Cheap Eats: Dining Out on a Dime

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By Candice Choi -- AP Personal Finance Writer

NEW YORK (AP) — The annual Mother's Day brunch is a tradition for many. But with so many restaurant deals up for grabs, why not make a meal with mom a regular habit?

She might even be tickled by your newfound desire to save.

"The discounts are even more enticing to parents," said Albert Ko, a 24-year-old Boston resident who runs the bargain-hunting blog CheapCheapCheap.com. "My parents don't usually go out to eat, but now we go about once a week."

Value menus and two-for-one deals are part of the Kos' regular rotation these days. The bar is naturally a bit higher for Mother's Day, but Ko is positive he can still find a bargain.

A few of the strategies he employs include scouring coupon Web sites and calling ahead to ask restaurant managers about unadvertised deals.

His prospects look good, with restaurants struggling to fill empty tables. Last year, restaurant visits by those ages 18 to 24 — the most lucrative in the industry — dropped by 8 percent, according to market researcher NPD Group. Visits by parties with children fell 3 percent.

So with some inside knowledge, it shouldn't cost a lot to make breakfast, lunch or dinner with mom a standing date.

Sniff Out Deals Online


There are a variety of ways to save online.

For starters, check whether your favorite restaurants offer any deals. At Restaurant.com, you can get steeply discounted gift certificates to thousands of eateries. A $25 certificate can cost $10, a $50 certificate can go for $20, and so on. The incentive for restaurants is to get more people in the door.

"Restaurant participation is bigger than it has ever been. We know there are more empty tables now than ever before," said Cary Chessick, the site's president and chief executive.

The conditions for the certificates are generally reasonable, but vary depending on the restaurant — so read the terms carefully. For instance, you might need to spend a minimum of $20 on food or use just one coupon per bill. Be sure to check the expiration date as well. Listings are searchable by zip code.

The site also has a "dinner of the month" club, which lets you give a gift certificate to the site over three, six or 12 months. This gives mom the freedom to pick the restaurant. It might be a way to commit to regular meals with her too.

Point reward programs are another saving strategy. At OpenTable.com, members can get 100 points or more for making a reservation. A $20 certificate is awarded for every 2,000 points earned. DinnerBroker.com gives users discounts ranging from 10 percent to 30 percent for booking reservations during off-peak hours.

If you're bringing the kids along, check out MyKidsEatFree.com. The site lists restaurants that offer kid-friendly deals. It's maintained with the help of visitors, so call listed restaurants to confirm the deals.



Make Your Credit Cards Pay

Pick your credit card carefully when reaching for the bill. Most rewards cards let you accumulate points for eating out, but smart timing can bolster the benefits.

Some rewards cards periodically boost cash back rewards for spending at restaurants, said Ben Woolsey, a spokesman for CreditCards.com. Notifications for such deals are usually included with billing statements or online, so keep an eye out.

Airline rewards cards usually have options to let people earn miles by eating at most major chains, too, Woolsey said.

One concern with credit cards is that people tend to spend more when using them instead of cash. The tendency might be heightened with rewards cards, so be careful.

Know How to Work the System

Any pro at dining out cheaply will tell you that timing is key.

And deals during off-peak hours are becoming even more popular in the downturn, said Hudson Riehle, head researcher the National Restaurant Association, based in Washington, D.C. Major chains usually advertise such deals. Otherwise, it can't hurt to give a restaurant you like a call and ask.

Offers might be for a free meal, dessert or appetizer with a purchase of a certain dish.

"The promotional activities can be really diverse, depending on the type of restaurant and who they're going after," he said.

That swanky restaurant you've had your eye on might be within reach, too, with high-end restaurants offering prix fix menus to lure diners. Your dish options might be limited, but you still get the experience of dining at a well-known place.

Another way to get in on deals is to sign up for e-mail newsletters from major chains such as Olive Garden, Outback Steakhouse and Red Lobster. Restaurants with a loyal clientele might even have text message alerts about the day's specials.

Expand Your Dining Horizons

Making dining dates with your mom more frequent means it doesn't have to be a traditional sit-down experience every time. You might even have more fun exposing her to cheap spots she'd never try on her own.

For instance, your mother might enjoy the novelty of dim sum at a Chinese restaurant, said Zach Brooks, who runs MidtownLunch.com, a blog about eating cheap in New York City.

"If she's never had that kind of food, it can seem like a special, exciting meal," Brooks said.

Every city has at least one beloved hole-in-wall eatery, too. These might serve a unique dish or offer a quirky experience. Just ask around at work to see if there are any new places people are talking about.

Ultimately, let your mom's personality be a guide. If you have fond memories of hitting the local diner for burgers and shakes when you were younger, try scouting out a more upscale version in a new neighborhood. Pick a spot near an activity she'll enjoy, and you can make a day of it.

Related Story:

5 Web Sites To Help You Dine Out Cheap

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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