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

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.

Look Up Specials on Off Days One of the things Steve Dublanica mentioned as a tip in Waiter Rant: Thanks for the Tip -- Confessions of a Cynical Waiter was going to restaurants on weekdays. His purpose was explaining that you'd get better, more personal service when it wasn't so crowded, which is a good reason, but many places also offer incentives on slow nights to bring in business.

Take a few moments to look through the restaurant's Web site to see what they offer as far as specials on the more unconventional nights out. If you have kids, almost every family-friendly restaurant has some sort of discount or Kids Eat Free time that serves the dual purpose of marketing and herding noisy children to one specific time of the week.

A pleasing side effect of doing this is that you're more likely to eat local than in big national chains, since local eateries have more flexibility and incentive to build a customer base this way.

Eat Take-Out: Sometimes you want the ambience or experience of a night out, and sometimes you just want Chuy's Special Enchiladas however you can get them. My family is big on restaurant food at home, and if the drive isn't too far it can actually be a big money saver. First off, you'll likely be drinking your own, far cheaper, drinks at home. Barring that, sometimes you can supplement with what you have lying around, say, using an appetizer like potato skins as a family side dish for leftover chicken you already had in the fridge.

You also save on the tip. Most people don't tip on take-out, and that's not right. Depending on the establishment, the take-out servers could be doing a lot more work to get your meal together than you think. Still, you tip less for take-out, between a couple of bucks and 10 percent. More if what you're ordering is a pain in the ass or the curbside brings it to you in the rain.

Bonus Tip: Don't Tell Anyone You're Going Out: If you're consistently poor or struggling, then you probably complain about it on social media and the like. While many people are perfectly understanding of you scraping by, some of them turn downright nasty when they hear you had an evening out.

They may not understand what it's like to come home from a 14-hour workday and just not have the strength to cook, or staring at a pack of hot dogs that you've been eating from for two weeks and deciding that you would rather risk having your lights turned off than cramming a hot dog in your mouth yet again, or even that you've read a list like this and learned how to turn an unobtainable $40 night out into a doable $20 night out.

America worships success, and the result of that worship is a scorn of poverty. You are expected to suffer for the crime of not making enough money. Save yourself a headache and resist the urge to post about your dinner out, unless, that is, you want to hear the more fortunate among your friends write, "If you're poor, how are you out at Red Lobster LOL."

Jef has a new story, a tale of headless strippers and The Rolling Stones, available now in Broken Mirrors, Fractured Minds. You can also connect with him on Facebook.

We use cookies to collect and analyze information on site performance and usage, and to enhance and customize content and advertisements. By clicking 'X' or continuing to use the site, you agree to allow cookies to be placed. To find out more, visit our cookies policy and our privacy policy.


All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >