Five ways restaurant apps hurt your wallet

Restaurant apps may seem like an easy, life-improving way to order, but they can be a constant source of temptation and money loss.

Elaine Thompson/AP/File
In this Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2015 file photo, a barista pours steamed milk into a red paper cup while making an espresso drink at a Starbucks coffee shop in the Pike Place Market in Seattle. Starbucks has a new app available.

Craving a Chipotle chorizo burrito but not in the mood to wait behind an entire softball team of customers, or suffer through a noisy phone call just to place an order? Why not order your burrito through an app on your smartphone, pay for it on the same device, and then pick up your already-made dinner at your nearest Chipotle?

With the Chipotle app — available for both Android and iPhone devices — you can do all of this. And that might actually be a problem. Depending on your willpower, mobile apps make it too easy to overspend on everything from Starbucks coffee to Chick-fil-A sandwiches.

Restaurant apps let you pay for your order through a credit card or gift card that you've already linked to the app. That's convenient, and it removes a lot of the hassle from ordering a take-out meal. But when you order a meal through your phone, without even having to take your credit card out of your wallet, it's easy to forget that you're still spending real money. Here are five ways restaurant apps can make you spend way more than you think you'll save.

1. Upselling and Tempting

Restaurant apps often remember your favorite meals and flash them on the screen when you log onto the app. Other apps will suggest side items that you can order — like fries or a soft drink — that you might not have ordered without the extra prompt.

For example, Wendy's offers a surprisingly sophisticated app. Through it you can set up a My Wendy's account that you can fill with funds from a Wendy's gift card or one of your credit cards. You can then use the app to find your nearest Wendy's, order a round of Frosty desserts, and pay for your eats without having to slip a bill or credit card to a cashier. The app generates a six-digit code that you show to a cashier to claim your meal.

Be Smarter Than the App

Plan your order and your meal budget ahead of time so you can avoid falling for the tasty impulse buys they offer you throughout the checkout process.

2. Bribing Through Loyalty Programs

Many restaurant apps keep you coming back for more by letting you build up points every time you order through them. Build up enough points and you might earn a free coffee or sandwich. That's fine, too, unless the points encourage you to spend more in take out under the mistaken belief that you're actually saving money by doing so.

Be Smarter Than the App

Unless this is a restaurant you know you'll eat at frequently (like if your office is right next door), then you probably won't be able to cash in on the loyalty rewards, anyway.

3. Offering Tipping Points

The Starbucks app for iPhone and Android is particularly adept at separating consumers from their money. You can order your favorite coffees through this app and pick them up at your nearest Starbucks — which you can find through the app — without having to wait in line. You can also use the app to tip your barista digitally and earn rewards points that you can cash in the next time — and there will be a next time — you order a drink through the app. And of course, the app isn't shy about advertising specials, which are often related to your most recent purchases.

Be Smarter Than the App

Encouraging customers to tip the restaurant staff is brilliant, because they definitely deserve it. However, there's no need to go overboard just to score a few rewards points. Tip often, but within reason, and not for what YOU will get out of it.

4. Sending Deals and Discounts

Many restaurant apps will send you targeted deals featuring your favorite menu items. These "deals" might encourage you to order a meal you otherwise might have skipped.

McDonald's might not be anyone's idea of a cutting-edge chain. But the venerable hamburger place does have its own mobile app. And it's particularly good at sending its users frequent deals on sandwiches, drinks, and sides. You'll even get a free sandwich just for downloading the app. And when you get that free sandwich, the odds are high that you'll spend additional cash on soft drinks, fries, or maybe even an apple pie.

Be Smarter Than the App

"For just three cents more, you can get a soda the size of a toddler!" This is an exaggeration of course, but do you ever actually need that discounted sugary beverage or fast food dessert? If you want to treat yourself occasionally, that's one thing, but resist the temptation to treat yourself every time. Because all of those caloric choices are doing more harm to your body than good, anyway. 

5. Delivering to Your Car

With the Wendy's and Chick-fil-A apps, you can pay for your order through your app, check in with your phone or tablet once you get to the restaurant, and pick up your food. Some restaurants will even bring your food to your car once you arrive. The apps also store your most common orders, displaying this information when you log in. It's a good way to remind you to reorder that fried chicken sandwich.

Be Smarter Than the App

If you're in a hurry to get home or pick up the kids, this perk is extremely convenient. But if you just ordered a fried chicken sandwich, side of fries, and a large soda, and aren't really in a hurry to get anywhere, maybe that short trip from the car to the cash register is a minor inconvenience you need in your life.

The lesson here? Download a restaurant app if you want a convenient way to order out. But be careful not to blow your take-out budget when these apps make it too easy to order from your favorite restaurants.

This article first appeared at Wise Bread.

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