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Tricky ways restaurants get you to spend

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NORTH PALM BEACH, Fla. (10/23/12)--Restaurants may become the site of the newest savings battle. Consumers are using online coupons to find restaurant bargains. They're also taking advantage of half-price hors d'oeuvres or entrees at happy hours, drinking tap rather than mineral water, or having drinks or dessert at home.

But restaurant owners are studying human behavior to counter this trend, employing "menu engineers" to get you to spend more ( Oct. 1). Here are some of the ways restaurants try to inflate your bill:

  • Taking dollar signs off menus so people don't think of money when ordering;
  • Including elaborate descriptions of dishes that also help take your mind off money;
  • "Contrasting" menu items. A $50 steak looks reasonable listed next to a $100 dish with caviar;
  • "Bundling" dishes, from the combo fast-food meal to the high-end prix-fixe dinner--you don't know what you're paying for each component;
  • Offering intimidating wine lists, again "contrasting" the $300 champagne with the $50 bottle;
  • Serving less expensive meat--pork bellies, goat, tongue--without shrinking prices;
  • Serving expensive specials without posting prices--"special" doesn't mean low-cost; and
  • Playing slower music that makes you linger and potentially order more.
How can you avoid these traps?

Don't be afraid to ask questions when it comes to prices, ingredients, or wine. Ask how much entrees cost--particularly specials--and what they include. Even ask how many scallops, if you want to know, or how big the salad is.

If you're not a wine expert, tell the waiter your price range and ask for recommendations. Expensive wine can be great, but so can moderately priced bottles.

Don't order the house wine--restaurants buy the cheapest kind they can and mark it way up. If several people at your table plan to have wine, buy a bottle rather than individual glasses--it's much less expensive.

Linda Johnson, vice president of conferences and meetings experiences at the Credit Union National Association, offers a tip for trying higher-end restaurants on a budget. "Many cities offer 'restaurant week' several times a year," she notes. "You can get a several-course meal for a lower price point because restaurant owners want to showcase their products. It's usually a really good deal and you get to sample nicer restaurants affordably."

If you can afford it and want to treat yourself, go ahead. Knowing what you're paying for helps you choose what to splurge on.

For related information, read "Negotiate Your Way to a Better Price" in the Home & Family Finance Resource Center.