11 Mind Tricks Restaurants Have Cooked Up to Get You to Spend More Money

pouring tea at a fancy restaurant table

Fancy restaurants pull out all the stops to get you to spend. | Joel Saget/AFP/Getty Images

Americans spend a lot of money on food. In fact, it’s the No. 1 way we end up wasting our money. That includes eating out at restaurants, which can be much more expensive than eating at home or preparing your own meals. But the reason we eat out, in many cases, is to get out of the house and enjoy the fruits of someone else’s labor. We want variety, flavor, and skill — not another bowl of ramen or frozen pizza.

Most of us realize restaurants will employ a number of methods and strategies to get us to spend more. It’s in their best interest, of course, to make the biggest profit off of each customer. You can’t really blame them for that, but that doesn’t mean you need to remain blissfully unaware you’re being taken for a ride.

It goes far beyond simply charging you more for food, too. You might see an item on a menu at a fancy restaurant and think, “I could make that at home for a fraction of the price.” And you might be right. But you came to a restaurant for a change of pace, and it’s probably not the time to get into a hypothetical price war in your head. Instead, you can look for a few things that might help you save some money in the end.

Quid Corner, a U.K.-based loan lender, recently published an infographic by NeoMam Studios that dives into 11 specific ways restaurants are trying to get you to spend more. Some might come as a surprise, while others will seem obvious to a seasoned diner. No matter your level of experience at fancy and quaint restaurants alike, you’re bound to find a way to save some money on your next meal.

The first trick? It’s all about thinking outside of the “box.”

1. They ‘box’ certain items

A menu on a table at a fancy restaurant

Certain menu items will be highlighted. | iStock.com/dmbaker

It all starts on the menu, as you’ll see with the first several items on our list. First and foremost, though, is the strategic and subtle use of boxes — that is, you’ll see some items on the menu have boxes around them. You might not even think much of it, but your subconscious will pick up on it. Those who design menus know this, and for that reason, they will box specific items to make them appeal to the eye.

Next: The nostalgia factor can be strong with this trick.

2. Family references

Grandparents with their grandkids

“Grandma’s apple pie” probably didn’t come from anyone’s actual grandma. | iStock.com

You might have noticed many menu items have family names attached to them. They might include things, such as uncle whoever’s linguine or grandma so-and-so’s apple pie. This most likely isn’t a way to honor a long-lost relative. It’s a way to dig into your psyche and milk feelings of nostalgia.¬†Quid Corner said this kind of ploy has proven to increase sales by 27%.

Next: Why you should probably ignore these types of descriptions.

3. Meaningless size descriptions

a small plate filled with orange-sesame chicken wings

Some portion descriptions don’t actually tell you anything. | Christine Skopec/Culture Cheat Sheet

Many menus have intricate descriptions of their dishes, and that can include sizes. That can be particularly helpful, especially if you’re trying to control how big of a portion you’re getting. But some of these descriptors are completely meaningless. Some places sell “half” or “full” portions, with the price of the full portion appearing to be a bargain. But you still don’t know how much full actually entails.

Next: The best part of the menu to find deals.

4. They hide things — low and left

Woman looking at the menu

Deals are hidden in plain view on the menu. | iStock.com/guruXOOX

By now you know menus aren’t designed by a clueless intern. Some serious science goes into it. And many designers like to stash the bargains in one particular part of the menu: the lower left. Why? According to Quid Corner, author Albin Seaberg introduced the idea in the book Menu Design. The chief reason is most people tend to ignore that part of the menu. So look low and left for a deal.

Next: Expensive items being offered for the sake of price strategy.

5. Throwing in a triple-digit luxury item


Expensive items make everything else look like a deal. | iStock.com

Those menu designers have yet more curveballs for us. This time, it comes in the form of an ultra-expensive luxury item. You’ll know it when you see it — it’s probably something you’ve never had before, and it probably costs a lot. It might cost in the triple digits, depending on the restaurant. As you might have guessed, this is all strategy. The reason is to make everything else seem like a bargain in comparison.

Next: This kind of music makes your wallet sing.

6. Strategic ambiance

a violin

Classical music might entice you to spend more. | Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images

We all love classy stuff. And nothing says classy like classical music. So naturally, restaurants use that against us. We want a classy environment, and we’re more likely to pay classy prices. “Research from the University of Leicester has shown that you are likely to pay more when a restaurant plays music, particularly if it’s classical — which makes you feel wealthier,” Quid Corner said.

7. They’ll tell you the specials

A server discusses menu options

Ask how much the specials cost. | iStock.com

Who doesn’t love specials? When we hear the term “specials,” we assume those are the bargains — our chance to take advantage of the restaurant. That might hold true at times, but usually, these non-menu items are recited to you for one reason: They’re betting you won’t ask how much they cost. If you don’t, you might end up spending more than you intended.

8. What kind of water do you want?

glass of water on a table

Don’t spend unnecessarily on water. | iStock.com/tokkyneo

You know you’re in deep when someone gives you options for water. Water, you might think, is just water. It doesn’t have varieties. Not so. You’ll specifically want to watch out for one question: whether you prefer “sparkling” or “still” water. Sparkling water, of course, is more expensive and will probably come in a bottle. If you opt for plain old tap water, though, it’s unlikely they’ll charge you for it.

9. Buffets kick off with salad and bread

Salad greens

Restaurants purposely steer you toward filling buffet items. | iStock.com/KAdams66

Who doesn’t love a buffet? Copious amounts of anything you want? Sounds great. Of course, it’s hard to turn a profit when you’re charging a set amount and letting customers go crazy. For that reason, many restaurants will hit you with a couple of staples at the get-go, usually bread and salad. These items are cheap and fill you up, ensuring you eat less of the other stuff.

10. Wine markups

Red and white wine

Restaurants know you won’t pick the cheapest wine. | iStock.com/TSchon

Wine can be extremely expensive. If you’re into wine, you’ll want to make a good pick — but also an inexpensive pick. Many people will pick the second-least-expensive wine on the list. But you should know that restaurants see that coming. In anticipation of that decision, many restaurants put the highest markup on their second-cheapest wine.

11. They don’t include dollar signs

dollar bills

Dollar signs remind you you’re spending money. | Spencer Platt/Getty Images

One final thing you might have noticed (but never given much thought to) is the use of dollar signs on a menu — or the lack thereof, in some cases. If a restaurant wants you to spend more, it will remove the dollar signs completely, as they’re a reminder you’re spending money. Evidently, you’re more apt to splurge on tapas when you see “12” instead of “$12.”

See the complete infographic at Quid Corner here, and check out NeoMam Studios, its creator.

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