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Four young adults enjoying a meal together (Photos.com/Photos.com)
Four young adults enjoying a meal together (Photos.com/Photos.com)

Smart Cookies

Put your dining out budget on a diet Add to ...

Mint.com shows me that I’m over my dining out budget for the month. With two weeks left in October it appears it’s going to have to be KD for me, unless I pull from other areas. A birthday, a wedding weekend out of town, a bite out with a colleague, and a sunny Sunday brunch that turned into caesars on the patio, and then eventually rolled into dinner, have cost me more than $400. Eating out is without a doubt one of the biggest expenses for me and my friends, and if you’re winging it, it’s even costlier. A proactive approach to dining out, while taking advantage of few savings strategies, will help to keep you within budget and dining guilt-free. If I want to get back on track for November, it’s clear I need a more mindful approach to avoid maxing my meals-out budget two weeks into the month.

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Reserve and review online

I make reservations through OpenTable. It’s free to create an account and when you make and honour online reservations through their site, points are automatically awarded to your account. You earn 100 points for each reservation, or in some cases 1,000 points for certain restaurants. It takes 2,000 points to get a $26 OpenTable dining cheque, so if you’re making reservations anyway, you might as well get something in return. Following your favourite spots through social media is also another way we’ve heard of to get the scoop on specials, and it’s also an efficient way to express a not-so-great night out. Last week, my Vancouver-based business partner tweeted about an unappetizing salad she had at a local restaurant. Shortly after she received a message from the restaurant asking what they could do to correct the situation. Of course, praise for a great meal and great service can also go a long way.

Dine with discounts

Ryan Sutton, food critic and founder of The Bad Deal says that if we financially need a deal to eat out, then we shouldn’t eat out. “This isn’t cutting coupons so your family can afford milk. This is leisure. These are luxuries you save up for,” he shares on his site, created to expose bad deals from popular social-buying sites, and share tips on how to avoid them. While it’s true that if you purchase a deal to save, you’ve still committed yourself to spend, it still makes sense to use your coupons or daily deals if you have a special occasion on the calendar. Most cities have their own online resources, like LetsGoForDinner.com in Vancouver. Spend $15 for a membership fee and receive annual discounts of up to 50 per cent off at some of the city’s popular restaurants. An Entertainment Book is also a smart buy if you eat out often. You can preview coupon options online before buying on their home page. The books are currently listed at $32. Shipping is free and you get access to thousands of deals in your city.

Dining Etiquette

One way to stay in control of costs is to talk it over with your friends when it comes to selecting where and when you’ll eat out. Suggesting the spots that are within budget and allow you to use coupons, if you have them, keeps you in control of how much you’ll be spending. Grabbing a drink and an appetizer at your place, or your dinner date’s place is also a cost-saver. It’s estimated wine in restaurants is marked up by as much as 500 per cent, and appetizers can come at high prices for a small amount of food. A glass or two less of wine, and scratching the appetizer can potentially cut your bill in half. And when the bill arrives, especially if you’re in a large group, don’t get sucked into splitting the bill evenly – especially if the person suggesting this ordered the most expensive dish and is sipping on an after-dinner drink while tallying up how much everyone owes.

Even if you’re cutting back on eating out, certain social activities might be hard to skip. If eating out is a part of your monthly routine, then opt for an online service like Mint.com, to alert you when you’re getting close to going over your allotted allowance. This way you can enjoy your meals out guilt-free and stick to your spending plan – a strategy to make your budget and your belly happy.

Angela Self is one of the founders of the Smart Cookies money group. Read her weekly column on managing debt and saving money at the Globe’s personal finance site.

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