 a'scrollin to find out more...
16 ways to save on eating 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, 2-for-1 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 pick of deals once a day (Mon–Fri), or sign up to our WhatsApp 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 time 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 card 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 NUS 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 offer 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.
Ditch the booze
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.
Be flexible about timing
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 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 entails 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 that you want to take the food home with you! The alternative is that you let the food go to waste, which doesn't help anyone.
Try buffet dining
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.
Come Dine With Me
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 twenty-eight, 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
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.
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.
Check if service is included (and don't be afraid to remove it)
Unlike in the US, all restaurant employees in the UK will be getting paid at least the minimum wage (or the Living Wage if they're over 25) for their time working.
Therefore, 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 still want to consider 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 numbers of restaurant chains have started offering them in order to encourage punters to keep returning... and it works!
Nando's, Villagio and La Tasca all have a loyalty card scheme, and you'll probably find that lots of small independent restaurants do too. It's just a matter of doing your research!
We've got a guide to loyalty schemes right here to get you started.
Now there's no excuse for eating into your bank balance when eating out!
Getting discounts on just eating out not quite scratching that super scrimping itch? Check out our ultimate guide of free stuff to take your money saving urges to the next level!