One of the most commonly asked questions about the vegan lifestyle is whether it’s affordable for most people.
Initially I found this to be a strange question, because we all know plant foods are typically cheaper than meat and fish. From rice and noodles, to potatoes and yams, to bread and pasta, the cheapest and most common staples of our human diets throughout the world have traditionally been plant foods.
Both me and my partner are vegans and we spend way less money on food than our relatives and friends who are not vegans.
But with the rising popularity of “superfoods”, organic fruit and vegetables, and specialized shops supplying certified vegan, gluten-free and organic/bio products, I can now see why people are consistently asking about the cost of the vegan lifestyle. It’s true, a lot of the products designed to cater to special diets tend to be on the expensive side.
The good thing is, veganism is not about shopping at Whole Foods, but about abstaining from products of animal exploitation. As vegan we get to eat anything that mother Earth gives us, we just exclude products which have been derived from the bodies of, or through the use of, fellow members of the Animal Kingdom.
If you are new to eating as a vegan and would like to learn some no-nonsense, effective tips on how to reduce your food bill – here are our suggestions.
This post can also be helpful to people who have been vegan for a while but would like to cut costs when it comes to grocery shopping.
1. Learn how to prepare food at home
Yes, I’m afraid there’s no way around this one folks. Unless you develop (if you haven’t already) some basic skills around cooking and food preparation, you will forever be dependent upon highly processed food items (a lot of the times calling that “food” is a stretch) in the shops, takeaways and eating out. None of those options are sustainable in the long run – not for your bank account OR for your health.
Unless you plan on living off of raw seeds, nuts, fruits and berries, you need to roll up your sleeves and learn how to cook some basics well – we’re not aiming for Michelin-starred level here, just a few foundational tricks to know how to transform what Mother Earth gives us into tasty, filling food-goodness.
Studies have shown that eating home-cooked meals frequently is associated with better dietary quality (e.g. consuming more fruit and vegetables) and a greater likelihood of having normal range BMI and normal percentage body fat.
But does it save you money? According to Forbes it absolutely does:
“We found on average, it is almost five times more expensive to order delivery from a restaurant than it is to cook at home. And if you’re using a meal kit service as a shortcut to a home cooked meal, it’s a bit more affordable, but still almost three times as expensive as cooking from scratch.”
Up until 5 years ago I didn’t cook more often than, say, 2-3 times a month. I had really good reasons as well: I had a full-time job and was living in a massive city, which in my case meant working over 50 hours a week, and commuting an extra 2 hours a day.
I was sharing a flat with several other flatmates, and considering the fact that 1) I didn’t have my own kitchen, 2) I was super short on time and energy for cooking, 3) there were so many easily available alternatives to cooking around me, from chip shops, to Chinese takeaway and Subway sandwiches, to ready meals in the supermarket on my way from work, to thousands upon thousands of lovely cafes and restaurants. So naturally I avoided cooking 95% of the time.
Nowadays most of my nutrition comes from home-made meals. Eating at restaurants is a special treat that I allow myself once, maximum twice a month, unless I am on holiday. I spend less than half the money on food now than I did 6 years ago, and I enjoy the food I eat about 5 times more now.
Learning to cook and experimenting with different ingredients, spices, methods of cooking opens the door to a whole new world. You learn more about your own tastes, you expand your horizons when it comes to flavors, smells and textures, and you develop a much more genuine connection with the food that you put in your body.
And all this while saving money, eating healthier, and minimizing your impact on animals and the environment. Win-win-win ✔
2. Buy “ingredients”, not “meals” or “food products”
No matter which country you go to, chances are that whole foods will be generally cheaper than processed foods and ready meals. I know it seems tempting to go for the €6 curry they sell at *insert local supermarket chain here*. But actually spending that much on a single meal for one person is A LOT.
If you were to buy the raw ingredients yourself and recreate a similar meal at home, you could probably feed 4-6 people for the same price. Also, you would most likely NOT add the massive amounts of artificial sweeteners, salt and fat that get added to highly processed food items in the shops, along with other additives such as stabilizers, preservatives and coloring agents.
It’s also better to avoid those pre-packaged, washed and chopped veggies and fruit, too. Buying the whole fruit or vegetable is always better value and it’s less polluting as well.
When it comes to special plant-based products, such as vegan meats and cheeses, depending on where you live the prices of those “luxury” items may actually be dropping as there are more and more options available in the shops. But making everything from scratch at home or eating simple whole food meals will always be cheaper.
If you want to keep it healthier, more budget friendly AND environmentally friendly for that matter, your shopping list should resemble this one: fruit, veggies, condiments, canned goods, seeds, pulses and cereals, along with staples such as pasta, bread and plant milks.
One specific tip about bananas: a lot of people eat bananas thinking that they’re ripe when they’re in fact still unripe. It’s actually much healthier to consume bananas when they are truly ripe, which is when they start getting brown spots on the outside of the peels.
They are also sweeter and much more suitable for smoothies when they are more on the dark yellow/brown side. Not to mention that if you can find them at that stage in the shop, they would usually be discounted! When you come across bananas sold at a really good price – stock up. You can always freeze them for future smoothies and banana bread if you have too much.
3. Avoid fancy specialized stores
Look, I have nothing against these types of shops at all, and I love to visit them occasionally for vegan treats, or specific food items that cannot be found elsewhere. I also love the idea of voting with our money for more ethical, environmentally friendly brands.
But let’s be real – if you’re trying to cut costs, the stores that specialize in organic, vegan, gluten-free items are not where you want to be.
Do they have a bigger variety of vegan products? Yes. Do they stock from a lot of brands worth supporting due to their eco-conscious ethos? Yes. Is the food good quality? Most of the time, yes. Are they expensive? YES!
You’ve probably heard the super widespread myth that vegan food is super expensive, hence veganism in itself is only for those able and willing to spend upwards of $400 a month on groceries.
Well I think this notion that a vegan lifestyle is not affordable to a large degree stems from people associating veganism with such specialized stores. Ask any vegan you know and we will tell you that most of our shopping does NOT come from bio shops. Instead we get our fruit and veggies at the local market and the rest of our groceries from standard grocery shops and supermarket chains, just like the rest of humanity.
Some of the cheapest foods the world over are vegan: rice, potatoes, onions, carrots, lentils, beans, pasta, grains.
In other words, you don’t have to go to Whole Foods to eat whole foods.
4. Research your local options
It is definitely worth investing some time into really researching what is offered in your surrounding area.
Are there any growers’ markets nearby? Any fruit and vegetable vendors that offer good prices for fresh produce? It is almost always best to shop for your veggies there than from large chains, where the origin of the products can vary from week to week, the quality is unpredictable, and the process of sourcing and transporting the products to your local shop is often extremely polluting.
Whenever possible, try to buy directly from producers – not only is the quality better, but the prices can be very competitive and the environmental impact is minimized.
I say “research” because we often might miss out on some great hidden gems. When we moved to our current house, we were just using the standard grocery shops in the area and had come across some fruit and veggie vendors that had relatively good prices and quality. But a few months later we came across a massive greenhouse market, where the producers were selling organic vegetables, fruits, pulses and herbs directly to the consumers at fantastic prices.
Unfortunately not everyone is that lucky when it comes to their local options, but it’s best to do some research before settling into your weekly grocery shopping routine.
Check out the online shops of various grocery store chains in your area to understand which type of products are sold at good prices at each shop.
5. Seasonal produce
When it comes to fruit and veg, it is often the case that in-season produce is cheaper and of better quality and nutrition. This is especially true when you’re buying from farmers’ markets.
We’ve all had the experience of buying supposedly fresh vegetables or fruit from the supermarket, only to discover that they had no taste or smell.
This is usually the case with fresh produce which is transported thousands of miles away – farmers pick the fruit while they’re still not ripe, in order to preserve their form and texture during the long journey. Needless to say, such products will have very low nutritional value and will be hard to digest as well.
There is a lot of info online about which plants grow when, for different regions and countries, so you can save a few helpful charts for your region on your phone or computer to help guide you during the year.
Here’s a helpful guide to seasonal fruit and veggies in the US, compiled by dietitian Michelle Remkus.
6. Cheap staples
Rely on cheap food staples for the majority of your calorie intake. Typically this would mean stocking up on starchy foods: oats, rice, potatoes, sweet potatoes, lentils, beans, peas, corn, bread, pasta.
Luckily for us, all of these foods are filling, cheap and extremely versatile. They can be used in thousands of delicious recipes.
This is why I started the post with the advice for you to learn the basics of cooking and food preparation.
Because once you master some recipes which you truly enjoy eating – recipes which include one or more of these cheap staples – you can enjoy varied, nutritious, filling food at a very low cost.
Other whole food ingredients which are typically quite affordable as well include onion and garlic, carrots, zucchini, pumpkin, yams, mushrooms, all types of grains, chopped tomatoes, tomato puree or paste.
Add to that seasonal fruit and vegetables and you got yourself literally thousands of possible combinations for creating tasty, cheap vegan meals at home.
If you’re stuck for ideas on what to make, there are a ton of wonderful recipes shared on Pinterest and Youtube where you can search by keyword, and specific blogs and youtube channels dedicated to sharing simple and affordable vegan recipes.
7. Deal hunting
Whenever you see a good vegan-friendly item on sale which you know you consistently use and won’t go bad in a number of days, stock up!
Some examples: pickled, canned and jarred foods, sauces and pastes, preserves, jams, plant milks, condiments, nut butters and tahini, pasta, dry pulses, seeds, grains and nuts.
Make sure you store these properly so they don’t go bad – for canned foods just keeping them in a cool dark place is typically enough.
With dry foods, I would recommend storing them in large glass jars, so that they don’t attract insects, particularly pantry moths, or get moldy. I personally love to wash and reuse any glass jar that comes my way 😉
Particularly when it comes to nuts and seeds, I almost never buy them in packages of less than 1kg. If you don’t have a store nearby where you can buy nuts and seeds in bulk, check on amazon or ebay – buying in bulk is always more cost-effective.
8. Frozen instead of fresh
Sometimes buying fresh fruit and vegetables can be quite expensive, particularly in the colder months.
In such cases, opt for frozen or canned foods. Frozen foods typically are the healthier option, as the nutrient content is very similar to that of the fresh produce.
If you have the time and space in your house, you could also make your own winter supplies – by buying ripe fruits and veggies and herbs when they are in season, i.e. of good quality and at a good price, and canning or freezing them for later.
And if you have the resources to grow some food yourself – all the better!
I hope you found these tips for spending less money on a vegan diet helpful!
What has worked for you? Let me know in the comments what you think about these ideas and what other suggestions you might have for people who are new to this lifestyle.