One of the things I noticed when I was working in biglaw was that whenever there was free food available, everyone came running. It didn’t matter if you were a lowly junior associate like I was or a big-time partner – free food was free food and everyone wanted it.
It’s a funny thing. We all just love free food. And I think this seems to ring true regardless of income or social status. Seriously, I think that most CEOs would go into a conference room to grab free food if they knew it was there.
For most of us, the big three expenses are always going to be housing, transportation, and food. If you can reduce your costs in any of these areas, you’ll likely put yourself in a better financial situation. I’m able to reduce my housing costs by living in an affordable house and house hacking. I reduce my transportation costs by rarely driving and instead, biking everywhere.
Food, on the other hand, has always been a weakness of mine. Compared to most financial bloggers, I probably go out to eat way too much. Still, my food costs actually aren’t that bad. And in fact, over the years, I’ve gotten pretty good at reducing my food costs by figuring out various schemes that allow me to get free food or get food for a lot cheaper than usual.
In today’s post, I want to go over some of the strategies I’ve used over the years to mooch as much free or cheap food as I can. Hopefully, you can use some of these strategies to do the same thing.
1. Use Secret Shopping Apps
Secret shopping definitely isn’t a new thing, as people have been doing it for years. However, it’s something I only recently discovered, and from what I can tell, it’s a gold mine for free food.
For those of you that don’t know what secret shopping is, the concept is pretty simple. Companies seek to maintain certain standards, and in order to do this, they enlist secret shoppers to dine at their restaurants and record what their experience at the restaurant is like. These secret shopper apps will reimburse you for your food purchases, so if you take advantage of these secret shopper apps, you can get pretty decent meals for free. Indeed, as of the date I’m writing this, I literally have a week of restaurant secret shops scheduled out – meaning I can essentially eat for free for a week.
As to how these secret shops work, all of the restaurant secret shops that I’ve done include questions where you rate your experience in certain categories, then a short narrative portion where you write a few sentences explaining your ratings. I typically will do most of the survey on my phone while I’m sitting in the restaurant, then finish up the narrative portions when I’m back home on my computer.
My suggestion before doing any secret shop is to read over the survey questions and make sure you know what you need to do in advance so that you’re not confused or tripped up while you’re doing the secret shop. The important things that you’ll almost always want to plan for are the following:
- Time how long it takes for you to get your food, get your check, be greeted by someone, etc.
- Figure out the name of certain people in the restaurant, such as your server, host, manager, etc, or failing that, getting descriptions of those people.
- Take pictures of certain things. This will usually be your food, and for sure, your receipt so that you can get reimbursed. If you have to take a picture of your food, it’ll usually be before you eat it, so always be sure to read the directions and know what you need to take a picture of before you start digging into your meal.
Like with anything, you’ll get better at doing these secret shops as you complete more of them. Just keep at it.
A few things to note. First, these secret shopper apps don’t pay very much, so you really shouldn’t treat this as a form of income. Most of the time, you’re only going to make a few bucks or just enough to cover your meal expenses. Second, these secret shoppers apps obviously take a little bit of work, since you’re going to have to fill out a survey detailing your experience. I don’t think these surveys are particularly taxing or difficult to do, but it’s at least a consideration to think about.
If you’re curious, here are a few of the secret shopper apps I’ve used to get free food. They won’t always have food gigs to do, but I do see food gigs pretty regularly.
- Presto Insta-Shops (this app has a lot of different secret shop companies that you’ll have to individually sign up for)
- GigWalk and Field Agent.
I’m sure there are a ton of other secret shopper apps that I don’t even know about, so if you know of any others I should check out, please let me know.
2. Get free or cheap food using the Ritual app or other food ordering apps
Lately, there have been a ton of these food ordering apps hitting the market that allow you to order your food using the app and then pick it up when you arrive at the restaurant. This is obviously helpful since it saves you time. But an extra bonus is that a lot of these apps have coupons or other deals that will allow you to get food for cheap or free.
One food ordering app that I’ve really found useful is an app called Ritual. You use the Ritual app to order your food, then pick it up at the restaurant when it’s ready. Everything on the app costs exactly the same as buying it at the restaurant, so there’s really no downside to using Ritual.
The way you can get free food with Ritual is that if you use someone’s referral link, Ritual will give you $10 to use on your next meal. This means that everyone can get at least one free lunch by using this app. Every once in a while, I’ll also get random coupons that give me $5 off from certain restaurants, which means that I can often get myself lunch for cheaper than usual. Ritual also has a rewards system, so whenever you use the app to order food, you get points that you can then use to offset the cost of your purchase.
Ritual is only available in certain cities (mainly big cities), so if it’s in your city, take a look at it because they will randomly have deals on food. If you use my referral link for Ritual, you’ll get $10 – good enough for a free lunch (I also get $10 for referring you to this app, which helps me to get more free lunch for myself).
There are other apps similar to Ritual that you can use to get yourself free or cheaper food. Chase Pay is one app that allows you to order your food in advance, and they sometimes run special offers that will make your meal free or much cheaper.
Another app that’s similar to Ritual is ByMe. I’ve been using this app to get myself some free or cheap food as well. I think ByMe is local to Minnesota, but the important takeaway is that your city probably has similar local food ordering apps. Make sure to check those out to see if you can use them to get yourself some free food.
3. Download Restaurant Apps That Give You Free Food
Every fast food place seems to have an app these days, and a ton of them will either have deals on them or will even give you free food when you download the app. A while back, I was getting a ton of free McDonald’s by using the McDonald’s app (I’ve since cut back on eating so much McDonald’s for health and other reasons).
If you do a Google search for restaurant apps that give you free food, you should be able to find tons of apps that will give you something for free when you download their respective apps. As an example, I recently noticed that my app for Kung Fu Tea gives you $4 if you use someone’s referral link. I referred my wife using my Kung Fu tea referral link, and she went and got herself a free bubble tea (feel free to use my link if you’d like to help me out).
4. Get Free Food From Restaurant Rewards Programs (Especially If You’re Doing Food Deliveries)
One of the little side benefits of doing food deliveries is that, at some restaurants, it’s possible to rack up some decent rewards points from their rewards programs, which you can then use to order yourself free food.
Over the past few years, I’ve racked up points from Buffalo Wild Wings, Qdoba, Noodles & Company, and others. My guess is that there are even more of these types of rewards programs out there, and if you’re doing deliveries, this is basically a way for you to bolster your income a little bit. Basically, when you pick up an order for someone, always try to see if there’s some way you can scan the receipt and earn rewards points.
For myself, I regularly rack up a good amount of points from Buffalo Wild Wings just by scanning the receipt when I pick up my order. You’re not supposed to do this, so I always do it secretly without drawing attention to myself. In the past, I’ve been able to do the same with Qdoba and Noodles & Company orders.
The point is that if you’re delivering food, there are certain places where you should be able to rack up enough rewards points that you can eat for free there later.
5. Use Meal Delivery Kit Services When They Have Deals
A few years ago, I really got into the meal delivery kit world because Blue Apron, Plated, Hello Fresh, and Home Chef were all offering really good deals that basically made each meal cost a few bucks. I haven’t used these meal delivery kits in a while now, but I know that all of them still offer these same type of introductory deals. You can use these offers to your advantage, basically signing up, getting your cheap meal delivery kit, then canceling your subscription.
The interesting thing is that back when I was doing meal delivery kits, it was pretty easy for me to just keep making new email addresses or using my wife’s email address to get discounts on my meal kits multiple times. I assume it’s still easy to do this.
If you think about these meal delivery kits as an alternative to going out to eat, it can actually make sense from a monetary standpoint as well. Basically, instead of spending $30+ going out to eat at a restaurant, you can get the same type of meal at home using these meal kits for $5 or $10 per person.
6. Use the Cash App To Get Discounts On Food
Cash app is an app similar to Venmo or PayPayl – essentially a money transfer app. It’s owned by Square, which is a large publicly traded company.
One of the interesting things the Cash app has is the “Cash Card” – a debit card that is linked to your Cash account. The big thing that the Cash card has is its “boost” feature, which gives you discounts at certain places when you use the Cash card and activate the specific offer. The big discount it has is $1 off any purchase at a coffee shop, which can be a big deal if you’re ordering a $2 coffee. It also has 10% off at a bunch of restaurants, Chipotle being the primary one I use.
Basically, whenever I eat at Chipotle these days, I’ll always load some money onto my Cash card, then use that card at Chipotle for an automatic 10% off my meal. It’s a definite no-brainer card to use if you’re eating at Chipotle.
And remember, the Cash card is a debit card, so nothing happens to your credit by getting it. You basically just order the Cash card, load some money into your Cash account (same thing as putting money into your Venmo or PayPal account), and then use the card like any other debit card.
If you don’t have a Cash account, use my Cash app link and you’ll get $5 when you send your first $5 to someone.
7. Take Advantage Of Priority Pass And CoWorking Memberships
Whenever I travel, I basically always get free food since I have a bunch of credit cards that give me a Priority Pass membership. This allows me to go to a lot of lounges in different airports. Some lounges are better than others, but they all have some sort of free food. I rarely go hungry on travel days.
I also have a coworking membership at a WeWork near my house, which I get for free for a year through my American Express Platinum Business Credit Card. WeWork doesn’t always have free food, but it does tend to have food on a lot of days, so that’s a nice little perk I get from my coworking space (and they always have free coffee).
8. Go To SoFi Events
I’ve written in the past about these SoFi events. Basically, if you’re a SoFi member, you can go to these events, which always have some sort of free food.
You can read more about my experience at these SoFi events in this post:
- How I’ve Received Thousands Of Dollars Worth Of Free Stuff From Refinancing My Student Loans With SoFi
The main takeaway here is that events like this are another way I’m able to get myself free food pretty regularly. My friends Apathy Ends and All She Saves know what’s up – they’re both SoFi members and go to these SoFi events all the time too.
9. Go To University or College Events
I live in a college neighborhood, and one of the advantages of living in a college neighborhood is that I can take advantage of a lot of the events that the university puts on. For example, the student union shows free movies in the student union theater most weekends, which means my wife and I can watch fairly new movies for free a lot of the time.
There are often also a ton of events around campus that have free food. Some of these events are just random student club events, which I wouldn’t go to, but there are also a lot of good events that are useful to anyone – speaker talks, seminars, and things like that. This works out pretty well for me actually because I often do my work on campus anyway, so it’s not too hard for me to just pop into a talk and get some free food. I also am pretty young and look like a student, so that helps me out. Obviously, whether you can take advantage of this will depend on how old you are (or how old you look), but it’s another option that you can think about depending on where you live.
This post isn’t meant to be an all-inclusive list of ways you can eat for free, and obviously, you won’t be able to eat for free all the time.
The point of this post is that if you’re willing to scheme a little bit and take advantage of the stuff around you, it’s possible to go out to eat a lot and not spend very much at all.
No, this won’t make you rich. But by using these strategies, you can eat pretty well for a whole lot less than others.
Do you have any strategies you use to eat for free? Let me know in the comments.
Greg @ RetireBy36 says
Interesting ! I bet San Fransisco is great for secret shopping apps! I’ll be sure to try one out!
Financial Panther says
Yeah, wouldn’t be surprised if there are a lot of secret shops you can do out there. Like don’t go out of your way to do them, but if there’s something near you that you can get a solid dinner at, why not? Although, you can also bill a lot of hours and then expense food at your firm too I bet, which I’d definitely do that. Oh and summer associates! I know I took a lot of advantage of free food when summer associates were around.
Greg @RetireBy36 says
Ohhh yeah! We get reimbursed for dinners during week if we work late and anything we order over the weekend. When I was paying off 200k in student loan debt, I ate dinner nearly every night at the firm. It was a great way to save money but I got so sick of being in the office until 8-10pm every night.
Financial Panther says
Yeah, that’s the main problem – having to stay so late. During the summers, we could take summer associates out and get reimbursed, so I literally ate nice lunch for free every single day during the summer. I wasn’t into travel hacking back then, but I wish I was, because that would have been some easy minimum spends I could hit. Was literally spending $500 or more per week on food and getting reimbursed for it.
Krystel @ All She Saves says
Thanks for the shoutout! SoFi events will never get old. They need to bring back their free dinners though – those were the best for getting a 3 course meal + drinks for $0 🙂
Financial Panther says
I know, right? I have a feeling that these events are going to get cut back eventually, especially if SoFi goes public.
When I got out to eat to lunch, I have my faves: McDs, Burger King, Chipotle, Potbelly, Taco Bell. Most of these often have free food offer in exchange for filling at an experience survey advertised on the receipt. I keep the receipts and do the surveys when I get home on my desktop. They give you a code and I use the next time at that restaurant. It kills me that I ignored these for ages!
Financial Panther says
Oh yeah – that’s some easy low hanging fruit right there. Easy to do when doing deliveries also. Just keep the receipt for yourself and you have some free food later.
Meghan, The Eco-Friendly Saver says
These are some interesting tips. I’ve been playing with mystery shopping, but I haven’t done a restaurant shop yet. Some of my favorite ways to get free food are gleaning produce from a farmer’s field, trading leftovers with friends, and finding ways to stop throwing away the food we buy. Thank you, Kevin!
Financial Panther says
Thanks Meghan! Appreciate the kind words. Avoiding throwing away the food we buy is something I definitely need to work on. I waste a lot more than I should. I compost it all at least, so that helps a little bit, but still obviously, wasteful to throw away food that would be perfectly good.
Great read! Thanks for all the tips on how to eat for free (or almost free)! These are so helpful for everyone… one of the best articles we’ve read in a while!
Financial Panther says