12 Tips for Saving Money at Fancy Restaurants

Here's a solid rewards card made for people who love food.

An expertly prepared meal at a restaurant is one of life’s great pleasures. When it’s delivered in a great atmosphere with attentive service, the experience is elevated even further. But fine dining establishments can be prohibitively expensive.

If you love fancy restaurants but hate getting the check, here are twelve tips to help you save on your next meal out.

1. Research Restaurant Weeks

Many cities host an annual Restaurant Week, where participating restaurants offer deals, prix fixe (fixed price) meals, and other incentives to get customers in the door. Find out when the next Restaurant Week is happening near you, as it could be the perfect time to visit that new restaurant you’ve been dying to try.

2. Attend Soft Opens

New restaurants often launch with a soft open, a dry run in which the kitchen and wait staff practice food prep and service before they officially open for business. Friends and family who snag an invite can often dine at these events for free. If you’ve got your nose to the local culinary scene, you can try to secure invites to the next hot restaurant’s soft open.

3. Ask for Gift Cards

Expecting some birthday or holiday gifts soon? Now might be the time to start dropping hints about gift cards to your favorite eatery. They may not seem very personal, but gift cards are a great way to get exactly what you want. Keep in mind that gift cards are not as secure as credit cards, so make sure you take steps to protect your gift cards if you do receive some.

4. Visit Deal Websites

Deal websites like Groupon and Restaurant.com hunt down dining discounts for you. Just go to the website and search for deals in your area, or sign up for a newsletter to get offers delivered right to your inbox. Even fancy restaurants offer deals through these sites sometimes, so keep an eye out for your favorites.

5. Go for Lunch

At many fine dining restaurants, lunch menus are more affordable than the dinner menu. While you may not get access to everything on the dinner menu, you will be able to score a quality meal at a lower price.

6. Skip the Alcohol

Alcoholic beverages can drastically add to the cost of your meal. Skipping the alcohol means you can focus on the unique food that the restaurant offers instead—and your stomach and your wallet will thank you.

7. Ask the Sommelier for Deals

If you plan on having wine, you can ask the sommelier for a deal. “If you want to get a better value on wine, ask them for the ‘bin end list,’” says Jamie Logie, owner of Regainedwellness.com. “These are wines with ripped labels or damaged tops, and past-their-prime vintages. . . . You can end up getting a wine that’s double the value or more.”

8. Avoid Specials

Specials offer meals that aren’t on the everyday menu, but they may not be a good value. “Specials are used a lot of the time as a way to make the most money on a plate of simple ingredients or . . . items that need to be cleared out,” said Logie. Choosing from a restaurant’s regular menu can help you save money while still providing you with a quality dining experience.

9. Split Meals

Restaurants often overload plates with more food than you need for a full meal. If the restaurant’s portions are big enough, you can split your appetizers, entrées, and dessert with a companion. And if you split the bill as well, you’ll automatically cut the check in half. Some restaurants do charge an extra fee for splitting menu items, so keep that in mind.

10. Skip Apps and Dessert

Appetizers and dessert don’t come cheap at fine dining establishments. If you eat a light snack before going out and have a dessert waiting at home, you’ll only have to spring for an entrée. While you may feel a little deprived, remember that entrées are the star of the show at restaurants. Focusing on those dishes will give you the most bang for your buck.

11. Make It a Business Expense

If you’re a business owner, the IRS will let you deduct meals purchased during work travel or meals conducted for business purposes. Next time you want to visit a nice restaurant, consider taking an employee or client out with you. You can deduct 50% of meals purchased on business trips or to entertain clients and 100% of some meals purchased for employees. This can help you save big when you file your taxes.

There are limitations, so check IRS guidelines to make sure your meal is covered.

12. Get a Rewards Credit Card

Many credit cards earn cash back or points rewards on your purchases, with some cards specifically designed to reward dining purchases. These cards will add value every time you dine out. If eating out is a priority for you, look for a credit card that rewards those purchases.

Next time you’re in the mood for a fancy night out, implement some of these tips to save some cash. And if you need more tips for saving money, check out our Personal Finance Learning Center.

Image: gilaxia

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Forget Coffee & Toast. Here Are 18 Smart Ways to Use an Avocado

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Avocados have been a thing for awhile now, but thanks to avocado toast-shaming and something called the avolatte (it is exactly as it sounds), the fruit has gone viral. And while the question of whether avo-everything is keeping millennials from the American Dream remains up for debate, there’s one thing that can’t be disputed. All fruits considered, avocados are expensive.

But fear not millennial (or beyond), there are some ways you keep your avocado cravings from breaking the bank — or, dare we say, costing you the house. Whether you’re looking to repurpose overly ripe skins or hoping to utilize peel to nut, here are 15 smart ways to use an avocado.

1. Deep Treat Your Hair

Skip the expensive salon treatments and DIY your own deep conditioner by mixing a mashed avocado and an egg yolk. It sounds unappealing, but all the protein, vitamins and nutrients can have major benefits for your scalp. Detailed recipes are available on Pinterest.

2. Soothe a Sunburn …

An avocado’s nutrients can ease the pain of sun-ravaged skin, so feel free to slather some on if you over-do it at the beach this summer. Add some aloe vera to expedite the healing process.

3. … or Some Serious Razor Burn

Getting red bumps when you shave? Mix avocado with coconut oil and shea butter to quell the burn.

4. Exfoliate

Say goodbye to rough feet (and pricey foot scrubs) by grinding up a dried avocado pit and mixing it with sea salt. You can also use the inside of an avocado peel to tackle particularly rough patches. Again, there are plenty of detailed DIY recipes on Pinterest. (Don’t want to bother? Maybe you’d prefer to shell out for these eight ridiculously expensive hotel spa treatments.)

5. Make Jewelry

Crafters can get some extra bang for their avocado buck by repurposing those perfectly round pits into the raw materials for some distinctive accessories. Simply wash the pits and let them dry for a few days until they shrink, then cut and paint as you please.

6. Dye Some Fabric

When used correctly, avocado pits can create gorgeous au naturel pink or russet red hues. You can find a full recipe for avocado dye on CUESA.org.

7. Make a Delicious Mousse …

If you have a sweet tooth but want to eat healthy, avocados are your go-to ingredient. Blending an avocado with melted chocolate, sugar and a few other ingredients makes a decadent dessert that everyone will love, even people who don’t care for avocado. There are dozens of recipes available online.

8. … or Tasty Truffles

While you’re at it, scour the internet for chocolate truffle recipes that swap avocados for heavy cream. They’re (somewhat) healthier, so you can feel less guilty about shoveling them into your mouth while watching TV. Bonus: Overly ripe avocados blend right in with chocolate.

9. Lose the Butter

Paula Deen may recoil in horror at this one, but, as many vegans know, an avocado’s buttery texture makes the perfect substitute for butter in many baking recipes.

10. Thicken Your Smoothies

An avocado’s signature creamy texture can also add some je ne sais quoi to your morning smoothie. Plus, juicing at home is just one way breakfast can fix your money problems. (You can track your financial goals by viewing your free credit report snapshot each month on Credit.com.)

11. Have a Quick Bite

Halve and pit your avocado, drizzle some Worcestershire sauce in the middle and voila! You’re ready to snack.

12. Put an Egg on It

After you’ve cranked the oven to 450, slice and pit an avocado and set the halves in a baking dish. Sprinkle with hot sauce and crack an egg into each half. Bake for 12 minutes.

13. Upgrade Your BLT

Ever heard of a BLAT? We haven’t either, but avocados really do go with everything.

14. Make Avocado Fries …

Sure, they may not be as satisfying as the real deal, but these little treats are delicious. Plus, no deep frier required — slice them up, dip them in egg and then breadcrumbs, bake and enjoy!

15. … or Just Go With Good Old-Fashioned Guacamole

Why mess with a good thing, you know?

16. Have an Avo-Cocktail In

Specialty drinks at a swanky restaurant are a quick way to run up the bill — especially if you’re opting for an alcoholic beverage. Satiate your inner foodie by blending an avo-cocktail at home. Most recipes are simple and only require a little bit of avocado puree, agave syrup, vodka, lemon and ice.

17. Throw Them in the Garbage

Well, not literally. When you’re finished eating an avocado or it’s gone bad, add the leftovers to your compost bin. The skin and peel, particularly, can facilitate some fertile and fabulous soil. Consider that a win-win, since avocados are expensive and gardening can help save a ton of money on produce.

18. Plant an Avocado Tree

Speaking of gardening, you can grow an avocado tree from an avocado pit. It’ll take some time, a lot of legwork and a little bit of luck, but if you’ve got a green thumb (and an insatiable thirst for guacamole), the project could wind up paying for itself. There are plenty of tutorials on YouTube to help you get growing.

Image: domoyega

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A Butcher’s 6 Secrets for Saving Money on Meat

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When I think about thrift and meat — specifically in the U.S., but increasingly in areas like Europe — the first thing that comes to mind is the devotion folks have to tenderness. This tends to be the Holy Grail quality people look for in meat.

To me, this is a backwards approach to quantifying the quality of meat.

What we really should focus on is the flavor of meat. Meat — literally, the muscle tissue, fibers, etc. — has very little inherent flavor. (Most of the flavor we experience when eating meat comes from the fats in and around the muscle fibers.) The flavor that does exist in muscle tissue develops, mainly, from two things: activity and older age. Tenderness comes, mainly, from two things: confinement and younger age. I think you can see which one plays into the hand of the commercial meat industry. As they produce animals that grow faster and faster, they get them to market weight quicker and quicker, but the result is lackluster flavor.

What we are forgetting is that you can address the issue of texture (tenderness) postmortem (after death). You can never infuse more of the meat’s natural flavor into the meat postmortem. If we began focusing on developing flavor in living animals, we could still achieve desirable tenderness for an end product. But, it would turn the current industry approach on its head. (Not that that would be a bad thing.)

I should also add that, contrary to popular belief, the meat from older animals is not inherently undesirable in texture. I address this in many of my workshops.

I bring all of this up because there is an irony in how meat is priced in this country. You pay more for tenderness, but the more affordable cuts are, more often than not, the more flavorful options. Thus, if you know what to do with a cut, you’ll get more for your dollar while also producing more flavorful meals.

Here are my tips for using these factors to your favor when it comes to spending less on meat.

1. First and foremost, eat less meat & eat more vegetables.

Nothing cuts down on the expense of meat in our food budgets like reducing our intake. Meat is often the most expensive ingredient we purchase. It’s also the one that we overindulge in more than anything else (except sugar). We eat far more meat than our bodies require, impacting our health as well as the resources that sustain the animals.

When considering a portion size, choose 4 to 6 ounces. Move away from the large format single-portion cuts, like thick-cut chops and steaks. Instead, share them amongst multiple people, or purchase cuts that allow for smaller individual portions.

Fill the vacated space on the plate with vegetables, and cook them in healthy fats like olive oil, coconut oil, or lards and tallows rendered from healthy animals. The vegetables will provide you with more nutrients, and the fat helps you feel sated longer without the digestive stress that large amounts of meat can cause.

2. Purchase whole animals whenever possible. 

Photo courtesy of Adam Danforth

Adam Danforth holds a chicken for slaughter.
Photo courtesy of Adam Danforth

When you purchase a whole animal you are saving a considerable cost based on the direct connection to the farmer. You cut out a large portion of the overhead and middleman costs attached to meat while giving as much money to the farmer as possible. You also know more about where that meat has come from, if that concerns you.

Smaller animals, like poultry or rabbits, are purchased whole and easily butchered at home. Larger animals, like sheep, pigs, or cattle, can be purchased as whole, half, or sometimes quarter carcasses. The carcass is butchered into manageable, recognizable cuts, then frozen for home storage.

Furthermore, whole animals offer an opportunity to work with foundational cooking components that are otherwise unavailable or more expensive when purchasing stand-alone. This includes bones and fat, two of the most important ingredients in nutrient-rich and flavorful cooking. Turning bones into stock is quite easy, and rendering fat, which can take some time to refine (no pun intended), are both worth the passive time.

Now, just because we can buy a whole animal does not automatically mean that it is sourced from local farmers. When we look to smaller animals, like poultry and rabbits, the vast majority are coming off of commercial operations. In that case, it’s good to look for some measure of production quality, whether it be humane certification — Animal Welfare Approved (AWA) and Humane Farm Animal Care (HFAC) are two good ones — or plainly organic. Even in these cases, buying whole carcasses is still a benefit, and those animals require very little butchery to get what you want out of them. (Breaking down a chicken can be done with most home knives and learned from the vast amount of videos available online.) Even if you choose to roast the animal whole, you can keep the carcass bones and make a roasted stock from them.

If you’re further interested in bones, fat and organs, approaching a local processor can often yield super cheap results, since so many customers of theirs choose not to take them. And, the smaller processors often don’t have the infrastructure to keep them around, so they just head to rendering companies.

3. Avoid the middle meats & skip the tenderloin.

In America, most of the money made off a carcass is from an area called the middle meats — the span of meat along the spine from somewhere around the 5th rib to the pelvis. Common cuts from here are in the rib, center-cut, and loin chops in pork; the ribeye, porterhouse, T-bone and New York strip steaks in beef; and the rib, rack, loin and saddle chops in sheep.

Instead of these more expensive and less flavorful cuts, look to areas just outside the middle meats for cuts that can potentially offer more flavor. In pork and lamb, look for shoulder chops. In beef, look to chuck, Delmonico or sirloin steaks. They may take a bit longer to cook, at a lower temperature, but the results will be more flavor and less cost.

And, above all else, skip tenderloin. It’s the most expensive cut, pound for pound, and it’s also the least flavorful.

4. Learn how to braise and roast. 

The most flavorful cuts are those that have worked the hardest. (Refer to my earlier point on what develops flavor in living animals.) These cuts are often the ones that require lengthier, slower cooking times. Think: shanks, hocks, brisket, breasts, drumsticks, etc. These cuts break down during the cooking time to provide an unctuous sauce (part of the benefit of collagen’s hydrolyzation into gelatin) that will enrich any dish; the vegetables that are cooked with it will provide more nutrients; and any recipe will offer ways to extend it far beyond that of a quick-cooking single-portion cut (like steaks or chops).

Because they aren’t quick-cooking or grilling cuts, or famous middle-meat cuts, the cost of braising and roasting cuts are often much less.

5. Purchase older or dual-purpose animals.

This can be a bit more challenging to find, but availability is increasing around the country, albeit slowly. Older animals tend to be eschewed based on a stigma that they have poor texture and “gamey” flavor, but given the right husbandry and postmortem conditions, older animals can provide a better product than their younger counterparts and at a far more affordable cost. This also goes for dual-purpose animals: livestock that has been raised for reasons other than exclusively meat, e.g. dairy, fiber, offspring, etc.

One way to source these animals is to find a reputable wool or dairy operation and inquire about what they do with their cull animals, the ones that they are getting rid of at the end of a season. In these cases you’ll probably end up purchasing a whole or half carcass (note tip No. 2 above), which may further reduce the cost.

6. Find a knowledgeable butcher, and trust them. 

Most recipes offer a suggested meat to work with, but in many cases it’s not the only option. Talk to your butcher about cheaper alternatives that can yield similar, if not better, results. Also, ask your butcher about what cheaper cuts they recommend, and some guidance in how to prepare them according to your level of cooking. Your search can start here or here.

[Editor’s note: Strictly adhering to a budget plan, especially on your groceries, will allow you to eventually start saving money, pay down bills,consolidate debt and reach your financial goals. A sound management plan can also efficiently subsidize your food budget plan for alleviating debt. If you’re cutting spending to pay down debt and want to see how it’s impacting your credit, you can get two free credit scores every month on Credit.com.]

This story is an Op/Ed contribution to Credit.com and does not necessarily represent the views of the company or its partners.

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