This is a guest post from Ivan Chan. Ivan teaches busy professionals simple ways to manage money and worry less in life at Wealthy Without Worry.
Being frugal is hard. You've been so disciplined all week with your spending, you've kept to your budget, and you've even resisted buying that new thing you wanted to try. You are on target to meet your savings goals for this month, and then your colleagues at work invite you to the steakhouse around the corner for a tasty (and potentially pricey) meal and maybe even have a drink or three.
The secret fear of becoming the office cheapskate
We all have our reasons for being frugal, but one thing is often true: no one wants to be known as the office cheapskate. The one who rarely spends money eating out but is always the first one in line for free food? The girl who digs out her pennies because she is only paying her portion of the bill and nothing more? The guy who conveniently forgets his wallet for the THIRD time when it is his turn to buy coffee for the team? Not cool, right?
Save money without being a cheapskate
Watching your budget if you join your colleagues for some social bonding at work may seem like a lost cause, but it doesn't have to be that way. You have many subtle ways to save on your food bill and still spend quality time with the company at, well, your company. Check out these ideas:
- Get to know your neighborhood. In every town, city, or neighborhood, you'll find great places to eat that are also easy on the wallet. Check out online restaurant reviews. Look at restaurant menus and prices online to see if a place is reasonable. The nicest-looking restaurants often overcharge you for fairly average food (they have to pay for the fancy decor somehow). If you're going to spend your money, you should get your money's worth.
- Order the lunch specials. Most places that cater to the working crowd offer lunch-time specials. They tend to be cheaper than ordering other items from the menu. Plus, the mass-production model means you'll likely get your food fairly quickly. Look for these next time.
- Use Groupons or Living Social deals. Sign up for their daily email. They offer deep discounts for restaurants, bars and entertainment happening in major cities around the world. You may just find one for your favorite restaurants in today's deal. Often, you can share the discounts with others, too!
- Watch for special promotions. If you work in an urban downtown environment, competition for your business among restaurants, coffee shops and bars will be high. Use that to your advantage. Find out what special promotions may be going on right now and suggest that to your colleagues before heading out.
- Plan ahead with loyalty/stamp cards. Loyalty programs — a smart customer's best friend. “Stamp cards” are particularly popular with coffee shops. They typically offer a free drink after buying the first 10, for example. If you go on a regular basis anyway, why not be efficient with your money? Plus you'll look smart in front of all your new pals who did not even know about that stamp card.
- Have some food before going. I have friends who always have a few drinks before heading to bars, which forces them to not overspend once they arrive. You can use the same idea with eating out at a restaurant. Grab a snack just before going out for lunch with your coworkers next time.
- Drink slowly (especially at a bar). You may feel pressured to keep up when everyone else is ready for round two. One subtle way to ease that pressure is to drink slowly. When the time comes to order seconds, you can point to your half-full glass and say you'll skip this next round.
- Share with others. A little planning ahead can save you money while still getting you what you want. For example, you can order a pitcher of beer to share with others as opposed to each person ordering their individual drinks. While it may be harder, you can do the same with food too.
- Become regulars at a restaurant or bar. If you go out regularly, you want to be strategic (just like the stamp card tip above) to stretch your dollar. Regulars get better treatment and often get free stuff on the house. Get to know the manager or bartender on duty. It really helps when the servers know you by name.
- Know your cheap beers. Many restaurants and bars don't advertise their drink prices openly for a reason: they don't want you to base your purchase decisions on price. You can always ask for a list of prices. But if you want to be more subtle, get to know the cheap beers and order those.
- Limit your time there. This works particularly well for after-work drink sessions. The idea is simple: get one drink, mingle with people, and then quietly slip out the door. You'll look like a sociable person because you showed up. At the same time, you didn't empty your wallet because you stayed for the next two hours.
- Ask for a discount. Sometimes the most effective way to save money is to come out and ask. And why not? The worst thing they'll say is no. However, the chance of this tactic working goes up tremendously if you've become regulars at the place. The last thing a business wants is to upset a repeat customer who then never comes back. Use that to your advantage.
- Bring a frugal buddy with you. Peer pressure — we all know how powerful that can be to make us act in ways we may not have otherwise. So, harness this powerful psychological force for your own good. Look for a Frugal Buddy. Tell each other what your budget is before dining out and hold each other accountable. You don't want to look bad by not holding up your end of the bargain, right?
Be smart and frugal, not dumb and cheap
So there you have it — a whole list of smart, frugal ideas for you to try the next time you dine out with your colleagues. No more worrying whether you look like a cheapskate in front of your peers. No more feeling you should just give up and empty your wallet along with the rest of them. No more feeling guilty because you think you have betrayed your frugal ways by dining out. Because the next time, you'll be ready. And not just ready: you'll be prepared with smart ways to save money. Ways that will not make you look like a cheapskate. Ways that could even save your coworkers money. Ways that will make you look like a savvy, seasoned pro with stretching your dollar at restaurants. So how about that? Here's your chance to look smart AND save money.