Five Fine Tips for People on a (Tight) Budget Who Still Want to Eat Out Once in a While

Categories: Discount Dining

Scott Sanchez via Wikipedia
I'm a writer, here a word meaning one broke-ass dude. That said, broke-ass dudes still have to eat, and they can even still eat out on occasion if they plan the trip well. Today I'm going to pass along five of the little tips that I've developed that will allow you to enjoy the luxury of not heating up your own mac and cheese on the stove.

Tip the Pre-Tax Amount: It's still a hotly debated matter of etiquette, true, but when every dollar counts, feel free to tip the cost of your meal before tax is applied. Granted, this saves you a truly minuscule amount in theory. If the pre-tax meal is $30,f your 20 percent tip is $6, whereas the total with tax is $32.48 and the tip is $6.50. Hardly seems worth the effort, does it?

However, calculating the tip exactly generally keeps you from rounding up your tip to a nice whole number (or down if you're an asshole). That means you keep things exact. If that sounds a little overly thrifty or penny-pinching, doing complicated arithmetic to save what usually amounts to at most $2, then I kind of wonder why you clicked on the link to this story in the first place.

That said, do not skimp on the percentage. If you can't afford to tip, you can't afford to eat out. Period.

Order Water. Just Water: Next time you eat out, look at the receipt and see what they're charging you for a fountain soda at the end of the day. I have never understood how we expect McDonald's to include a drink in a numbered meal but are expected to pay extra at a restaurant even though they involve the exact same amount of ingredients and effort.

Seriously, I've seen sodas in restaurants at as high as $3 each. I can get a bottle of wine from Kroger for that price. Granted, it's not good wine, but your Coke isn't exactly fine nectar either. Order water, which is free in most places, and if you're on a budget, never order alcohol in a restaurant. The mark-up is worse than on popcorn at the movie theater, and at least in that instance you get to see a freakin' movie.

Share Entrées: Have you ever really considered how incredibly enormous American portions of food are? Medieval knights sometimes went into battle with shields smaller than your average chicken-fried steak. It's no wonder we're such a fat country. Every meal is like a dare.

If you happen to share tastes with your dining partner, then seriously consider ordering one entrée, with maybe an extra side to also split. If you're dining alone, immediately cut your meal in half and ask for a to-go box. It's easier to justify spending $10 to $15 on a meal if you get two meals out of it. Plus, you'll do wonders for your calorie intake and self-restraint. Some restaurants don't allow sharing, and you should avoid those because they are clearly people with way too high an opinion of their food.

On a similar note, never order your own dessert. There's almost no place in Houston that serves a realistic one-person desert.

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Good tips -- as a former starving grad student who is also a foodie (and sometimes just doesn't want to cook), some other tips: Know which restaurant will allow your dollar to go the farthest. Whether that means enormous serving sizes that you can split or save as leftovers (as you point out) or places that offer "family meals" (a lot of Chinese takeout places have these and they are enough food for one person for a week!) or places that have appetizers that are entree-sized or going at lunch instead of dinner, there are ways to make the most of what you're spending. If you don't mind chain restaurants, sign up for their frequent diner clubs whenever possible. Many offer free meals on birthdays and anniversaries. Follow your favorite restaurants on Facebook and other social media for unadvertised specials. And get on the mailing lists for all the Groupon-esque deals offered in the Houston area. Even now, no longer a starving grad student, I rarely pay full price for a meal and have gotten to eat at some of the best restaurants in Houston. So worth it!

Oh, but always ALWAYS tip on the pre-discounted amount. :)


Eating out when poor wouldn't be something you have to keep secret if you didn't have others donating toward paying your bills or for car repairs. If you can't be honest about your actions and feel you can share the intimate details of your personal finances with people but can't share that you've eaten out, there's a bit of a disconnect.

Noelle A. Perry
Noelle A. Perry

i...what? which part of the article [besides #1] even has anything to do with you or any other "seasoned server"? and i'm unsure how "water = cheaper than sodas or booze", "take out = cheaper than eating in", or "restaurant specials = good" could be construed as untrue.

Heather Murray
Heather Murray

Worst article ever. The author is highly disdainful (in my opinion). And I'm a seasoned server... much of what you wrote just isn't true.


If you are that cheap you should eat at home.

johnnybench topcommenter

"Still, you tip less for take-out, between a couple of bucks and 10 percent." 

Thank you.  You're the first person I've ever seen give a definitive rule on this.  Most people I've talked to about tipping for take-away simply don't do it all.  So is the appropriate range along the lines of a couple of bucks if you're picking up a pizza at the neighborhood joint to 10% if you're picking up the fried chicken dinner at Haven?  Basically, nice restaurant, more people put more effort into the meal and need to be tipped out of the gratuity you leave?

Bruce_Are topcommenter

I've heard that if the server is gay that you don't have to leave a tip. I'm kidding, of course.

Get rid of the tipping pre-tax notion. That's just dumb and amounts to a few cents. Maybe it's just me, but when I go cheap and order water (which I usually do) I leave extra tip to make up for the lower bill. I still save money but the server gets a better tip.

The big one you missed is dining in the bar.  Some nice restaurants have ridiculous specials in the bar area, and not just at happy hour.  And many of these bar areas are just as nice as the main dining area (not crowded with blaring TVs).

MadMac topcommenter

Especially if you're difficult in your order--and those of us who are know we are. If your order/packing prep takes longer than the food prep 10-15%. If the nice server gets it right, anyway.

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