Guest blogger Ronda Kaysen: When the budget's tight, dinner at a restaurant is usually the first thing to go. But it doesn't have to be that way. There are ways to eat out on the cheap -- and we're not talking a trip to McDonald's.
"You don't have to shift to cheap fast food and unhealthy menu options," says Mike Allen, founder of Shopping-Bargains.com. "There are some great alternatives to costly full-price menu items."
Do your homework. Before you head out to dinner, call a few restaurants first to see if they offer any special deals. A lot of restaurants offer early-bird specials, half-price entree nights or kids-eat-free nights. Find out which restaurants offer which deals when, make a list and keep it handy for those nights when you want to go out for dinner.
Play the tourist. You don't have to be on vacation to get vacation-style perks. Head over to your local tourist bureau and pick up their tourist books and flyers. Tourist offices are often treasure troves of restaurant-coupon specials such as two-for-one offers, free menu items and other hidden gems.
The Internet is your friend. Visit restaurants' websites to see if they have any printable online specials. While you're online, sign up for each restaurant's Facebook page, Twitter account or newsletter and take advantage of any offers they dole out to their loyal customers. Check out Restaurant.com, too: They've got a "$25 Restaurant Gift Certificates for only $10" program -- plus restaurant coupon codes that bring the sticker price down even more.
Eat smart. Skip the drink order and ask for tap water with lemon instead; it'll save you a few bucks, and water is a healthy drink alternative. Rather than getting two entrees, split an appetizer and one entree between two adults. (Entrees are often enormous, and more than enough food for two people.) If you're still hungry, you can always order more food later!