7 Secret Ways that Restaurant Menus Make Us Spend More

Let’s start with this: anyone who is obsessed with saving money probably shouldn’t be eating out in the first place. After all, food is just part of the overall experience.

But with this being said, it’s valuable (and for some folks, vital) to keep an eye on the budget — otherwise things can get out of hand in a hurry, and what should have been a nice, reasonably-priced meal can put a dent in your budget or eliminate your side hustle income. And that brings us to menus.

Yes, menus. Those laminated documents that purport to simply and honestly list foods, drinks and prices. But guess what? Behind those words and numbers lay secrets that are designed to get us to spend more, more and more (and then tip 15-25% on top of that!). Here’s a rundown of 7 of the most common menu manipulation tactics:


  1. They are no dollar signs, because that symbol reminds people that they’re spending money. For example, a hamburger will be listed at 8.99 instead of $8.99.


  1. Excessively priced items are put at the top, in order to make everything else seem relatively inexpensive. For example, that $8.99 hamburger (yes, we’re adding the $ sign!) seems like a much better deal if there’s a rack of ribs selling for $18.99.


  1. Ever wonder why appetizers are typically in the top-right corner of a menu? Because those are typically the items with the highest margins, and it’s also where the most people end up focusing their attention (it’s the same reason why photos and call-out quotes in magazine articles are almost always in the top-right corner).


  1. There’s an adage that some successful sales professionals swear by, which is: “the more you tell, the more you sell.” Well, the same holds true in restaurant menus — which is why high margin dishes often have elaborate descriptions. Basically, the more time people spend reading about something, the more they want it and the less they think about the cost.


  1. Have you ever tried comparing two or three menu items, and started having anxious flashbacks of a high school math exam? Well, there’s a reason for that! Restaurants deliberately make it difficult to compare prices by, for example, not lining up all the items together in the same section, or by using different fonts and colors for different items.


  1. Restaurant menus are always touting “Grandma Edna’s special apple pie” and “Uncle Joe’s five alarm chili.” What’s the deal? Well, it’s all because referencing family roles (even if we don’t have a Grandma Edna or an Uncle Joe) puts us in a nostalgic frame of mind — and when we’re in that psychological space, we tend to spend more. By the way, this is also why stores and malls pipe in endless streams of holiday music.


  1. The next time you open a menu and focus on the so-called “Chef’s Special” (or anything else with a similarly lofty description), don’t be so quick to order it. In most cases, the Chef’s Special is neither more nor less special than anything else on the menu. It’s just there because it’s a very high margin item that’s easy to make.


The Bottom Line

Now that you know some of the biggest secrets hiding inside restaurant menus, you can see through these manipulation tactics like a truck fog light kit piercing through the haze. You’ll have just as much fun going out to eat (maybe even more), and you won’t spend more than you should.

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