Savings Mom: How to Save Money Eating Out

Americans are eating out at restaurants more often. In fact, statistics show that the average household spends 40 percent of its food dollar eating away from home.

All this dining out can put a bite on the wallet, but the good news is there are many ways to save money at restaurants. You just need to know a few simple savings strategies to find coupons and promotional programs.

You can buy discounted gift certificates at www.restaurant.com. Simply enter your zip code to see the participating restaurants in your area. You can buy a $25 gift certificate for $10, and print the certificate from your computer immediately. If you have an online coupon code, you will save even more, paying only $5 for a $25 gift certificate. Less expensive, casual restaurants offer "50 percent off" certificates, available for $3. The online coupon code would bring the price of that certificate down to $1.50. Check www.savingsmom.com for a current coupon code, as they change monthly.

Look for free restaurant coupons on national coupon Web sites like www.valpak.com and www.hotcoupons.com.

Check the Web site of your city's local newspapers for local coupon sections. Check your newspaper circulars on Sundays for restaurant flyers and coupons.

Go to the Web sites of your favorite restaurants to see if they offer special benefits like "Frequent Guest" programs that reward frequent diners with free meals, free birthday meals, "Kids Eat Free" days, early bird specials and/or free coupons. Subscribe to their e-mail newsletter to see if they send out special offers and/or coupons to subscribers. Many restaurants give coupons for free items immediately after subscribing to their newsletter.

Ask your restaurants if they have similar promotional programs if they do not have a Web site.

The Entertainment Book is an excellent source of restaurant coupons for specific cities. You can buy one from their Web site, entertainment.com, and even preview the restaurants available before you invest in a book. Expect to pay $25 to $35 per book, with coupons that last from August to the following November 1st -- 15 months). The price of the book begins to go down in the spring, and drops to its lowest price in the summer.

You can also sign up for the online subscription at entertainment.com, which allows you to print only the coupons you need. A monthly subscription costs $3.99, and can be cancelled anytime (it does not require a long-term contract). This subscription is a good idea for short-term vacations, since it allows you to subscribe to specific cities' coupon programs.

Check your mail for coupon booklets and coupon envelopes for local restaurants. Browse the coupons when you get them and save the entire booklet or envelope in a convenient spot. When you find a coupon you like, write the name of the restaurants on the cover of the book or the coupon envelope so you don't have to search through all of them when you are ready to eat out.

Earn free airline miles or cash rewards when you dine out at restaurants that participate in the Rewards Network, www.rewardsnetwork.com, when you join and register a credit card with the program. The program claims that up to 20 percent of your bill is rebated into your account, either as cash or in an equivalent number of airline miles (although rebates can range from 10 to 20 percent). If members opt to receive their rebates in a cash account, there is a $49 fee to join, which is paid by the rebate earnings so no cash is required upfront. If members opt for the airline miles, there is no fee to join.