Eating out can be a big strain on a budget (believe me, I know), but for those who simply can’t pass up the pleasure of fine dining on a regular basis, there are many ways to help economize your spending without compromising quality. The following is a list of ways you can reduce your spend via cost savings or rewards without cutting down on quantity or quality:
Dining Rewards Networks for Major Loyalty Programs
Each major travel rewards program typically has a complementary dining rewards program (e.g. SkyMiles, IHG, etc.). All you need to do is sign up online (free) and register the credit cards you use for dining with the program. Anytime you use your registered cards at participating restaurants, you earn points or miles in the sponsoring loyalty program based on your total spend (including tips and tax). There are also periodic bonuses for eating at certain restaurants, spending a certain amount, reviewing restaurants, etc.
For those who would prefer straight cash back rather than miles or points, UPromise has an excellent dining rewards program (more on that under Dining Cash Back Cards), with the percentage cash back increasing from 2% up to 8% based on annual spend. In order to maximize your cash back, you can set up a Sallie Mae savings account (free to sign up, no minimum balance, no monthly fees) with automatic monthly transfers of $25, for which you will receive a 10% annual cash back bonus.
Restaurant Rewards Networks
In addition to rewards networks, you can sign up for an increasing plethora of dining rewards networks offered by the restaurants themselves. I am not talking here about large chain restaurants (we’re self-respecting foodies, after all), but small local groups of high quality restaurants; in Atlanta for instance, Fifth Group Restaurants has an excellent rewards program. The programs vary in their nature, but as an example, Fifth Group Rewards members receive a $20 discount during the month of their birthday and $25 in store credit for every $400 spent, as well as a few other perks.
Dining Cash Back Cards
Many credit cards offer additional rewards for dining purchases. Probably the best card at present for most would be the UPromise MasterCard which offers 4% cash back on dining purchases plus the 2 – 8% additional cash back offered through the UPromise program mentioned above. That means 12% cash back on qualified dines above $500 in a calendar year (the current spending threshold needed to reach the 8% or platinum level). If you’re a serious foodie, reaching that level should be no problem. There is no annual fee, and currently there is a $25 bonus after your first purchase.
There are other credit cards giving bonus points for dining (e.g. Chase Sapphire), and the best one may vary depending on the person, but unless you have a strong preference for points or miles rather than cash back, or there simply aren’t many UPromise-participating restaurants near you, I think the UPromise MasterCard is the best deal. Using the UPromise Mastercard at UPromise restaurants and then using another dining card like Chase Sapphire for your other dines would make a nice combination.
Whenever possible, reserve your table in advance via OpenTable for any dines. You earn 100 OpenTable Dining Reward Points for every reservation once you’ve actually dined, and certain restaurants will earn 1,000 points for each dine (1,000 point restaurants are listed on the OpenTable website, and the list changes regularly). Once you’ve earned 2,000 points, you can redeem them for a $20 OpenTable Dining Cheque (yes, they use the proper Olde English spelling) redeemable at participating OpenTable restaurants. In effect, you’ll be earning either $1 or $10 for each dine, depending on the restaurant.
Most readers are probably familiar with Restaurant.com, where you can buy gift cards to participating restaurants at substantial discounts, typically around 50 – 60%, although it can vary widely. Buying gift cards to your favorite restaurants here and using them to pay for your dines can achieve substantial discounts, but be sure to read the fine print around the cards, as there are usually minimums and other conditions. Additionally, it’s best to tell your waiter in advance that you’ll be using the gift card, and be sure to tip based on the total amount, not the discounted amount you actually end up paying.
I have not found a website that aggregates these offers, but there are usually limited-time offers for additional points / rewards when you review a restaurant after dining there. As an example, almost all of the major dining rewards networks offer a first-time bonus when you sign up, complete your first dine, and then review the restaurant.
Limited Time Offers
Again, there is no website I’m aware of that aggregates these offers, but among other things, every city typically has multiple food festivals that offer great deals and great opportunities to taste excellent food cheaply or for free. If you want to be kept abreast of these deals, the best way to do it short of continually checking your favorite foodie sites is to sign up for some of the local restaurant community / farmers’ market type newsletters to ensure you don’t miss out on the deals.
Bring your own wine
Although it’s typically not advertised, most restaurants will allow you to bring your own wine and charge you a corkage fee. Check the website or call to see what the corkage policies are for your favorite restaurants. The fee will vary, but it’s almost certainly less than the price of a decent bottle of wine, and if you’re like me, no great dinner is complete without a complementary glass of wine (or two, or three). A good guide to corking can be found here.
That covers most of the ideas that I’ve seen or used, but I’m sure there are more out there if you’re looking hard enough. Feel free to send me an email in the link below if you’d like to share some of your ideas as well. Of course you can save a lot more money if you cook your own food, but hey, if you appreciate good food enough to cook it yourself, then surely you’re not going to shortchange your well-developed palette by denying yourself the fine dining experience!
Logan Hertz works as a business strategy consultant in Atlanta and freelances as a personal finance expert. If you are interested in clever, easy ways to increase your income and reduce your costs, email him.
© 2015 Logan Hertz – permission to reprint is gladly given, provided the author is given credit