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Monday, March 2, 2009

Restaurant gift certificates on the cheap

When I was a teenager, I was mortified if my parents pulled out a coupon to pay for a meal. But I've grown up and out of that phobia.

Having a coupon isn't a condition of eating out, but these days, we're looking to stretch our entertainment and food dollars as far as possible. So, we're always on the lookout for great coupons and freebies.

Last week, for example, my husband, son and I dined at Quiznos for $4 total (the cost of drinks and chips) thanks to the Million Subs Deal. And I've slipped a coupon for a free Arby's roastburger into my purse for some day soon. (I hadn't eaten Arby's for years, until I got pregnant with Jackson and then I craved their roast beef.)

There are a great many sources of restaurant coupon -- your Sunday newspaper, the Attractions Dining Guide, the Entertainment Book (see link on my sidebar), restaurant email newsletters and Restaurant.com.

Restaurant.com sells discounted gift certificates to restaurants. I've bought and used their certificates in the past, and have had great luck with them. And the best thing about Restaurant.com is that they offer great sales on a monthly basis, in addition to their already discounted rates.

At regular prices, a $25 restaurant gift certificate costs $10 on Restaurant.com; a $10 one is $3.

But I've never paid "full price" on Restaurant.com because the site is always offering additional discounts. Over the weekend, I purchased $105 worth of restaurant coupons for $7.80! You read that right. $7.80. It's not a typo.

At the end of every month, Restaurant.com has to move its inventory of gift certificates, so it offers rock-bottom discounts. I bought my gift certifcates for 80 percent off.

Here's what I got and what I paid for each:

$10 GC to Oakcrest Family Restaurant - Paid 60 cents
$25 GC to Zevely House - Paid $2
$10 GC to Asiago Italian Restaurant - Paid 60 cents
$25 GC to Solaris - Paid $2
$10 GC to Harrison's - Paid 60 cents
$25 GC to Giovanni's - Paid $2

At most of these restaurants, there's a minimum purchase and some other usage rules (usually that there must be two diners, alcohol is excluded and that no other coupons can be used to pay for the meal). With the gift certificates that I purchased, the minimum purchases range from $15 (Harrison's) to $50 (Giovanni's).

Even so, we're going to be getting a great bargain -- a $50 meal at Giovanni's, one of the best Italian restaurants in town, for $27. I'll take that any day. At the other upscale restaurants on my list - Solaris and Zevely House in Winston-Salem, my out of pocket will be just $12 if we stick to the coupon budget exactly.

I was so thrilled with the end-of-the-month bargains that I got at Restaurant.com in February that I logged back on in March to get a gift certificate to another restaurant that had been sold out. I paid $9 for a $25 gift certificate to Sweet Basil's, which is, in my opinion, one of the best restaurants in Greensboro. If you ever have the chance to try their carmelized onion and smoked gouda pimiento cheese sandwich, do it!

Why do restaurants allow their gift certificates to be sold for less than face value on Restaurant.com? Because it's a great advertising and marketing tool. You're not likely to find chain coupons on the Web site, but you will find a lot of great mom-and-pop eateries and locally owned upscale restaurants. These restaurant owners are hoping to lure you in with a great deal via Restaurant.com then capture your full-price return business. That tactic has certainly worked on me in the past, as I've discovered some great restaurants through Restaurant.com, both in my hometown and in vacation destinations.

I encourage you check out Restaurant.com, and make sure to sign up for the email newsletter. That way, you'll get notice of all the sales the site runs throughout the month. Please be aware that some popular restaurants sell out quickly, so if there's somewhere you want to try, buy that gift certificate early.

If you don't have a discount code in your email, access Restaurants.com through The Coupon Mom Web site, which offers an everday discount of 40 percent.

Before buying a gift certificate from Restaurant.com, make sure you read all the restrictions. Then, I recommend printing the certificate out and carrying it in your wallet with your cash. If you don't, you may forget to use it. (Most gift certificates expire a year after the purchase date.) If you change your mind after buying a Restaurant.com GC, you can return it within 90 days.

If you find a great restaurant through Restaurant.com, I'd love to hear about it. And please share with me your other strategies for saving cash when dining out.

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