Going out to eat can be pretty pricey, especially if you’re living in a place with loads of top-notch restaurants. It’s tough to resist trying them all out! You might be thinking about how you can save some cash while dining out.
No worries, I’ve got your back with the ultimate guide on how to save money at restaurants – you might even score a meal for almost nothing!
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How To Save Money At Restaurants Overview
People always say that nothing in life is free, but that’s total hogwash – whoever came up with that needs to read The Money Ninja.
The other day, a friend challenged me to see how much money I could save while dining out at restaurants.
“You’re pretty good, John, but you can’t be THAT good.”
Not only did I discover how to slash the cost of dining out, but I also used some advanced ninja strategies to sometimes make money from going out to eat. Here’s how I did it and what you need to know to minimize your restaurant bills!
How is this even possible?
You’ve probably heard the stats before: 60% of restaurants don’t make it through their first year, and 80% close up shop within five years. Those are some seriously high failure rates. The restaurant industry is a tough gig, with tons of competition.
Sure, tasty food and great service are key to keeping customers coming back. Millennials and Generation Y are famous for relying heavily on Yelp for restaurant recommendations that nail those two things.
And hey, I don’t want to leave Gen X’ers out – you guys are cool too with your Zagat guides.
But to really make it in the long run, you need more than just great food and service. We live in a world of incentives. We want coupons. We love discounts. We crave deals.
We need a reason to choose one restaurant over all the rest.
Restaurants get it. They almost always offer promotions to try to get people to come in. The savvy ones team up with websites, apps, and loyalty programs to bring in more business.
So the secret sauce is figuring out how to find and stack these deals to our advantage.
What’s the strategy?
So, here’s the deal.
Restaurants have all these partners to lure in potential customers. Their plan was for someone to stumble upon one of these sites/apps/programs, see the promotion for their spot, and head on over for a meal.
But what they didn’t count on was the possibility of someone combining all these various promotions and double-dipping, triple-dipping, or even quadruple-dipping!
It’s kind of like shopping for clothes. Remember how thrilled you were when your favorite pair of jeans went on sale?
You were ready to buy them, but then you remembered you had a $30 coupon. Score! So you order those jeans ASAP before the deal ends.
But wait, there’s more (I’ve always wanted to use that infomercial line)! Since you’re a TMN reader, you’re also buying the jeans online through a cash back shopping portal, which gets you even more money back!
That’s basically a triple-dip for buying those jeans – you’re combining multiple discounts into one purchase.
The same principle applies when it comes to dining out. Your goal is to find restaurants that have multiple rewards partners and use them all at once.
I know some folks are new to the “stacking” game, so in the next few sections, I’ll walk you through some real-life examples of what I did myself. We’ll start with a simple one and work our way up to the more complex ones.
It’s crucial that you go through each example to get a handle on how the system works.
Are you ready? Let’s go, ninja warriors, and figure out how to dine out with massive discounts!
1. The Newbie – Can you give me a simple example?
What You’ll Need:
- Groupon+ (our review)
- Many of you are familiar with Groupon, but did you know they also have a program called Groupon+ that gives you cash back to your credit card for visiting a participating restaurant?
How To Do It:
Go to Groupon’s enrollment site for Groupon+ and link your American Express, Visa, or Mastercard (credit or debit card) that you intend to use with the program. You can link more than one.
Then search your area for participating restaurants. You’ll find most restaurants are offering 10% to 50% cash back.
When you find a place you like, click through to its page and press ‘Claim’ in order to add it to your Groupon+ account. Unlike a normal Groupon, there’s no voucher needed.
Once you dine, pay for your meal as your normally would, making sure you use a credit or debit card you linked to Groupon+. You’ll automatically get a statement credit directly to your card account within 7 business days. The credit is calculated based off your total with taxes (excluding tip).
I used Groupon+ at Assaggio, a charming Italian restaurant located in the North End district of Boston. At the time, Groupon+ was offering 30% cash back there. I went with a friend and our bill totaled $104.65:
After I paid using my linked credit card, I received a phone notification from Groupon that $31.39 will be sent to me as a statement credit on my card. Since I have the Groupon app, I also see the confirmation on my account:
Results: $31.39 saved on a $104.65 bill (30%)
Conclusion: Baby ninja worthy, but there’s room for improvement.
2. The Learner – Can you give me something more advanced?
What You’ll Need:
- Groupon+ (our review)
- Seated App (our review with a $15 code for signing up)
- Seated is my favorite phone app for dining out and my review of it was one of the most popular on this site. The Seated app gives you rewards for taking a picture of your receipt!
How To Do It:
Now I’m looking for the double-dip opportunity – how to get a reward from both Groupon+ and Seated. For this to work, I need to find a restaurant that participates in both programs. You’ve already signed up for Groupon+ in the previous example. Now it’s time to do the same with Seated.
Download the Seated app (use code MONEY1 for a $15 sign-up bonus). Unlike Groupon+, there’s no credit card to link. Seated is a reservations app, so use it to book the restaurant. After you dine, just take a picture of the receipt as proof and you’ll get rewarded based on the amount you spent.
I found a restaurant called Aqua Pazza that was part of both Groupon+ and Seated so my double-dip experiment was done there.
First, I used the Seated app to make a reservation for two. Seated offers 23% back at Aqua Pazza:
Then, I switched over to my Groupon app to link my credit card to the Groupon+ offer for Aqua Pazza.
Once I got the bill, I pulled out phone, opened the Seated app, and took a picture of the bill. This took care of Seated. For Groupon+, I again paid with my linked card to get credit there.
In about an hour’s worth of time, I received notifications from both apps that it was a success!
Results: $60.39 saved on a $130.54 bill (46%)
Conclusion: Ninja apprentice hot, but let’s keep going!
3. The Ninja Master – How can you wow me?
What You’ll Need:
- Seated App (our review with a $15 code for signing up )
- Uber Visa Rewards (our review)
- Everyone knows Uber as a ride-sharing app, but did you know that inside its app is also a little known thing called Visa Local Offers? As long as you have a Visa credit card on file with Uber, you’ll automatically receive Uber credits at certain restaurants when paying with that same card.
- Rewards Network (our review)
- Dining Rewards is a company that partners with various airlines like Alaska, American, Delta, Jet Blue, and United. When you link a credit card to the program and use the same card to eat out, the company will award you miles for every dollar you spend (between 3-5 miles per dollar depending on your status).
How To Do It:
In the previous two examples, I showed how you can save almost half off your restaurant bill. While that’s awesome, those are moderately priced restaurants. Sometimes you’re only going out for a $10 lunch so what then?
In this example, I’ll walk you through how to triple-stack programs to maximize rewards on a low-priced lunch.
I’m going to be using the Seated app again to reserve the restaurant, and combining that with Uber Visa Rewards and the Rewards Network.
Uber Visa Rewards will give you Uber credits as long as you use a Visa card connected with your Uber account to pay for your meal. You have to opt-in though on the Uber app. Here’s where to find it:
Rewards Network is a collection of airline partner programs that give you miles for going out to restaurants. Connect the credit cards to one of the Reward Network airline partners and they’ll reward you with miles for every dollar you spend eating out. I’m a United Airlines flyer so I use them, but you can use whichever one you want.
I found a sushi restaurant that offered a $10 sushi lunch special.
I booked the restaurant through Seated to get 40% back through them.
When it came time to pay, I made sure I used a credit card that was connected to both my Uber app and the Rewards Network.
Uber is offering 5% back in the form of an Uber credit while the Rewards Network gave me 10 miles for every dollar I spent.
So on that $10 lunch, I got:
- $4.00 back through Seated
- $0.50 back through Uber
- $1.00 back through Rewards Netowkr (1 miles x $10 = 50 miles; I value each United miles at 2 cents each)
Results: $5.50 saved on a $10.00 bill (55%)
Conclusion: OMG!!!!! Triple-stacking Ninja master!
What else do I need to know?
I got a great question the other day:
Unfortunately, no. All four airlines that participate in dining rewards are under the same umbrella company; they’re all use the same underlying technology platform, which is called the Rewards Network. What will end up happening is that you’ll get miles for just one program only and they’ll cancel the other three.
To be successful in combining multiple programs, they each need to be on separate platforms. You can pick one from each platform only. Here are the major ones I know of:
- MOGL Cash Back
- Yelp Cash Back
Rakuten Card Linked Offer Network (RCLON):
- Rakuten (formerly Ebates)
- Dosh Cash Back
- Alaska Mileage Plan Dining
- American AAdvantage Dining
- Club O Dining Rewards
- Delta Skymiles Dining
- eScript Dining
- Free Spirit Dining
- Hilton HHonors Dining
- IHG Rewards Club Dining
- JetBlue TrueBlue Dining
- Orbitz Rewards Dining
- Southwest RapidRewards Dining
- Total Rewards Dining
- United MileagePlus Dining
- Upromise Dining
- Uber Local Visa Offers
The Bottom Line
With a little bit of planning, you don’t have to pay full price when you go out to eat. These phone apps and loyalty programs are just a few things you can use, but there are many other ways to save money at restaurants.
You can use what you’ve read here and stack it with other things. Think outside of apps and programs. For example, restaurants usually send out coupons in the local paper. That’s a good stacking opportunity.
What other restaurant hacks do you take advantage of?