When money is tight, one of the first cutbacks we make is on extravagances such as eating out, but this doesn't have to be the case.
One option increasing in popularity is discount dining memberships. These pair restaurants willing to offer discounts, with consumers wanting to save money without compromising their lifestyle.
This mutually beneficial arrangement ensures footfall for the restaurants during these tough times, and helps you enjoy the food you like at a lower price. Most cards cost around £70, which gives you a year of unlimited discounts of up to 50% off your food bill at independent restaurants and popular high street chains.
But are the benefits really worth paying for when you can find restaurant vouchers on the internet for free?
Here we review four of the most popular cards.
TASTECARD - BEST CHOICE
This is the most popular discount dining card, with more than 700,000 members. It also has the most participating restaurants, with chains including Pizza Express, Gourmet Burger Kitchen and Ask all offering discounts through the scheme.
It costs about £10 a year more than other dining cards at £79.95, but it is probably the best deal in terms of the selection of high street eateries.
Around 300 new restaurants join a month, but the majority are in London and the Home Counties. You will either receive two meals for the price of one, or 50% off your food bill. Fridays and Saturdays are often excluded.
GOURMET SOCIETY - MONEY OFF BOOZE
Membership to this discount scheme will set you back £69.95 and gets you two meals for the price of one, or 25% off your whole bill. The fact that the 25% discount includes drinks is a significant advantage over other cards.
There are 6,184 restaurants in the scheme, dotted across the UK. About 80% of member restaurants are independent and the rest are chains such as Prezzo, Café Rouge and Loch Fyne.
Gourmet Society is Tastecard's main competition in terms of choice. It may suit fine diners more though as you get discounts at a handful of Michelin star restaurants, including The Terrace at The Montagu Arms in the New Forest, Hampshire.
It also sends members newsletters containing deals on wine and events such as the Good Food Show. And you can pick up a card for just £10 by using Tesco Clubcard, Avios or Nectar points.
HI LIFE DINERS CARD - MICHELIN STAR DINING
The Hi Life Diners Card costs £69.99 a year and entitles you to two meals for the price of one at 4,000 restaurants, including Ask, Pizza Hut, Loch Fyne and Prezzo. For £84.99 the Platinum membership also offers invites to gourmet events and deals at the restaurants of leading chefs such as Marco Pierre White and Gary Rhodes.
But a far wiser option is to go for the Hi Life Go app, which you can download on a pay-as-you-go basis. It costs only £1.99 a month so you could get all the perks of the main membership and save yourself £46.11 a year.
PHANTOM CARD - CHEAPEST
For £34.95, the Phantom card offers discounts at 1,100 UK restaurants. Although the number of participating restaurants is growing, the card is only really worth the money if you want to eat at boutique eateries in central London, where there are about 140 on the books. There are no well-known chains involved so as a day-to-day money saving tool, this is not the best choice for most people.
Membership gets you 50% off your food bill, and two-for-one drinks in selected bars in London. It also entitles you to deals from the Phantom Village, which currently has offers including 50% off a full service at Halfords Autocentres.
DINING CARDS COMPARED
|CARD NAME||PRICE PER YEAR||NUMBER OF RESTAURANTS||NUMBER OF MEMBERS||SIGNATURE DEAL|
|HI LIFE DINERS CARD||£69.99||4,058||240,000+||Two meals for the price of one|
|GOURMET SOCIETY||£69.95||6,184||500,000+||25% off your entire bill, including drinks|
|PHANTOM CARD||£34.95||1,100||50,000+||50% off your food bill|
|TASTECARD||£79.95||6,500||700,000+||50% off your food bill|
How to choose
There is no doubt these cards save you money, but the real question is whether it is worth buying one considering the alternative - free discount vouchers.
For the average person, a discount at their local Pizza Express or La Tasca is very appealing, particularly with the cards that halve the bill. If you like to eat out regularly and want the assurance of knowing you will always get a good deal on your food, membership to the bigger schemes such as Tastecard or the Gourmet Society are the best option.
You should always check the member restaurants in your area before you commit to buying a card, because even if it looks like there are high numbers around you, they might be bolstered up by a lot of restaurants from the same chain.
As with discount vouchers, you will also need to check what days you can use your membership in individual restaurants.
Dining cards are also a good option for anyone who's not particularly tech savvy. So if smartphones and internet codes aren't for you, Hi Life, Tastecard and Gourmet Society send their members a catalogue that contains all participating restaurants and their contact information enabling you to browse and book your chosen restaurant easily.
But if you are signed up to websites such as vouchercodes.co.uk and vouchercloud.com and you only eat out occasionally, prompted more by a good deal than anything else, these membership cards are not worth the money.