Cutting Grocery Costs

Food costs take up a significant portion of everyone's budget, and we incur these costs month after month. While it is possible to eat for a dollar a day if you're desperate, curious, or masochistic enough, most of us have the money and the desire to purchase foods we enjoy. To save money on groceries, you can do lots of things besides clipping coupons (which I never do). Here are a few ideas to help you save money and add some spice to your routine.

Shop at ethnic markets. I find that a lot of really wonderful, exotic, and flavorful dishes can be recreated rather simply and cheaply at home. Visiting your local ethnic grocery stores can be a great way to indulge in a little bit of restaurant-style eating without actually having to spend money on a restaurant. Also, these stores tend to offer very affordable (and sometimes stunningly cheap) prices on things that you didn't even realize your traditional grocery store was marking up, like tortillas and soy sauce. Finally, shopping at an Asian market when you've been raised on mac and cheese will also give you the opportunity to try a wide variety of new foods and discover new things to enjoy.

Shop at farmers' markets. Not only is the produce you get from the farmers' market fresher and of better quality than the stuff you buy at the supermarket, but often it's a lot cheaper as well. You're buying your fruits and vegetables from the farmers themselves, thereby cutting out the middleman (which always saves money). Best of all, you're buying from people who love what they do, meaning that you're bound to get an overall better experience at these small markets than from the big chains. You may also have access to a wider variety of produce -- ten kinds of apples instead of three, for example.

Start your own garden. This can wind up being more work and costing more money than you think if you aren't careful, but if done properly, not only can you cultivate your own food and cut your grocery bill, but you can also dine with the satisfaction of eating something that you grew yourself.

Share. Buying items in bulk or wholesale quantities and splitting them up with friends, relatives, or neighbors can reduce trips to the store and save money for everyone involved.

Instead of clipping coupons, get companies to mail you their manufacturer's coupons. Most of the time, a phone call, letter, or email to a business with a comment or especially a complaint about one of their products will land you a stack of valuable coupons. Make sure to give your address when you write.

Learn how to make gourmet items at home. Not only will it save you money on treats for yourself, but you can use these items as inexpensive gifts for others. Oftentimes, following a recipe is much simpler than you'd think. You may not have considered doing things like making your own candy or ice cream, but I find it to be both cost-effective and fun. I invested in an ice cream maker and have saved untold money on ice cream -- not to mention the unique flavors I've been able to enjoy and the satisfaction I get from creating them. I also recently made chocolate truffles, and it was a surprisingly simple and cheap process -- way better than paying $8 a pound!

So the next time you're looking for ways to trim your monthly grocery budget, keep in mind that your taste buds don't have to suffer. What tips and tricks do you use to save money on food?

Photo by taberandrew


Consumed by the Wrong Questions

American Public Media’s weekly personal finance radio show, Marketplace Money, is currently examining whether our consumer culture is sustainable with their series, “Consumed.” The theme of over-consumption is being explored in different ways throughout the APM family of shows in concordance with the current wave of environmental awareness, which appears to have experienced a tipping point earlier this year and is now being touted by everyone who wants to jump on the trendy green bandwagon, as if environmental issues haven’t existed for years.

The voice of Marketplace Money, Tess Vigeland, seems particularly fascinated with the subject of trash. Several weeks ago, she embarked on a mission to carry her trash around with her for two weeks. On the November 9th show, Vigeland recounted her experience driving around her neighborhood and all the way to the dump with her Pasadena neighborhood’s garbage man of 25 years. The purpose of the segment appeared to be to impart awareness to the listener that the items we throw away do not merely disappear, and that landfills don’t have infinite space.

Right now, all public emphasis is on the consumer to change his habits for the sake of the planet. He must recycle everything (regardless of whether his neighborhood has a curbside recycling program), take old computer monitors and cans of paint to hazardous waste disposal centers, pay a surcharge on recyclable cans and bottles, consider how much trash any purchase creates, vow to not buy anything new for an entire year, forage for edible plants in public parks, get an expensive hybrid car, ride a bike down dangerous streets designed for cars, and get broken items fixed instead of buying new ones even though a repair nowadays often makes little economic sense and is terribly inconvenient.

In fact, all of these choices are incredibly inconvenient, which is why so many of us don’t make them. Journalists should stop feeding the self-congratulatory fires of individual environmentalists and start asking how companies can reduce their waste, making it easy for us as consumers to be environmentally friendly. No, I don’t want to have to throw away a seemingly needless plastic container every time I buy persimmons from Trader Joe’s, but grabbing my canvas tote and heading to the farmer’s market is an inconvenience for me. The real solution here is for Trader Joe’s to stop packing their persimmons, apples, pears, grapes, peppers, and everything else in needless amounts of plastic. The pressure to change needs to be on the entities with the ability to make the biggest impact, not on the common man whose main incentive for making environmentally sound decisions is merely the ability to smugly pat himself on the back. Most “issues” and “causes” have a certain degree of snob appeal, but lately, environmentalism is the snobbiest of them all.

The concerns of environmentalists are real, of course. There’s no denying facts like those Vigeland presents: Since 1960, the population of the United States has increased by 60%, while our trash has increased by 180%. Getting a broken object fixed, whether it’s a shoe or a DVD player, is no longer economically viable. She also points out that landfills are the largest source of “human methane” (though one might argue quite compellingly that the meatpacking industry’s contribution to methane is also ultimately caused by humans). The average American throws away a pound of food a day according to a University of Arizona study, and many grocery stores are throwing away so much edible food that an entire movement of people called Freegans has sprung up to reclaim discarded food and other perfectly useful items they find in the trash.

Many of the arguments in favor of environmentalism are overly simplistic, such as one of this Marketplace Money episode’s opening lines: “What have you spent your hard-earned money on recently…eventually most of it ends up on the trash heap, doesn’t it?” Well, yes, eventually, but what about the utility we get from the item between its purchase and its disposal? Then there’s that pesky issue of all the trash created by our inability to predict the future: how could we have known twenty years ago that VCRs, cassette tape players, and cathode ray tube monitors would become obsolete so quickly?

Despite the amazing amount of trash we generate, many of us are actually pack rats, hanging onto things far past their useful lives and keeping them out of landfills. Why aren’t packrats lauded for their contribution to saving the planet? More importantly, why isn’t anyone exploring this peculiar phenomenon whereby some of the wealthiest people in the world hang on to material possessions they don’t use and in some cases have forgotten they own or even have to pay to keep in storage units?

Recycling is one of the most commonly lauded steps towards saving our planet, but how often does anyone point out that recycling uses resources, too? Why isn’t it commonly known whether the resources required to recycle so many aluminum cans is more or less harmful than adding to our landfills? Vigeland presents seemingly ominous facts that half of LA County landfills are scheduled to close in the next decade, and all will be closed by 2053. What the listener is supposed to conclude from these statements is that we are quickly running out of landfill room and are nearing a trash crisis, but are we really running out of landfill room? Perhaps there is no room for a landfill smack in the middle of Westwood, and we may start seeing our trash hauled longer distances before it meets its final resting place, but I seriously doubt that the trash will be backing up to my front door anytime in my lifetime unless I move to East St. Louis.

Vigeland asks, “Is it up to us to curb our voracious appetite for stuff, or should we simply find more places to toss it away?” The simple answer is neither: it’s up to our legislators and the corporations they supposedly govern to stop making decisions that are terrible for the planet, and as any economist will tell you, they need incentives to do so. Right now, there aren’t enough incentives for companies to play fair with the earth: the existing structure dictates that the best way to make the most profit is often to ignore environmental welfare.

The average person doesn’t see the landfills or many of the other direct impacts of our poor environmental choices, so in that sense, it’s a very good thing when shows like Marketplace Money bring these issues to our attention. However, when it comes to environmental issues, the media is currently using its far-reaching influence to cater to the popular girls in school instead of bringing to the table the real questions that need to be asked. When will a major auto manufacturer release a $12,000 hybrid vehicle? Who killed the electric car? Why don’t stores like Whole Foods start offering meaningful discounts to shoppers who bring their own bags? How can we raise enough money to build viable public transit options in our most polluted cities? Instead of spending its energies on hot-button, sound bite-style coverage of our country’s environmental problems, the media needs to start using its broad reach to ask the difficult questions that can effect meaningful change.


Photo by D'Arcy Norman

Letter Writing Works

In case you weren't already convinced, I thought I'd share another example of how expressing your opinion to a company about its products is quite often effective.

I recently ate a bag of Terra Chips that I was not quite enthused with. The overall flavor was good, but they were much too salty. As I was about to throw the bag away, I noticed a statement on the back that I should write to them and send the empty bag if I wasn't completely satisfied. So I did.

In a few weeks, I received a letter, two coupons for a free, full-sized bag of Terra Chips, and two coupons for 55 cents off. Since I have been eating a lot of Terra Chips lately and they aren't cheap, I'm quite happy about the coupons.

To read about my previous success with writing to companies, read about My Consumer Victory With The Gap and How I Get Coupons for Organic Products.

What is a home inspection and do you really need one?

The first time a realtor explained the home inspection process to me, I thought, “You have to be kidding me! I can test the dishwasher and make sure all the outlets work myself! Why would I pay someone else $450 to do those things?” If you, like me, aren’t sure why you’d want to pay someone else to inspect your home before your purchase it, read on.

It’s true that the purpose of a home inspection is only to inspect the quality, safety, and overall condition of things that are readily visible — that is, components of a home that don’t involve dismantling anything or opening up walls and ceilings. While this may sound like something anyone with a good eye could do, here are some examples of things a home inspector will look for that you probably can’t identify yourself.

  • Do you know how to identify a toilet that needs replacement?
  • Can you identify faulty wiring on a garbage disposal?
  • Do you know how to tell if the dryer vents properly?
  • Can you identify a fireplace that is not in safe, usable condition?
  • If you live in an area subject to earthquakes, do you know how to make sure your water heater is properly strapped?
  • Do you know how to tell if the vent above the kitchen range hood is a fire hazard?

In order to avoid feeling ripped off and help you understand the fine print in the contract you’ll need to sign, keep in mind that a home inspection does not typically cover the following:

  • Termites and pests. Law mandates that pest inspections must be done by a licensed pest control operator.
  • Engineering issues. Geologic stability, lot lines, environmental hazards, zoning designations, and code compliance are not within the scope of a home inspection.
  • Concealed conditions. It’s true that some problematic conditions will only be apparent by looking behind walls, but putting holes in walls and patching them up can’t be within the scope of a home inspection because you can’t make alterations to someone else’s property.
  • Appliances not included in the property sale (unattached appliances) such as refrigerators. If you happen to be buying the seller’s existing fridge and you want it inspected, make sure to ask about this before you sign the contract.
  • Environmental health hazards like radon gas, lead paint, or asbestos.
  • Swimming pools and hot tubs.
  • Value appraisal. This is a separate inspection requiring different skills. In order to secure your mortgage, this is another job you’ll have to pay for.
  • Repair cost estimates. These take extra time to calculate and costs can vary widely depending on the contractor used and the type of replacement components purchased.
  • Gas appliances. The gas company is specially trained to handle these inspections and will do the job for free.
  • Cosmetic defects. These do not present a danger to you, and if they’re significant, you will have already noticed them anyway. It doesn’t take specialized training to see that the paint on the walls is chipping, so why would you pay someone to point this out to you?
  • Latent defects. Even the best home inspector can’t predict the future. The best you can hope for is that the present condition of the home has some relationship to its potential for future problems.

If you’re buying a condo or a co-op, there are additional considerations. Keep in mind that the home inspection will not test for noise transmission between units — that is, how much your neighbors’ habits will affect you. If this is a concern, you should try to spend as much time in the building as possible to observe noise conditions before you purchase, and minimize your chances of getting a noisy unit in the first place by choosing a top floor corner unit with double paned windows. Common areas that do not have a direct impact on your unit, like a community fitness center, are also not included in the inspection.

Surprisingly, the job also may not include the inspection of common areas that do have a direct impact on your unit, but you would be unwise to work with such a short-sighted inspector. While it certainly costs more to have someone look at the entire building and not just the unit you’re considering, by looking only at the small picture and ignoring the big one you won’t know what you’re really getting into. If an older building doesn’t have proper seismic retrofitting and you park your beautiful new Acura (because you’re a savvy luxury shopper, after all) in the subterranean garage, guess whose car will get crushed in an earthquake, and guess whose insurance won’t cover it? By the same token, if the roof is in need of repair and you live on the top floor, you’ll certainly notice a downpour in the middle of the night when you wake up to water dripping on your head.

Also, be aware that just because a home is new doesn’t mean it you shouldn’t have it inspected. Even an extremely expensive new home does not equate to an extremely well-constructed home. Just as you can purchase a brand-new car that is a lemon, be it an F-150 or a Corvette, you can purchase a brand-new home with significant defects.

If you’re still looking to save money on a home inspection, what about having a friend in the construction, engineering, or real estate business do the inspection for you? You may save money, but you won’t be getting expertise. Believe it or not, home inspection involves specialized training that any of these professionals are unlikely to have. Also, if you go ahead and purchase the home that your friend inspected and discover a costly defect later that you think the inspector should not have missed, wouldn’t you rather be angry with (and possibly sue) an inspector you don’t know than a good friend?

What about taking a home inspection course and learning how to do it yourself? This route is better than forgoing the home inspection altogether, but you’ll need to do some advance planning. If you want to take the official classes offered by Inspection Training Associates, the introductory class alone will cost you $89 and last six hours. It also may be located out of town, even if you live in a major city. At the end of the class and the long drive, you still won’t have the experience in identifying problems that someone who has been in the business for years will have. Taking a class, official or otherwise, still might be a wise investment, though: as a new homeowner, it can’t hurt you to have a basic knowledge of how to identify potentially dangerous and/or expensive problems in and around your home.

When it comes down to it, you just shouldn’t let the cost of a home inspection trouble you (if you can’t afford it, you’re not ready to buy, anyway). While a home inspection will cost several hundred dollars, it can easily pay for itself and then some. The home inspection helps you determine if you are paying a fair price for the home — if it has several repairs that need to be made, you may be able to negotiate with the seller and get him to replace the broken air conditioner before you move in or provide a cash credit for you to take care of the work yourself once you’re the new owner. When you consider how expensive it can be to replace an air conditioner or furnace (say, $2,000) or even a dishwasher, the cost of a home inspection really seems nominal.

Don’t expect to find a new home that is flawless — your goal is to make sure the home you’re interested in doesn’t have any existing costly defects and that you go into the purchase knowing what shortcomings the home may have and what repairs need to be made.

To become even more informed about the home inspection process and why it’s a wise investment, check out the book I read: The Consumer Advocate’s Guide to Home Inspection by Barry Stone, author of the nationally syndicated column, “Ask the Inspector.”

Airport Consumption

Do you remember the days when the only things sold in most airports were bad sandwiches, junk food snacks, magazines, and neck pillows? These days, major airports, especially their international terminals, have so many stores that you can get all of your Christmas shopping done while waiting for your next flight. If you don't have enough time to hit the stores between getting through security and catching your plane, don't worry -- you can shop on the plane, too.

Airport and airplane shopping seem highly illogical to me. I'm tired. I'm stressed out. I've just spent, or am about to spend, a bunch of money on travel and I'm not really looking to add to that cost with a bottle of perfume I don't need. My bags are usually completely full, and even if they weren't, I wouldn't want the added weight. I can't comparison shop for better prices when I'm in an airport, either. I really don't understand why airport sales are so profitable.

Clearly I'm not the typical consumer, though. Airport shopping is so popular that the person who makes airport purchases has his own label: transumer, a person who consumes while in transit. Companies like JC Decaux, self-proclaimed "world's largest airport advertising company," brag that "[c]onsumer mindsets are transformed by the excitement of the airport experience, making passengers behave outside the norm in terms of spending, ad awareness and consumerism. " Now, I guess this must be true or airports wouldn't bother to have so many stores, but I have to take issue with the "excitement of the airport experience." There are few places I would rather avoid than airports and airplanes, if I could. I would rather have a gynecological exam than be subjected to hours of rude strangers on cell phones, uncontrolled children, airport security, airport traffic, dehydrating airplane air, the smell of the airplane lavatory that always wafts throughout the cabin, and a complete lack of personal space or privacy.

JC Decaux is apparently partially responsible for the chaos at London Heathrow Airport, a truly a wretched place where I recently enjoyed two layovers. Not only does it take upwards of an hour to get from one terminal to another (really), but once you finally get to your terminal, you're forced to wait in the middle of an upscale shopping mall where you can buy everything from crab legs to leather shoes until your gate "opens." You have no idea which gate your flight will leave from until about thirty minutes before your flight leaves (if that), so you're forced to wait in the shopping area.

As if airports were not chaotic and unpleasant enough, airport stores increase crowds in the terminals. Instead of most people either sitting and waiting or heading to their gate or the restroom, you have people wandering from shop to shop in a consumerist haze. When folks buy a bunch of supersized Toblerone bars and cartons of cancer sticks while they're waiting to board, they have to lug their loot with them onto the plane--which means it ends up as a carry-on item, because the shopping areas, especially the duty-free ones in the international terminals, are generally located past the luggage check-in counters. When overhead compartment space is already limited on the plane, it doesn't make sense to let people stash giant shopping bags whose dimensions are imcompatible with the compartments where my within-the-carry-on-baggage-allowance luggage is supposed to go.

I'm sure no one will be listening to my complaints anytime soon, though. "Heathrow T3 is the fifth largest retail site in Britain," according to JC Decaux's website, and "£616 million (net) was spent on retail at BAA airports last year equating to an average spend of £4.28 per passenger."

The mandate to shop can't be escaped even on the airplane. Once seated, my limited legroom is shortened by an inch or two because of all the "magazines" the airline insists on sticking in the back of the seat pocket. Remember when the only thing in the back of the seat pocket was a safety card and a barf bag? Now we're encouraged to shop while on the plane through Sky Mall magazine, which, like The Sharper Image, sells all sorts of intriguing but ultimately useless and overpriced gadgets. Apparently, the fact that I've already spent $350 on a plane ticket signals that I have enough disposable income to purchase such junk, but personally, I find it insulting that I'm goaded to fork over even more money when I'm already spending a chunk of change for the privilege of being crammed into a a flying cattle car packed with crying babies, sickos, men who invariably feel entitled to the armrests, and people who just can't shut up. I can't even catch a nap without being constantly interrupted with messages about how I can pay for a headset, pay to watch a movie, pay for a cocktail, pay for a snack, pay for a bottle of water, and earn extra miles by making purchases on the plane from the Sky Mall magazine.

Google "airport shopping"and you'll get a list of links to the companies behind the shops at each of the major airports. At the websites, you can learn about the shopping options that will be available at the airports you will be traveling to, including duty-free options. You can even see prices and, sometimes, which stores are available before the security checkpoint. Amsterdam's international airport even has an art museum, complete with museum giftshop, which is probably the true purpose of this particular “museum.” Airport retail stores also have longer hours than retail stores in the outside world, sometimes opening at 6:30am and closing at 10pm or later. There are even online shopping guides that tell you how to make the most of your airport shopping experience.

I hate leaving my home for many reasons, but the plague of advertising I'm subjected to when I'm out in the world has to be near the top of my list. When I'm at a certain gas station, a TV screen starts talking to me as soon as my gas starts pumping. TV's blab at me to buy things on the bus and on the airplane, too. Trucks and motorcycles dragging billboards behind them clog up our already congested streets. Planes drag banners advertising beer across the sky over the beach. It seems like the only place I can go anymore and not be advertised at is my home, as long as I'm willing to keep the TV and radio turned off and not read any magazines or check my mailbox or answer my phone.

When I'm enduring completely miserable experience that is flying, can't the corporations just back off for a few hours?

How to Get Free Reading Material for Plane Trips

Why spend money buying magazines at the airport for full price when you can get them for free with a little advance planning? Many magazines allow you a free trial of one or more issues. Sign up for a couple of free trials four to six weeks before your next trip, and you'll have free, current magazines to read on the plane. When you sign up, make sure to select the "bill me" option rather than giving them any credit card info, and when the bill comes, just write "cancel" on it and mail it back. It's also best to use a fake name and email address when you sign up to help reduce or at least identify future junk mail -- magazines frequently use their mailing lists to send you advertising.

Here are a few places where you can get those free trials online:
Economist - Four free issues.
Fortune - Two free issues. Scroll down until you find the sign up box on the right hand side.
Fortune Small Business - Two free issues. Scroll down until you find the sign up box on the right hand side.
Money - One free issue. Scroll down until you find the sign up box on the right hand side.
Business 2.0 - One free issue. Scroll down until you find the sign up box on the right hand side.
Rolling Stone - Four free issues.
Entrepreneur - One free issue.
Martha Stewart Living - One free issue.
Everyday Food - One free issue.
Mac Life - One free issue.
PC World - Two free issues.
Food and Wine - Two free issues.
Travel and Leisure - Two free issues.
Entertainment Weekly - Two free issues.

If you don't see a magazine you like here, just visit the website of your favorite publication and look for the subscribe section. This is where you'll find information on free issues, if they're available.

Sometimes you'll come across a deal where you can get somewhere between several months and an entire year's subscription for free -- the catch being that you have to hand over your credit card number, and if you don't remember to cancel during the free trial period, the subscription will automatically renew and you'll get charged (companies are counting on you to forget about this when you sign up for the free offer). One place that offers this deal is Best Buy. They often hand out flyers at checkout offering eight weeks free to Entertainment Weekly, Time, Sports Illustrated, Rolling Stone, or U.S. Weekly.

It's also possible to get subscriptions to trade publications for free. You are supposed to work in the field that a particular magazine caters to if you want to take advantage of these offers, and the subscription forms tend to ask lots of questions about your business to make sure you're legit and gather valuable marketing info. Any time you take advantage of a free magazine offer, make sure to read the company's privacy policy before signing up or use fake information if you're concerned about how it will be used.

If you feel a twinge of guilt about signing up for free trials of magazines that you may have no intention of subscribing to, just remember that magazines are heavily advertiser-funded and that when you get your free issues, you're getting the ads they want you to see, too. It's also possible, of course, that you'll like the magazine enough to become a subscriber after all.

How to Dine Out on a Budget

Eating out is generally considered to be a major budget killer, but for me, it's an affordable luxury and a great joy that I'm unwilling to give up. If you love going out to eat too, you don't have to deprive yourself in the name of saving money. There are many ways to dine out on the cheap.

1. When dining out, you don't have to eat fast food to save money -- just choose a typically inexpensive cuisine. Categories where almost any restaurant's entrees will be under $15 (or even under $10) include Mexican, Salvadoran, Thai, Ethiopian, Indian, Chinese, Indonesian, Korean, Cuban, and Vietnamese. When you need to save money, restaurants to avoid include French restaurants, steakhouses, certain Italian restaurants, seafood, and sushi.

2. When you go out, stick to well-known, well-liked restaurants to increase your odds of getting great food that's worth the money. Most major cities have a significant food blogger presence. These average-joe writers are familiar with the local restaurant scene but don't have the deep pockets or specialized taste buds of food critics, meaning that what they like, you'll probably both like and be able to afford. A few well-known blogs in major cities include San Francisco's Becks & Posh, New York's NYC Nosh, and Los Angeles's Foodie Universe. A Google search should help you turn up blogs in your area. You can also check out Kiplog's food blog directory and use the ctrl+f command in Firefox to search the page for blogs in your city.

Another nationwide, online source of restaurant data is Citysearch, which has both editorial reviews and customer reviews. You can search this website by location and cuisine to find exactly what you're looking for. Yelp and Chowhound are both good sources of honest, consumer-generated restaurant opinions and are likely to have the scoop on small neighborhood establishments. If you're looking for something more tangible, Zagat guides are the way to go -- but don't pay money for these glovebox-sized books. Zagat guides are compilations of consumer opinions, and anyone can sign up to be on their panel. If you sign up at their website and submit your opinions of local restaurants (which is a very simple process) they'll mail you a free copy of any new book you've participated in when it comes out, which takes place once a year. You can get guides for many major cities as well as a catch-all national guide. I like to get my local book, books for cities I travel to frequently, and the national guide.

3. Avoid dining out on major holidays, especially Valentine's Day, Mother's Day, and New Year's Eve. On major holidays, many restaurants increase their prices and limit their menus. By pushing your special meal just one day ahead of or after the big day, you'll save money, avoid crowds and long waits, and be able to choose any item on the menu.

4. Take advantage of discount programs like Restaurant.com, Cozmo Card, and Entertainment. Restaurant.com allows you to purchase $25 restaurant gift certificates for jusy $10. My Two Dollars frequently posts Restaurant.com coupon codes that will allow you to save even more--I recently purchased $75 worth of gift certificates for a mere $12. Entertainment is a coupon book that you can buy online (or from school kids) that is full of buy one, get one free restaurant deals. Coupons are good for a particular calendar year, which means that if you buy a book towards the end of that year, you can purchase it at a steep discount. Cozmo Card helps Los Angeles residents save money on meals at specified restaurants--you purchase a $30 card which entitles you to significant discounts at various restaurants. Different cities have their own, similar cards.

One caveat: I sometimes find that the restaurants I try using these discounts are subpar. Also, some are finicky about coupons, so make sure to ask your waiter about using your coupon and clarify any special conditions before your visit and then again before you order.

5. Know how to tip. I know the waiters in the audience will hate me for this one, but did you know that you're supposed to tip on the subtotal, not the grand total? Many restaurants trick you into tipping on the grand total by returning only your credit card signature slip showing only the grand total. Most people then leave 15% to 20% of that figure, rather than leaving 15% to 20% of the pre-tax figure. You don't need to leave a tip on the sales tax! Tipping properly can save you a hundred dollars or more over the course of a year if you dine out regularly. Please note that I am not advocating stiffing your waiter--anyone who does their job right deserves a minimum of 15%. If you have the money to eat out, you have the money to leave a proper tip.

6. Share. A dining experience with friends can be a lot of fun, and it can also be cost-effective. Sometimes ordering several appetizers and sharing them can be cheaper than ordering entrees--not to mention that it can be more filling and give you a more varied meal. I'd only recommend this with friends you feel comfortable with, though -- you don't want someone strange eating off your plate, and you don't want someone stiffing you on the bill.

With these tips and a bit of creativity, you can easily dine out without spending a fortune.