March 10 2010|07.43 PM UTC

Samantha Eckles

The Guerrilla Guide to Cheap (and Sometimes Free) Eats

Category: Featured, SavingsTags: , , , ,


There is no shortage of cost saving tips these days. They mostly focus on simple ways that consumers can reduce costs by cutting out the purchase of things that are not absolutely necessary. But for those who still like to eat out, those who have busy lives’ that dictate their eating on-the-go, or for those who are currently really feeling the strain of the current financial situation, there are alternatives. There are ways to cut down or, in some cases, eliminate food costs while not cooking every single meal at home. Of course, some examples require a bit more creativity, or even some pride-swallowing. In any event, these should be considered fun ways to save money, and for those really in a bind, they can actually be quite useful. This is the guerrilla guide to cheap (and sometimes free) eats.

Eat at Non-Restaurants

(Above: Food @ IKEA Source)

There are many nationwide non-grocery chains that offer cheap eats just to get you in or near there doors. Examples include the food court at Costco, and the cafeteria at Ikea. At these types of places, it’s not uncommon to find a meal for under $1.00, with usually a more-deluxe version of the mea costing about $.50 more. The food is usually pretty good too– as evidenced by the usual long lines.

Order Kids Meals

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While we do not advocate anything unlawful, most restaurant employees do not care if patrons order off the kids meals. Some will even let people order off the senior menu! In most states it is unlawful to exercise price discrimination, so just politely ask if you can order off a particular menu – you’ll maybe even get a free toy with it.

Get your Fast Food From a Grocery Store

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If you are on the run, it is easy to think of fast food restaurants as the only option to quickly filling that empty stomach. However, grocery stores offer much larger selection, and you’ll be surprised at how affordable it is to run in and grab some fresh fruit and/or something else light. It will be much healthier too.

Cut out the Soda

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The bottom line is, soda is bad for you. Therefore, you should attempt to cut out your consumption of it, or at least practice moderation. If you are at a restaurant – fast food or sit-down – ordering a water instead of a soda, is one way to shed a few dollars from your total bill.

Go Out to Lunch Instead of Out to Dinner

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A lot of people realize that dinner menus and the lunch menus are priced differently, but they usually realize it when they are at dinner. For some reason, dinner prices can range 25-30% than lunch, for the same food items; but the only real difference is that they are being consumed at night. Going in at lunch keeps the price low, as well as the gratuity.

Participate in Community Events With Free Food

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Most communities have numerous events that are open to the public. This can include, church or rec center pot lucks, fire department BBQs, conventions, and even strangers’ birthday parties in the park (half—joking). If there’s free food available, chances are that the people who bought the food bought in bulk, and they got a good deal. Why not help them consume all the extra?

Say its Your Birthday

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Plan your eating out around your birthday or the birthday of your friend. There are lots of restaurants that will offer you a free meal or at least a free desert on your birthday. Some people also make a habit out of doing this, even when it is not their birthday – it can be embarrassing if the server asks for an ID, however. Use discretion.

Order Soup and Salad – Fill up on Bread

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Lots of restaurants offer affordable soup and salad combos. One good way to make this cost efficient, is to share this with another person – think affordable date night. You can typically also fill up on bread to subsidize your half-meal.

Become a Mystery Shopper

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One great way to get food for free is to become a mystery shopper. In many cases, you can get paid for it. Lots of these programs give their participants a dollar amount they are to spend say $5.00, and $20.00 to spend it. They are often allowed to keep the difference, along with the purchased item. Imagine getting paid money to buy food, and then getting to eat food.

Free Samples

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Free samples, alone, equal one morsel of tasty goodness. However, 20-30 free samples can equal a filling meal – that is entirely free. Many places such as Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s or Costco have more samples than usual during the busier retail hours/days. Figure out which days these are, and make your rounds: Costco on Satudays, and Whole Foods on Sundays.

Themed/Discount Nights

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Lots of restaurants try to make special themed nights on what are typically the slower days of the week. For example, a Mexican restaurant may have a ‘Taco Tuesday’, and a bar may have a ‘Thirsty Thursday’. This can mean $1.00 tacos, or a $1.00 cocktails – typically much cheaper than what the products are sold for on other days.

Take it To Go

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If you are in the mood for a gourmet meal, and don’t want to cook, there are alternatives to eating at a restaurant. Order to go, pay with a coupon and pick it up at the restaurant. You can have wine or your beverage of choice much cheaper at home, and you’ll also be able to avoid the larger dine-in gratuity. Its a big way to cut your bill nearly in half.

Give Blood (or Plasma)

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Practice moderation: giving blood can be a good way to get a free cookie and feel good about yourself. Selling plasma, can be a good way to do both of the above, and make a few extra books. Most nurses are nice, and will give you an extra cookie if you are polite.

Get Free Baked Goods at Bakeries

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It may still be a secret to many, but those who have worked in cafes and coffee shops know that many of these places get daily deliveries of baked goods. And, at the end of every night, throw or give away the leftovers. Its not unusual to see people at a Starbucks or Coffee Bean at closing ,walking away with a trash bag full of baked goods. For those places that do not give away their food (or prefer to give it to employees) baked goods may be had at half-price towards the end of the evening, or after a certain hour in the day. Either way, ask around.

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{ 102 comments… read them below or add one }

Ian March 10, 2009 at 8:59 pm

Some of these are obvious, and some I’ll definitely be using. :-)

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Vale March 10, 2009 at 9:48 pm

I am going to have to wholeheartedly disagree with the part about ordering to-go. In most cases the to-go workers at restaurant rely on your tips so they can buy their own meals.

I worked this position at both Chili’s and Outback Steakhouse. In both cases, tips were the major source of my income.

It is acceptable to tip less that the normal 10-15% on to-go but there should probably be about $2 per entree as a tip.

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Katie March 10, 2009 at 9:58 pm

Share an unlimited soup and salad and fill up on bread! Insist on being served a kid meal even though you’re a grownup! Do everything you can to lower your gratuity! WOW!

Do these things, and you instantly become the WORST type of restaurant customer, and force hardworking servers like me to have to look for stupid moneysaving tips like this. You’ve obviously never worked in a restaurant before. Until you have, and you’ve had a couple waste your table sharing a soup and salad and leave you a whole dollar for an hour of your time, keep your “advice” to yourself.

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Katie March 10, 2009 at 10:01 pm

Also… YOU ARE NOT EXEMPT FROM TIPPING ON A TO-GO ORDER! In restaurants, people working carry-out do quite a bit of work to assemble your order, and their wages are dependent on tips just like any other server.

For the love of God, learn about living in the modern world before you go spouting off like you know something!

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BillShrink Guy March 11, 2009 at 1:30 am

Vale & Katie: I think what we meant in regards to the to-go order was simply a suggestion to keep tips lower than what you would have paid versus dining-in. I’ll add to the the wording to reflect that :)

As for kids meal, I’ve personally order kids meal during my early college years with my college buddies — although this was at the fast food places.

Also, I see no reason why you can’t share a soup and salad deal, if the specific restaurant has no issue with the patrons sharing the meal. That particular tip wasn’t meant to lower gratuity specifically, just the overall bill. Of course, some restaurants will specifically state that a particular entree or meal can’t be shared.

We’re aware that some of the examples on list above can definitely be a little bit out there for some people, hence it’s a “Guerrilla Guide.”

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Brian March 11, 2009 at 9:40 am

“ordering a water instead of a soda, is one way to shed a few dollars from your total bill”

That’s not true at fast-food places where a bottle of water will set you back $2-$3.

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BillShrink Guy March 12, 2009 at 6:10 am

Brian: We were talking about getting a water cup etc. If you’re at a fast food joint, you should be able to ask for a water cup and get water from the soda machine.

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Doreen Kleist March 16, 2009 at 4:30 pm

Tea is the best alternative to soda or water, especially green tea. It’s almost as cheap as water, but with added health benefits that outweigh its costs… and certainly that of soda. I recently calculated with dozens of market prices and the average cost per cup of loose tea (not tea bags which is of lower quality) is around 8 cents, minimum was 4 cents. Costs for boiling and water not included.

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Franklin March 18, 2009 at 8:34 pm

I think sharing a meal in general will help to lower the overall bill, and you get more variety to boot!

And leaving the consumption of liquor until at home is also another way… although for those of us having built up the habit of having a glass with our mains it’s going to be quite a challenge!

Themed nights is definitely a great idea! The problem would be keeping tabs on a lot of restaurants to be able to do this though, as most restaurants offer seasonal specials as opposed to week-by-week ones.

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EL March 26, 2009 at 1:28 pm

Why aren’t having POTLUCKS on this list? You invite several friends over for a nice dinner – each one of them brings one dish that they’ve made…but everyone gets to share a feast — with friends to boot!

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Chino April 11, 2009 at 9:24 pm

So far so good I have a family of 5 thanks for the great advice

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anonymous April 12, 2009 at 10:03 am

What’s the issue? It’s not like someone poor waiter has been robbed of their tip, and cashiers don’t get tips, anyway.

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anonymous April 12, 2009 at 10:03 am

Potlucks aren’t on here because that would be *healthy* food.

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Anonymous November 16, 2009 at 1:26 pm

I have to disagree with some of the commenters here about tipping for To Go orders. Like a lot of people, I’ve been a tipped employee at one point in my work history, and I’ve noticed an amazing amount of tip inflation, and tip disinformation over the years.

Let me be clear here, I am not saying people should not be tipped or that they don’t work hard for their tips, only that the tip inflation is masking the true problem…restaurant employees are not paid sufficiently. Instead of restaurant owners raising wages, they simply allow tip inflation to make up the difference in cost of living increases. When we tip 15%, 20%, etc and that becomes the norm, it’s really the restaurant that is benefiting, because that extra 5-10% in tips is 5-10% less they have to increase wages.

When I started out, a 10% tip used to be sufficient, and we never got tipped for to go orders. I’m still shocked today when 15%, which used to be considered a good tip, is treated like a spit in the face.

There is a restaurant in San Diego [
http://www.thelinkery.com/ that is experimenting with a pseudo no-tipping policy that seems to be a noble attempt to rectify the current tipping situation. They charge a flat 18% service charge on every bill. If you happen to tip more, it goes into a pool that is donated to a charity at the end of the month.

(disclaimer: a friend of a friend used to be the bartender there, before opening up his own place)

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Michael November 16, 2009 at 2:16 pm

I’m sorry, but you ARE exempt from tips when getting your food to go, just as you are at the safeway, or at any other store.
The tip is for service, and since you

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Jack Attack November 16, 2009 at 2:17 pm

Everyone here is sour graping. these are strategies that a lot of people use. Get over yourselves. OH MY GOD HE SUGGESTED PEOPLE SHARE! OH MY GOD HE SUGGESTED NOT ORDERING A DRINK! OH MY GOD HE SUGGESTED PARTICIPATING IN SPECIALS THAT RESTAURANTS ROUTINELY RUN! Seriously all of this is good advice. I’ve worked in a restaurant for over a year and I do many of these things. Everyone stop sour graping. Excellent article I give it 3 thumbs up. Thats right. Three

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Jeff November 16, 2009 at 2:26 pm

Vale & Katie how do you guys feel about restaurants on average paying under $10 an hour including tip pool to most of the kitchen staff? I know it seems unfair that people try to avoid tipping by reducing their bills or by ordering to go but having worked in kitchens for years I always felt kind of cheated by the wait staff. In the case of a to-go order almost all of the work is done by the guys in the back who get pocket change at best for tips. No drink orders on the to-go no running back to get me anything extra, no ‘bussing’, no cleaning up after the visit. Shouldn’t the tip really go to the back of the house?

Next lets be fair here for everyone, if I order to go I didn’t tip on the quality of the meal (I didn’t eat it yet) and I didn’t tip on the quality of service as chances are my service included picking it up from a counter. So what exactly am I tipping on? I didn’t get the waiter to run to the bar for me 3 times, I didn’t get the waiter to fetch my extra condiments, I didn’t really get much in the case of service. why the expectation that you are owed a tip rather than the argument that your wage should be hired if you are working in a non tipping area of a restaurant.

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Chris Grooms November 16, 2009 at 2:29 pm

Saying you should tip for to-go orders is asinine. Grow up. If you don’t like your wage, work somewhere else. You are the asinine participant in the order if you have a problem with it. I will not, not ever, tip for a to-go order. Besides, cooks to my knowledge do NOT work on tips and if they do, it isn’t my problem. I tip the waiter/waitress. There is neither for a to-go order and I’m not paying $3 more for a meal to-go. Get over it. I’m sick and tired of people that were too lazy to get a college education complaining that they don’t get tips.

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Bengals1 November 16, 2009 at 2:30 pm

Don’t forget violently shaking the vending machine, oh and the free food at the furniture stores on Saturdays.

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Sailor November 16, 2009 at 2:34 pm

Some good tips….
I don’t know where you folks get the idea you tip for a To-o order! You don’t tip for to-go, buffets or drive thrus…sheesh!

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Don Diego November 16, 2009 at 2:36 pm

1. Lots of sub shops throw away break at the end of the night. Try hitting up one at 3am.
2. Get a part time job at a restaurant. Even if you work a couple hours a week you normally get a discount on food. Also you can normally steal some snacks during your shift!

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Anon November 16, 2009 at 2:39 pm

These tips are basically all common sense (to say the least). But when you toss in donating blood for a cookie, the tone of the article as a whole should be more tongue-in-cheek than it is! Is this supposed to be serious or a light-hearted spoof (???).

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PGM November 16, 2009 at 2:40 pm

Once again people who depend on tips. Give me ONE good reason why I should subsidize the owner of the restaurant. If you have a gripe, don’t get on ME for not tipping, get on your BOSS for not paying a living wage.

You are there to take my order to the kitchen and bring my food from the kitchen. Why does that deserve a tip? If you’re not happy, find a job that pays you what you think should be paid. Sorry, but true.

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pete November 16, 2009 at 2:41 pm

Tipping for take out is ridiculous. What am I paying for if I need to pay extra for you to put it together? Thats already included in the price. If you don’t like it you should’ve went to school and got a real job.

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Anonymous November 16, 2009 at 2:41 pm

I found the list helpful. It even had plenty of healthful options- if you paid attention.

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Anonymous November 16, 2009 at 2:43 pm

So your saying tip to go at a regular restaurant….but not at a fast food place there is no difference neither get a tip they should be properly paid for their job by the place they work I should not subsidize their pay. And yes I have worked in the restaurant business for years.

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Jeff November 16, 2009 at 2:45 pm

Tips to reduce the cost of eating

1) Learn to cook

Its amazing how much you can save and how much better you can eat if you actually prepare meals yourself. A single chicken which in a restaurant will feed 4 people in my house will feed 4 people 3 times. A few techniques in the kitchen and learning when to buy versus when to make can save a small fortune.

2) Get over it

Liver is cheap, dark meat chicken is cheap, many root vegetables are cheap apples are cheap. If you are willing to get over your youthful hatred of many things you will find your food budget can be brought down without sacrificing much in terms of quality. Learn some of the recipes of your grandparents and you’ll be amazed at how cheap some of them are.

3) Work as a team

When I purchase meat I do so with 3 others. 4 people buying meat means that we can buy much larger bulk packs and much larger cuts and then divide them up. Buy shopping as a team we all lower our bills and we are able to purchase larger items that provide us with things we need to make various stocks and soups at basically no cost. As we purchase a larger amount in bulk we also go to a butcher who remembers us and appreciates our business, its amazing how often we get extras for free when we come in 30 minutes before closing.

4) grow it yourself

Many of your common herbs grow very well in the window sill as do sprouts and even some of the lighter leafy greens, $1 in seeds buys a whole bunch of basil.

5) Buy on special and freeze it

Again this is painfully obvious but most people simply don’t use there freezer for anything outside of frozen OJ and ice cubes. This has to negatives first it means your buying according to the spot price and not the lowest price. Second it leads to ‘ordering in’ rather than reheating or defrosting and cooking. A full freezer including some snacks saves money simply because you rarely run out and buy when the timing is wrong.

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anon November 16, 2009 at 2:47 pm

What? Tip on to go Why cause you put a spoon and fork in the meal? Only if you share that tip with the cook who took a lot more time preparing the meal or the dishwsher or the delivery man who delivers your food.

packaging a to go order is not a tip required event, if outback or chilis doesn’t pay you a living wage quit.

I have talked to owners of restaurants and they have all agreed you do not need top tip on to go orders

I have also worked in the service industry so yes I have lived on tips before

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Anonymous November 16, 2009 at 2:49 pm

Is it just me that thinks tips are a huge scam? I do sympathize with the servers that depend on them but why should the customer subsidize your income? Isn’t it the businesses responsibility to pay you? I don’t know if you’ve been out to eat lately but they definitely aren’t passing on the savings in their food prices.

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Rob November 16, 2009 at 2:53 pm

Sorry, I worked as a waiter and I have to say that expecting a good tip and delivering no service or bad service is ignorant. I don’t tip at burger king and I’m not going to tip on a pick up order. If you feel somehow that you are wronged because I didn’t leave you $2 for handing food over a counter then perhaps you should find a job where you are rewarded for your hard efforts.

That being said, I regularly tip based on service. I’ve left tips over %100 before because my meal was inexpensive but the service was amazing.

As for giving blood. I would suggest selling plasma instead. You get paid more AND have fluid added to compensate for the plasma loss. You get dinner and a lube!

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Anonymous November 16, 2009 at 3:02 pm

I don’t think it’s customary to tip when you get take out.

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Anonymous November 16, 2009 at 3:02 pm

There is no such thing as a “cashier” at a restaurant. Many places use servers at the take-out desk. Many places share the tips between the staff (including cooks), many places also deduct the tip for the cooking staff from the cost of the food, not based on the size of the tip, so if you dont tip, its actually costs the server money, your stealing from them.

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Rob November 16, 2009 at 3:03 pm

Sharing a soup and salad seems like a fantastic way not to get laid.

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James November 16, 2009 at 3:07 pm

Ive never tipped a to go order and never will. Ive never went to a restaurant that acted weird when I didn’t tip them on a to go order and no one I know tips a to go order. They aren’t delivering it to you. They aren’t riding a bike to your house or refilling your water, cleaning a table. All they are doing is handing you the food, which you have paid for. If you aren’t making enough money as a host at a restaurant, then maybe you should work at a better restaurant. It is not the customer’s duty to tip a to go order. Hosts get tipped out by the waiters they work with and get paid more hourly than the waiters. Sorry! But I order to go a lot of times so I don’t have to tip.

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Non American November 16, 2009 at 3:10 pm

The concept of tipping is both rediculous and asinine to someone outside of the US. When will you people stand up for your rights as workers!?!?! You are taking the risk off of the proprieter (has money) and placing it on the table staff (has less money). That is just backwards.

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Stevie November 16, 2009 at 3:13 pm

Cmon, at least mention cooking for yourself.

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Anonymous November 16, 2009 at 3:14 pm

Why even tip at all? The waiters should be paid a living wage to start off with. If no-one expects a tip, no-one is obliged to give one.

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chill out November 16, 2009 at 3:18 pm

people who dont tip, just dont tip and you should know that if your in the industry.

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Fucktippingtakeout November 16, 2009 at 3:21 pm

I do not tip someone to hand me a bag of food that I went to pick up.. Congrats you can put a pack of sauce and plastic forks in a bag that definitely deserves a kickback. Its like tipping delivery drivers at places that already include a delivery charge (that money should already be going to the driver). The real problem here is people expect extra for doing their fucking jobs. Imagine you ask for help in a grocery store or big box store and a helpful knowledgeable sales person guides you to the product you want and answers your questions. That person did more work at what is probably a lower wage then either a takeout employee or a delivery driver and no one ever thinks of tipping those people.

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Moochy Moocherson November 16, 2009 at 3:25 pm

You forgot to add, “Get invited to your friends houses for dinner” or “Eat at your parents house”. LOL.

And if you’re a girl, “Go out on dates”. Because most guys are suckers and will pay the bill, thereby lowering their value and trying to impress the girl with money rather than who they are, but that’s a whole other topic…

Lastly, how about “WORK at a restaurant”. Often times you can eat the left-overs. NO, I don’t mean the disgusting stuff off someone else’s plate. I mean things like the eggs from the breakfast bar that are 1 hour old and the restaurant has them replaced every hour. Or a McDonalds/B.K. burger that has sat for more than 10 minutes and so they throw them out. Or other WASTED food that is still perfectly edible (and some animal has died in vane for).

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whinybabies November 16, 2009 at 3:27 pm

I just LOL’d at the person who said you have to leave a tip even on TOGO orders. Are you kidding? Everyone thinks they deserve a tip these days for just doing their jobs…

if you don’t like your shitty restaurant job, the policy, or the way the industry is structured no one is making you work there. you should complain to your bosses to give you raises instead of whining to the general public trying to make us feel sorry for you.

I used to wash dishes in a couple of restaurants, did I ever get a share of the tips? NO. Did I work 3X harder than anyone else in the restaurant, YES. Life isn’t fair, get over it….

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h_-ckk November 16, 2009 at 3:31 pm

if you live anywhere near a research-oriented university, faculty + postdocs + recruits etc. give talks every single day. almost every seminar includes refreshments and snacks, and any seminar given at noon or one usually includes provided lunch – all free.

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Anonymous November 16, 2009 at 3:32 pm

For the waiters bitching. Get a real job and you wont have to work solely on tips. I don’t see any reason to tip for someone throwing a salad dressing packet into a bag and then checking me out when I pick up my to go order.

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thinsoldier November 16, 2009 at 3:40 pm

Best to go to restaurants where there’s isn’t an official “to-go” job position (avoid franchises). That way you have no fear of being forced to leave a tip.

Also, if you place your order just before the lunch rush and come back for it in 30 minutes when they’re filling up you’ll probably get your food from someone other than who you left the order with. They won’t expect a tip.

If you find yourself going to the same place every day and being served by the same person (hopefully a nice person) put a dollar in a jar just for them. Wait about 4 months (about $80 should by saved up by then) and give them a $30 tip on a really slow day. They’ll love you and continue to serve you happily without tips for a few more months.

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anonymous November 16, 2009 at 3:48 pm

Dumpster dive. NEVER pay for food again, its not at all gross if you know what your doing.

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jerry November 16, 2009 at 3:49 pm

Go to any drivethrough (or walk right up to the counter, even) and tell the cashier that someone messed up your order yesterday/this morning/whenever and left off such and such. They will–99 times out of 10–just give it to you. I never even needed a receipt. Don’t believe me? Try it. When I got divorced a few years ago, I lived off this stuff by spreading it out to several dozen restaurants in the South Baltimore area.

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philip November 16, 2009 at 3:50 pm

Dumpster-diving is also an extremely cheap way to get perfectly good food, especially if you’re at a nice place like Trader Joe’s. Don’t knock it till you try it. Just stay away from meat/dairy, and check the produce before you eat it.

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john johnson November 16, 2009 at 3:53 pm

all you guys bitching about the loss of your tip, too bad.
i should be able to count on one hand the number of times i’ve had bad service at a restaurant, i cannot.
you gotta earn those tips!

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MC November 16, 2009 at 4:03 pm

haha…you should avoid eating at restaurants anyway if you’re trying to cut down on costs. For that reason, the waiters would not get any tip! Or, eat at a semi-fast food joint where you wouldn’t tip.

It should not be a problem to share a meal or a kid’s item, especially if you can’t finish one normal item by yourself. This is one problem with many American restaurants – PORTIONS ARE OFTEN TOO BIG…(and also why we have so many obese ppl, but thatz another story…haha)

If you’ve been to Europe (especially France) or certain parts of Asia, you know exactly what I’m talking about!

Main tip for saving cost on food – STOP EATING SO MUCH FATTY! (By the way, I’ve lost 60lbs myself…so I know what it’s like)

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Annoyed at servers November 16, 2009 at 4:07 pm

I don’t understand why servers have the right to bitch about tips. Tips are “To insure promptness” – that’s it. Why do we have to bribe every single waiter in the world to get our food? If you are concerned about your pay – GET A BETTER PAYING JOB. @Katie – “force hardworking servers like me to have to look for stupid moneysaving tips like this” Why are you better than me? Why should I pay more so you don’t have to save? Why do you feel such a sense of entitlement that you have to be bribed by each patron to actually do your job? Tipping is a totally unnecessary practice that at best should only reward outstanding service. As of now it seems to be a form of petty corruption in the food industry, only continued because of fear that terrible waiters will spit in your food if you don’t tip them.

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