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Queen of free: Dining out need not bust food budget


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It happens to me all of the time. I’m shopping at the grocery store and someone exclaims, “Don’t look at my cart. I didn’t use any coupons.”

I’m browsing at the local department store and a shopper catches my eye, looking like they’re about to cry for overpaying for new clothes.

A friend rushes by me with a bag of take-out food and apologizes, “I know we shouldn’t be eating out, but it has been such a busy week.”

Can we call a truce? Just because I love to save money and love to help you save money doesn’t mean that I don’t have a moment of weakness now and then. It doesn’t mean that I don’t occasionally miss a great deal or forget a coupon. It doesn’t mean we don’t order pizza or ever eat at a restaurant.

Most of all, it doesn’t mean that I’m out to get you or even guilt you into spending your money more wisely. I am not a killjoy. In fact, one of my deepest longings is for you to have more joy.

A meal out on the town can certainly provide such joy, especially in times of celebration or after a difficult week. I love for someone else to cook (and more importantly clean) for me. I love not having to refill my own drink. What I don’t love is accidentally spending way more than I intended during a month on restaurants.

Here are some simple tips to help you both enjoy and save money when dining out.

Plan for it

The worst way to end up at a restaurant is by playing the “What do you want for dinner?” “I don’t know, what do you want?” game. Instead of making a last-minute dispassionate decision, build dining out into your weekly meal plan. Go so far as to choose the restaurant and maybe even the entree you will devour. That way, you can spend the week looking forward to an amazing meal instead of settling for whatever drive-thru you can find open when dinner plans fall apart.

Reward yourself

Choose a restaurant that rewards you for dining there frequently. Whether it’s a chain such as Qdoba Mexican Grill or Panera Bread or a local restaurant with a punch card, collect points or stamps every time you visit to maximize your savings. At a bare minimum, sign up for your favorite restaurant’s e-club to receive coupons on a regular basis and perhaps a freebie on your birthday or anniversary. Just be sure to use an email address specifically designated for e-clubs and coupons so you won’t be overwhelmed by all of the offers in the same inbox with emails from church, family and school.

Find coupons

Whether they are digital or paper, a quick check for coupons could save you a great deal of money in the long term. Keep all of the restaurant coupons and take-out menus in one drawer together so that you can easily find them. An easy Google search on your smartphone of the restaurant’s name and the word “coupon” before you walk into the door might save you $5 to $10.

Check out deal sites

There seems to be a new deal site created every day. From spa services to oil changes and everything in between, businesses want to woo you into their doors with their great deals. Many offer spectacular deals for dining out, too. Be sure to filter your deals by your location and tastes to eliminate being sucked into clicking around for hours.

Use cash

Cash is always your best savings tool when it comes to restaurants. Place money you’ve budgeted for the month into an envelope when you get paid. Resolve not to use plastic, even if it’s a debit card, for the entire month. Once the money is spent, you are done dining out for the month. Placing healthy boundaries and guardrails in your life will keep you from spending more than you intend and can afford.

On www.queenoffree.net you can find free adorable printable cash envelopes that will challenge and inspire you to be intentional with every penny.

When you make a mistake (notice, I didn’t say if — because we all make mistakes), return to guidelines like these. Often otherwise savvy spenders fall off the budget wagon at the chuck wagon and take months to recover from a month’s worth of meals out on the town.

I promise I’m not judging you for eating at a restaurant. The next time you see me out and about, instead of apologizing, wave and smile, telling me how nice it is to see me.

Greenwood resident Cherie Lowe and her husband paid off $127,000 in debt in four years and now live debt-free every day with their two kids. Send questions, column ideas and comments to newstips@dailyjournal.net

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