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Cheap eats : Save money eating out by reverse engineering restaurant menu psychology

As I mentioned in one of my previous posts, our major budget buster is eating out. I love food. I love to try different cuisines. Yes, I can and I do cook at home. The major chunk of our eating out expense is due to 1-2 restaurant visits/week. I can cut that down, but I prefer not to. I am a vegetarian and a very picky eater, so that removes fast food restaurants from the picture; which means our average check is going to be between $30 and $40, including tips.

So how can I bring this down? How can I cut my eating out expense? With restaurant sales forecasted to hit 660 billion in 2013, I am sure a lot of us are interested in curbing this expense. I searched the internet a lot to find information on how to find discount gift cards and vouchers, cutting coupons, skipping the drinks, etc. They sounded helpful but didn’t really make a major dent in our budget. I know I shouldn’t be ordering drinks but after I stopped drinking soda every day, I crave one when I go out. I know I should take half the meal  back home for another meal, but as we spend as much time as possible engaging in conversation, the food just disappears. Most of those tips don’t work for me.

I know I had to look at my eating patterns, my weakness and strengths when it comes to food, to figure out how to save money.

And without intending to do so, I gathered a treasure trove of information to help me do just that – study my food psychology. Now that I have studied me well enough, I have compiled a list of strategies that will help me (and hopefully you!) save more than the $2 I will save by skipping coke.

Where is my data coming from?

I had to eat out for almost a month last year due to travel and not having access to a kitchen. At that time, I decided to start a journal to share with my husband. He was travelling too and I wanted to share everything about all the restaurants I went to and figure out which ones he liked as well (from my commentary) for us to go to again on our nights out. I had just done a mystery shopping for a restaurant, so I pretty much followed the same structure to recording my thoughts about each restaurant. My commentary included – wait time to be seated, where I was seated, what I thought about the ambiance, how long I spent in the restaurant, whether I was there for lunch or dinner, what I thought about the menu, what I ordered, what I thought about food, price of my selection, what I expected out of each restaurant and what my perception was after my dining experience. I could also look up menus, pricing and calorie information online in most cases; the rest, I took pictures.

I compared my decisions and thoughts with the research findings of various food psychology professors (esp. Professor Brian Wansink of Cornell University, author of Mindless Eating).

How can this help in saving money on eating out?

Putting together these two sources of data (my experiences and research findings); I was able to come up with a set of guidelines and tips for my future eating out experiences, using which, I believe, I will be able to save money, eat healthier and enjoy my eating out experiences better.

Practical & psychological tips on saving money on eating out

Now, on to the tips. I have categorized them based on the order in which we usually proceed while at a restaurant.

Being mindful of the restaurant ambiance

Tip #1: Choose a restaurant with an open mind. Do not decide the expensive price tag is worth it before tasting the food and experiencing the dinner.

Every time I picked a restaurant, just reading the name of the restaurant caused me to form some expectations. I didn’t realize this until a conversation with my husband later on, but the preconceived notions I formed were very illuminating. For example, if the restaurant name was Italian, I automatically assumed that restaurant would be more authentic than an Italian place with an English name.

California vs North Dakota Wine

Source: Mindless Eating

I am not alone in this. Prof. Wansink and his colleagues found that people found a wine tastier when it was labeled as California wine vs North Dakota wine, even though it wass the exact same wine in both cases. Some of us have preconceived notions of what is good and in turn what is worth more money. That is why companies advertise. Depending on what image they plant in our mind, we are ready to shell out more money.  Even if you don’t fall for this in the eating out area, if you are particularly fond of any brand-name items, you might want to ask yourself why. You could even do a blind test to see if you still like the item.

Tip #2: Order something that will take a long time to eat if you want to relax, otherwise you might end up ordering more drinks.

I spent more time in the restaurant if I was seated in a booth or a secluded corner, away from major traffic. I was more relaxed. My bills were larger whenever I went for the “relaxation” experience. Nothing wrong with that, but I also ate more than I should have and that is not good for my health or my wallet.

Tip #3: Know what you value in a dining out experience – Convenience of not having to cook and clean? Gourmet food? Romantic night out? The pick a restaurant fitting your budget based on the purpose.

Dim lights, soft music and candles made for a romantic ambiance and somehow I was willing to pay more in these types of restaurants than a cafeteria style restaurant. Again, this is not inherently wrong. But I was dining alone. If I had thought about what I was expecting when I picked these specific restaurants – get a meal, I would have realized that I won’t be able to enjoy the experience alone as much as I would with my husband. For satisfying my hunger a cafeteria style place would have served me well. There was no need to shell out money for a romantic experience alone. I picked my restaurants based on habit instead of the purpose.

Tip #4: Wait until you finish your entrée before ordering dessert.

Why do you think there are delicious looking drinks or dessert pictures on the tabletop display? If I entered the restaurant hungry and the restaurant had a tasty looking dessert picture on the table, I almost always ordered a dessert along with my entrée without waiting until I finished the entrée.

Dessert on the tabletop

Research backs me up – the best time to sell dessert is when the guest is hungry. That is why a lot of restaurants have a separate dessert menu that remains on the table.

Reverse engineering the menu design

I had heard a lot about menu engineering. They were quite interesting but I always thought I was above them. Who actually spends more if the menu doesn’t have $ sign in front of the price? Who doesn’t notice the price if it is a smaller font? Obviously, not very sharp people right? Turns out I am one of them.

Tip #5: Understand the careful engineering that goes into menu design to make you spend more and make unconscious decisions.

The design of the menu is a very scientifically thought out process. Here are some of the subtle tricks that appear in a restaurant menu designed to sell more –

  • Dollar sign removed from prices. When prices are listed in one of the 3 ways: $20.00, 20, or twenty dollars, the center format got the highest yield, an average increase of 8.15%.
  • More descriptive names or ingredients listed in a delicious way sold 27% more compared to non-descriptive names. I agree that I tend to order something described in a very tasty way (Caramelized onions and freshly picked cherry tomatoes on a perfectly baked Parmesan dough finished with fresh basil sounds much better than a two topping pizza).
  • High priced, specialty items highlighted using a special symbol or a box around it or with pictures and description in the prime real estate.
  • Customers spend an average of 109 seconds to study the menu, so the menu has to sell the items fast. Several eyeball tracking studies have been done to figure out how we graze upon the menu and the special items that the restaurant wants to sell are presented in the high visible area.
  • Beauty sells. High priced or high profit margin items are usually pictured in the menu to increase sales.
  • There will usually be a very high priced item or two to mentally set the price anchor. That price tag shocks us and sets the expectation high for the price. When we see a reasonably priced item, we consider that a bargain and order that.
  • Display the price at the end of the description instead of having them align in a column. The aligned prices makes it easy to glance through them and pick the cheapest, whereas staggering the price at the end that is not standing out sounds more reasonable after reading the succulent food description.

How our eyes read a menu

Source: Restaurant Start up & Growth Magazine

Tip #6: Withdraw cash before you go to a restaurant. If you decide to spend only the cash in hand, it makes you a lot more rational than thinking about money after finishing the meal.

Set aside that amount when you are ordering (even if you are going to be paying with a credit card at the end). Setting the cash aside drives down the fact on how much each item costs, in spite of all the menu designs to make you NOT notice the price.

Tip #7: Ask for the lunch menu or check if they have any single portion menu

I went to an Italian place one day for dinner and another for lunch. The portion of the eggplant was exactly the same – 3 baked eggplant pieces, the lunch pasta portion was about 2/3 of the dinner pasta. The price of the dinner dish was 64% more than the lunch price (see the menu below). I will take the lunch version and keep the extra $6.25 in my wallet.

Lunch vs dinner menu price

 

Controlling the portion size

Tip #8: Ask for half the food to be packed in a doggy bag before the food hits your table.

54% of American adults aim to finish whatever is on their plate. So if you get the entire dish, you might want to finish it even though you are technically full half way through the dish. Fortunately, I didn’t have this problem while eating alone. Unfortunately, I had a different problem which prevented me from taking part of the meal home. I didn’t feel like taking the leftovers home because at that point the mixed up food didn’t look very appetizing to me.

Tip #9: Go for lunch. The price is almost half most of the time and the portion is either a little less (more reasonably sized) or exactly the same (Like in the case of the Italian restaurant I went to).

As I mentioned above, the lunch prices are much more reasonable than the dinner prices.

Tip #10: Snack before you go out and just order appetizers.

If I am too hungry I always order more than I can eat. If I eat even a small snack, I am much more reasonable on getting just what I want, which most of the times is an appetizer, salad or a small plate instead of a whole entrée. The difference in the check can be quite high too. Also, sometimes, I just want to get out of the house and go somewhere. Apparently, I am a very boring person because most of the time that “somewhere” turns out to be a restaurant. Did I already mention I like food? During those times, I am not looking for an enormous meal; I am just looking for the restaurant experience. If I ate a snack before I hit the table, I can order one or even two personal sized appetizers, have a good time and still keep my food budget in check.

Tip #11: Ask the waiter not to refill your bread basket, free tortillas or whatever bottomless calorie pit the restaurant offers. If you are planning to eat them, skip the appetizer.

This won’t save much money, quite the opposite, but it will save you from eating a lot of unnecessary carbs – if the bread basket gets to your table, you are going to eat it all. Keep it away from you where you have to make some effort to reach it or ask the waiter to remove it as soon as your appetizer/entrée gets to your table.

Tip #12: Have a restaurant buddy.

Most of the time, a little nudge is all it takes to redirect us in the right path. Whether it is controlling spending, saving more money or changing any habits, having an accountability partner is a very powerful psychological force.

When it comes to restaurants, having a partner not only helps with sharing the food and saving 50% but also to curb the temptation. I am a food addict, my husband eats to live. Being polar opposites has its benefits. All he has to do for me to stop eating is to remind me that I have not exercised that day or how I swear off any dessert for the rest of my life the previous night I weighed myself. I have weak self-control when it comes to food and with any mind exercise it is good to have someone who can gently nudge you in the right direction.

Tip #13: Skip the salty snacks if you don’t want to spend too much drinking.

Salty snacks increase our urge to order more drinks. The peanuts and pretzels are there at the bar counter for a reason.

Other tips that helped with the bottom line

Tip #14: Use coupons and promotions

I have tried a lot of restaurants using LivingSocial and Groupon promotions that I otherwise wouldn’t have. Most of the times, the deal has been 50-75% off an expensive place. I would never go to those places if I hadn’t bought the vouchers. Less risk for me to regret the price tag later if I paid full price and the place sucked.

Tip #15: Buy cheap gift certificates/cards

Restaurant.com has quite a few independent restaurants in my area. I can get up to 80% off a gift certificate to use .Costco and online gift card swapping places like giftcardrescue.com are also great to buy discounted gift cards.

There is a current deal for getting $25 worth of gift certificates for $4. That is almost 85% off!!!! Use code ONEDAY to get take advantage of this deal.

Tip #16: Set up an eating out budget or an envelope and monitor continuously

Keeping a running tab of the spending throughout the month keeps our restaurant spending in check. We go over easily if I lose track of my spending.

Tip #17: Utilize all the early bird specials and any special discounts (senior, military, law enforcement, etc.)

Quite a few restaurants have half-priced happy hour appetizers and early bird specials. Start your dinner early, beat the crowd and also save money. A lot of restaurants also offer special discounts for seniors (above 55), military personnel, law enforcement officers, teachers and student discounts (esp. in a university town).

Tip #18: Earn cash back through surveys

Sites like iDine lets you complete a survey when you dine out and gives you 5-15% back for your review. For every survey you get some cash back and when you hit the $20 threshold they will send you an American Express gift card. My credit card has a similar program.

Tip #19: Buy gift cards during holiday season

I have written about this trick I use. Restaurants usually have a major promotion during the holiday season to push their gift card sales. Sometimes it is % off, but more commonly it is get a $5 bonus card for getting $20-$25 worth of gift cards. It works out to be a 17-20% savings on the restaurants that we would go anyways paying full price.

Tip #20: Cook at home

Lame tip I guess and technically this doesn’t belong in the saving money on eating out post, but nothing saves more money than not eating out frequently. Get the recipes of your favorite restaurant dish and attempt to make it at home. This helps me to estimate the actual cost of the meal and order something that I can’t usually make at home for cheap or in less time.

Not everyone falls for every one of these strategies. For example, none of these affect my husband. I have a weakness for food and as someone who connects with food emotionally, I am gullible. By evaluating my spending habits in a restaurant objectively and being conscious about my weaknesses, I believe I can save more money while eating out and also enhance my dining out experience.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Pauline

Fascinating data. I wonder if people ordered the ND wine or were offered it for free or recommended by the waiter. I don’t think I would order it at all and maybe people who did don’t know much about wine and savoring a meal, which could be why they left quickly.
I used to love to eat out but as I progress with my cooking I tend to find very little interest in
- getting out in the cold when I’m already comfy at home
- having to tip a waiter, good or bad
- waiting for my food when it would be ready when I want at home
- undergoing the sales pitch pushing us to buy extras (garlic bread, coffee, whatever)

and cooking the same meal at home makes you realize that you usually pay 3-4 times the price to eat out. Especially vegetarian, veggies are really cheap.
I used to like 2 for 1 deals on mains but have found that usually ordering from the set menu is pretty much the same.

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My Financial Independence Journey

Cooking at home really reduced my restaurant usage. There’s just no point most of the time. Of course there are very good (and very expensive) restaurants that can make food that I can’t make at home. I still go to those restaurants. I just go a lot less.

The one other wildcard for going out to eat is friends. Where I lived previously, I had friends who loved to go out to eat. So my dining out budget ballooned. Where I live now, I don’t know anyone. So my restaurant expenses are basically zero right now.

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Jules@Fat Guy,Skinny Wallet

This was so interesting! I am sure I subconsciously fall prey to these tricks! Thank you for opening my eyes to a new way to see things! I have noticed many of these things being done at restaurants. Our minds are so powerful!

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Kathleen, Frugal Portland

I love how well researched this is. I definitely do #20 most of all, so I don’t have to worry too much when I do eat out.

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Kim@Eyesonthedollar

#11 is a killer. We don’t eat out very often, so I think a splurge is OK when we do, but the bottomless basket of chips is certainly not necessary and I will keep eating them if they are there.

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