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Independence Day: Dining out on July 4? 15 ways to save.

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Joanne Ciccarello/The Christian Science Monitor/File

(Read caption) This 2006 file photo shows diners at the La Famiglia Giorgio Restaurant in Boston's North End. Following your favorite restaurants on social media and dining during off-peak hours are smart ways to save when dining out, on Independence Day or otherwise.

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How much do you spend on dining out? According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average American family forked over $2,505 on meals away from home in 2010. While that number is down from 2008, when it was $2,698, that’s still a lot of bread.

If you cut your dining costs by just 30 percent, you’d be $751.50 richer within a year. So how do you accomplish that? The obvious solution is: Just don’t go out to eat. But where’s the fun in that? For me, that’s impossible – partly because I live in New Orleans, where we have more than 1,200 restaurants, according to the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau. Dining out is a way of life for me, but so is saving money and increasing my wealth. Here’s how I do both…

1. Buy cheap gift certificates

Restaurant.com sells $25 gift certificates for $10 or $50 gift certificates for $20. The site also has sales throughout the year, and I’ve snagged $25 gift certificates for $5. I keep a stack of these things in my wallet at all times. Most places have a minimum purchase requirement (from $35 and up) but you can generally use the gift certificates any time.

But there are drawbacks: They’re for dine-in only, they’re nonrefundable, and they can only be redeemed once per month per restaurant. Still, the site has become so popular that you can double dip – buying Restaurant.com certificates through an airline’s shopping portal in order to earn frequent flier miles, for instance.

2. Snag online coupons

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If you’re not already using Groupon and LivingSocial, start now. Both sites post daily deals that will give you 50 to 90 percent off at different restaurants. You’ll have to act quickly, but you’ll save a bunch. I just got a dozen cake pops (regularly $17) for $8 through Groupon.

If you don’t want to spend hours sifting through all the offers, Money Talks News deals diva Karla Bowsher has culled the very best on our deals page.

3. Check in

If you have a smartphone, some social networking apps will get you free stuff and discounts. Last weekend, I got free guacamole and a free flan for checking into the restaurant on Yelp. Here are a few apps that score you deals:

4. Ask for special occasion deals

Every restaurant in town knows when my birthday is. Last year, I got three half-price meals, six free desserts, two free entrees, and about a dozen free cocktails – and all I had to do was sign up for a birthday mailing list and turn a year older.

Many restaurants have a birthday or anniversary club. Signing up is free and they’ll send you a coupon around the date. Ask your server how to sign up – and even if they don’t have a mailing list, he’ll tell you what you can get for free or cheap on your special occasion. There’s even a site devoted to listing restaurants where you can eat free on your birthday: eatfreeonyourbirthday.com

5. Follow restaurants on Twitter

Social media-savvy restaurants post special deals on Twitter. Some even post code words. If you tell your server the code word, you’ll get a discount or a freebie. Last month, I got a free dessert for saying “Free Sean Payton” to my server. (I live in New Orleans, and the code words referred to our NFL coach who has been suspended by the league.)

To find a restaurant’s Twitter info, visit its website and look for the “Follow Us” links. One should be for Twitter. Another should be for Facebook. Speaking of which…

6. Become Facebook friends

Here at Money Talks News, we take surveys, hold contests, and give out freebies on our Facebook page as a way to keep in touch with you. Many restaurants do the same thing. By “liking” the restaurant page, you’ll get access to special deals not mentioned anywhere else.

7. Use apps to find deals

I’ve made it a habit to open a few apps before I walk into a restaurant. There are several free apps that post deals to local and chain restaurants. Most places will apply the discount to your bill if you show them the app – no need to print the coupon. Here are a few apps worth downloading:

8. Dine in off-times

Many restaurants in my area extend their lunch hours until late afternoon. By eating dinner early, I get the lunch prices, which are often 25 to 50 percent cheaper than the dinner prices for the same entrees. Before you try somewhere new, visit the restaurant’s website and see if they have a lunch or early bird special.

9. BYOB

It’s uncommon, but some restaurants let you bring your own beer or wine, which is usually cheaper than the cost of paying per glass. Before you go, call ahead and ask if the establishment is BYOB. If they’re not, skip the cocktail and have one somewhere else. Some places will charge a “corkage fee” if you bring your own wine, but even at $10 per bottle, it’s still often cheaper than buying the same bottle in the restaurant.

Most restaurants in my area overcharge for alcohol. For example, my local bar charges $3 for a mixed drink, but the restaurant next door charges $6. I save 50 percent stopping by the bar for my after-dinner drink.

10. Split your meal in two

Restaurant meals are over-proportioned, so split your meal in two. You’ll eat dinner tonight and lunch tomorrow for one price. It may seem like obvious advice, but it’s harder in practice. If you’re not careful, you’ll end up eating everything on the plate. To beat the extra calories and save money, I divide my plate in half before I start eating. I only eat from my “now” half of the plate and ask for a to-go box for the rest.

11. Know your steaks

Knowing the different steak cuts and how they’re prepared will save you money. For example, my friend always goes for the filet mignon because it’s well known and tender. It’s also one of the most expensive cuts you can order. Meanwhile, I ask if the hanger or flank steak was marinated. If it was, I order that. It’s the cheapest steak on the menu, but it’s also flavorful and tender – if marinated.

MSN says sirloin, flank, skirt, and hanger steaks are really underrated. Give them a chance.

12. Plan before you travel

If I’ve learned one thing being a local in a tourist town like New Orleans, it’s this: Tourist traps are alive and well. Many of the famous restaurants tourists want to visit are overpriced and not the best dining experience. If you want an authentic experience and a better price, check out a review site like Yelp or Urban Spoon before you visit a vacation spot. Pick a few places the locals rated highly and check their websites for menu prices. You can save a ton by planning ahead and skipping the hot spots.

13. Pick the place

I’m fortunate to have very cheap friends. “I don’t care where we go as long as it’s cheap,” is a common refrain on a Friday night. But I also have some less-than-frugal friends who visit from out of town. Since I know they’ll want to try that expensive five-star restaurant they heard about on the Food Network, I jump the gun and suggest a similar but cheaper place.

If you’re dining out with a group, suggest reasonably priced places ahead of time. It will keep you from having to choose between a $25 salad or a $30 piece of chicken.

14. Become a regular

Around here they call it lagniappe – the little something extra you get for being a great customer. Like the free cup of gumbo I’ve gotten every time I visit a diner in my neighborhood. I get that little something extra because I’m a regular.

Trying new places is great, but you can get a discount (or a lagniappe) by building a relationship with the servers or owners of local restaurants.

15. Take surveys and earn cash back

With iDine, you can earn 5 to 15 percent back any time you eat out. Just sign up on their website. Within 30 days of your meal, sign on and complete a quick survey. For every survey you take, you’ll earn cash back. When you reach $20, iDine will mail you an American Express gift card. It takes some effort, but it’s free money.

See? Dining out doesn’t have to mean going all in – or staying in.

Angela Colley is a writer for Money Talks News, a consumer/personal finance TV news feature that airs in about 80 cities as well as around the Web. This column first appeared in Money Talks News.


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