3 genius ways to save money when you dine out at restaurants in 2017
Time to break out Dad's old cookbooks: Restaurants are likely to get more expensive in 2017.
For one, a wave of state-level minimum-wage hikes across the country could make labor more expensive — which could prompt restaurants to raise their prices by as much as 5% in 2017, Darren Tristano, CEO of food industry analysis firm Technomic, told CNBC.
That's roughly double the typical inflation-driven annual hikes of 2-2.5%, he said.
What's more, there are pressures beyond minimum wage laws pushing U.S. restaurants to pay workers more: The number of eateries has grown since 2009, according to Thrillist, while the number of immigrant restaurant workers has fallen. Those workers therefore have more bargaining power over pay.
If establishments then pass higher costs to patrons, the price of dining out could eat up even more of your paycheck.
Millennials in the United States already spend an average of $103 a month eating out, according to a 2016 survey from TD Bank. (If you live in an expensive city like New York or San Francisco, that figure might make you lol.)
Regardless of where you live, one obvious way to be thriftier this year is to cut down on big-spender nights full of surf and turf. But realistically, no matter how hard you try, you'll inevitably end up dropping cash on date nights, celebratory toasts — and the unavoidable best friend's birthday dinner.
So here are a few ways to treat yourself without breaking the bank.
1. Go out to lunch instead of dinner — and ditch dessert
Research shows restaurants face harsher competition for nighttime diners than they do during the day, which often prompts them to offer the same exact dishes for cheaper.
At Jean-Georges in New York City, for instance, the difference is stark: Three courses plus dessert will set you back $84 at lunchtime, while the same offering at dinner is $118.
The easiest way to save money on a restaurant meal is to abstain from the little extras, like the fried appetizer or that delicious — but unnecessary — lava cake.
Indeed, one of the most effective ways to cut costs while eating out is eliminating dessert, Steve Dublanica, author of industry tell-all Waiter Rant told Real Simple.
That's because many restaurants outsource dessert production to another bakery and then jack up the price. No point in paying premium for a frozen dessert, especially if there's an ice-cream parlor or bakery on the way home.
2. BYOB, especially wine
Many personal finance guides recommend the extremely restrained practice of ordering a glass of water with your meal: Water, unlike other beverages, often comes with the meal gratis.
Seriously, don't roll your eyes.
Industry journals actually recommend restaurants mark up booze between four and five times, depending on other costs and your desired profit margin.
That means that a middling $10 bottle of wine will set you back $40 or even $50 if you want to drink it in a restaurant.
If washing down your steak with water seems a bit spartan, consider finding restaurants nearby that allow you to bring your own beverage.
Still, at $15 for a five-liter box of Franzia — which works out to roughly $2.25 per traditional 750-milliliter bottle — will more than make up pulling the trigger on that third course.
3. Ditch brunch — it's not worth it
Savvy industry types say clocking your meal in terms of total dollars and cents spent is the wrong way to go about it.
After all, that 32-ounce ribeye may be pricier than a sensible bowl of pasta, but the ribeye cost the restaurant a lot more money to buy in the first place — and the pasta is likely to be marked up way more than it's worth.
There are other factors to consider when dining out.
If you're in a steakhouse, your order may have benefitted from an aging cellar or other fancy treatment that makes the steak taste better than what you could make at home: So you are arguably getting decent value — and are wasting your cash on that sad "garden salad."
This line of thinking holds that if you're going to eat out at all, you might as well spend a little extra on the things that actually make a restaurant meal special as opposed to foods you can just make yourself.
On that score?
It might be time to break up with your most insufferable millennial pastime, brunch. The meal is replete with cheap foods like eggs and pancakes — both of which you can prepare far more inexpensively at home.
At the very least, it's a good excuse to finally learn to make that bacon-and-egg breakfast poutine.
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