Thinking about going vegan, but concerned that it's too expensive?
It's a common misconception, but we're here to help.
In this guide to living vegan on a budget, you'll learn the following...
- How to make calories work for your wallet (I promise that sentence will make sense later).
- The cheap staple foods you should be buying in bulk.
- How to shop for produce on the cheap.
- Supermarket tricks used by experienced vegan shoppers.
- How to make your own nut milks rather than wasting money.
Let's get started, shall we?
Is Going Vegan “Too Expensive”?
One of the most common objections that I get to going vegan is that it’s “too expensive.”
However, when you break it down, you would think that the logical thing to do would be to have the opposite reaction.
Just think about it for a second: In order to produce a portion of meat or any other animal products that animal must be fed plant foods (and lots of them). Therefore, consuming the plant foods directly yourself should be cheaper than filtering the plants through an animal to create a piece of meat or glass of milk.
Keep More of These and Your Health at the Same Time
For whatever reason, the word “vegan” seems to make people think of super expensive specialty foods that they see in a lone aisle or corner of their local grocery store. And from an outsider’s point of view, it’s completely understandable to think that eating vegan is more expensive.
Many specialty prepared vegan foods are more expensive than their meat-based counterparts. The reasons for this are many and quite complex, but the main are:
- Government subsidies to the animal agriculture industry.
- A lack of supply and demand for these specialty products.
- Companies purposely marking-up their vegan products trying to appeal to the “higher end” consumer.
But now that we’ve got that out of the way – let’s get back to the core question:
“Is going vegan (in a healthful way) going to increase your grocery budget?”
The answer: Heck no! In fact, when done correctly, you'll be eating clean and saving green.
Becoming a Smart Consumer
Much like anything in life that you want to do well, you’re going to have to put in a little bit of effort to move yourself out of the SAD (Standard American Diet) category.
Standard American Diet Practitioner
Many people move though the grocery store do so with blinders over their eyes, just throwing anything and everything in the cart that appeals to their most basic urges and visual cues.
There’s a reason why food companies invest so heavily in packaging. They have a small window to catch your attention in the aisle and the ones with the biggest bucks are going to have the resources to know how to impact you on a subconscious level.
It is your job to overcome this barrage of urges and visual cues and to become a smart consumer!
Once you do this, I promise you that going vegan is going to be as good for your bank account as it is for your health!
Understanding Calories in Relation to Budget
Most of the time when people talk about calories it’s in more of a negative context: eating fewer of them to lose weight.
While eating fewer calories may be necessary for shedding pounds – that does not mean that you should be making your buying decisions based on low calorie counts.
In fact, you should be doing the opposite.
Cutting calories happens in the kitchen, not in the grocery store.
When you’re shopping on a budget, you’re trying to achieve a balance of calories, nutrients, and cost.
A bottle of oil has a ton of calories in it, but very few nutrients.
A head of greens has a ton of nutrients in it, but very few calories.
Neither of these options are going to be ideal as main staples of your diet.
Side note: You should be eating lots of greens and we'll show you how to shop for produce later on in the article, but on a budget its going to be difficult for them to make up a majority of your calories because their cost per calorie is so high.
You’d have to eat truckloads of greens just to meet your daily caloric needs and the functions/processes in your body that require vitamins and nutrients would quickly be hindered if you just drank oil.
Embrace what I like to call the staple foods of a budget vegan diet!
Your Staple Foods
Grains, Beans, Starches, Legumes
It’s grains, starches, beans/legumes, and root vegetables that are going to give you the perfect balance between calories, nutrients and most importantly - cost.
To make things easy, I’ve compiled a list of a bunch of items that fall within this category so that you can start to think of ideas for your next grocery list.
Beans and Legumes Galore!
- Black Beans
- Fava Beans
- Kidney Beans,
- Lima Beans
- Chickpeas (garbanzos)
- Peas (Split, Black Eyed, etc)
- Potatoes (Yams, Sweet, Purple, White, etc)
These staples are going to give you the most bang for your buck when it comes to cost, calories, and nutrients, and can also be used in so many ways that can be delicious (more on recipe examples later).
Pay attention to the prices on these items next time you’re in the super market.
They are going to be your best friends when it comes to getting an adequate amount of calories and nutrients.
Just to give you an idea of what I'm talking about (without going too deep into the nutrition side of things) I’ve done a few Google searches to illustrate the nutritional impact of these foods.
For ease of reading, everything is measured out to one cup.
You can see above that cup for cup - sweet potatoes and lentils are the best in offering you a decent amount of calories as well as micronutrients as compared to white rice and kale.
White rice is almost completely void of any micronutrients while kale would just be way too expensive to meet all of your caloric needs.
Nuts & Seeds (Cashews, Almonds, Pecans, Pumpkin Seeds, etc.)
Nuts are one of the healthiest ways to get fats and other essential nutrients on a vegan diet and allow you to make both sweet and savory dishes like these almond sun dried tomato bites. That being said, we felt that they deserved their very own section.
Nuts can be kind of expensive if you don’t know what you’re doing. I would also recommend doing a bit of local and online research before figuring out your best source for nuts because the prices can vary quite a bit, but most likely the cheapest place you're going to find nuts is online.
Go Nuts for a Sane Amount of Money
Remember that even if something ships free, the shipping is built into the cost of the item.
That being said, if you’re shopping online for groceries, you need to go big or go home. The savings are going to come because of the bulk options that you cannot find at your local supermarket.
The 10 lb. bag of cashews on Amazon by SincerelyNuts is my go-to for cashews (the main kind of nuts that I buy).
If you want, you can check it out here.
The most important piece…
Take a look at the cost per pound you can find online versus the cost per pound in the grocery store as that should be your only means of measuring cost. If your local grocer is running a sale on nuts/seeds be sure to get the final calculation on cost per pound and compare that to the prices you can find for bulk nuts online.
Any experienced began cook knows that nutritional yeast is an absolute staple. It’s chock full of nutrients (and B-12 in most cases) and is the one of the few ingredients that is going to reliably give you that cheesy/umami flavor. It’s great for making vegan cheeses and even great just sprinkling on anything that you’re eating.
Nutritional Yeast Flakes
However, much like nuts, the prices for nutritional yeast can fluctuate greatly!
The price fluctuations can actually be worse than nuts because it’s still considered more of a specialty item and less of a commodity.
The stuff has a super long shelf life, so again you need to buy in bulk.
This 10 lb. bag is what I usually get from Amazon and it has saved me a lot of money and time.
Don’t be afraid to check multiple stores or listings on Amazon to see if you can find the best deal.
There's a vegan cheese recipe at the end of the article just in case you're unsure of how to use these delicious flakes!
How to Shop for Produce
Just because produce isn’t going to make up the majority of your calories when shopping on a budget, it doesn’t mean that you should forget about it.
In fact, you should be trying to consume as much produce as possible (especially fruits and greens) as it fits your recipes and budget. Think of eating produce as more of an investment than a cost. You simply can't find the phytonutrients and antioxidants your body desperately needs to prevent disease in any other food group.
Even though this is an article about shopping on a budget, the video below from Dr. Furhman will illustrate why you should look at buying produce and other whole plant foods as more of an investment than anything else.
It's a bit of a long video, but is definitely worthwhile for anyone who wants to understand nutrition.
Why You Shouldn't Slack on Produce
That being said, let’s talk about a couple tips for getting produce at the least expensive price possible.
The Basics of Shopping Seasonal
The super market may seem like a magical place where all this great stuff comes together to be in one place for the taking (it’s quite amazing when you think about it).
However, it is still bound by the rules of economic forces.
When things are in greater abundance, they are more likely to be cheaper.
When things are scarce, they are more likely to be more expensive.
Get More Greens for Less Green
Couple these principles with the ease of production of the item as well as the distance they must travel and you’ll slowly begin to understand why some produce items are more expensive than others.
This is why understanding which produce items are in season and which ones aren’t is going to be critical to you saving money.
Items that are in season should be drastically cheaper than non-seasonal ones.
Don't Be Scared of the Frozen Section
The video below goes over the current science on fresh vs. frozen produce. I suggest giving it a watch as its only 3 minutes.
As a basic overview though, fruits and vegetables that are frozen are normally done so shortly following the harvest. Fresh fruits and vegetables on your grocery shelves go through a process of transportation, light exposure, etc which takes a toll on how nutritious they are.
This is not to say that frozen is always better or vice versa, it just depends.
Regardless, don't lose sleep over whether you're going to eat fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables. They are both great for your health.
In fact, I would recommend that you hit the frozen section and the fresh section to compare prices, assuming budget is your number one priority.
Negotiate with a Manager
What? Negotiate with a manager? Are you crazy?!?
It’s totally do-able.
Believe it or not – grocery managers have quotas to fill and in many cases are happy to move inventory as quickly as possible!
It makes them look good to their supervisors and it can save you quite a bit of cash.
Can I Get All These Raspberries?
You can do this with fresh and frozen produce (and pretty much with anything else).
To make it easy, I’ve prepared a script of what you can say (be sure to be upbeat and friendly!).
“Hello there! I was wondering if I were to buy these items in a large enough quantity if you’d be able to offer me a percentage off?”
That’s it. Just ask.
The worst they can say is no! I’ve actually done this many times and have about a 75% success rate.
Only Buy What You Can Freeze, Jar, or Eat!
This rule mainly applies to fresh produce, because if it’s frozen you have a long window to consume it.
We’ve all been guilty of it. You see a great deal on greens and buy way more than you’re capable of eating before they go bad.
Or maybe you thought you could eat them all, but didn’t account for meals that you were going to eat out, business trips, or any other occasion that knocks you out of your normal routine.
Basic rule of thumb: If you’re buying something perishable, ask yourself the hard questions, and be sure to consume it BEFORE your non-perishable items. Be sure to consider any events you have coming up that are going to mess with your normal schedule.
Some of these tips may be obvious to some readers, but for those who are just moving out and starting to do their own shopping, they are critical.
Asian or Latin American Grocery Stores
Special thanks to Vegan Runner Eats for this awesome tip. I actually used to shop at a place called Twin City (which was a Hispanic supermarket) before I relocated. Be sure to check out their guide as well using the link above for some gems on the subject of vegan budget shopping.
For those of you who have these smaller markets in your area, they are definitely worth checking out. They usually have the cheapest fresh produce by far! The place that I mentioned above (Twin City in New Jersey) actually used to sell avacados for $75 cents! You also may be able to find things that you can't find at the big chains such as Chinese eggplants or plantains.
General Supermarket Rules
Understanding Unit Price
The unit price basically states the cost per X amount of an item.
Say you’re looking at 2 bottles of soy sauce (these numbers are purely for the sake of example). One is $3.99 and one is $4.99. Because the two bottles are not the same size, the unit price of the $3.99 one is ($5.00 per liter) while the $4.99 one is ($4.59 per liter).
This means that in terms of cost versus the amount you’re getting – the $4.99 soy sauce is cheaper.
However – BUYER BEWARE!
Unit prices can be very tricky.
Get Your Calculator Ready
When investigating prices, you must always look at the UNIT ITSELF to make sure you’re comparing apples to apples and not apples to oranges.
For example: One section of the store may have the unit price in ounces and a similar item may have the unit price in pounds.
Keep your eyes open for this type of thing so that you don’t get duped into a worse deal.
Looking at the Weekly Circular
WARNING: As someone who's looking to stay away from animal based junk food, the weekly circular is going to be a complete waste of time 90% of the time.
However, the other 10% can score you some really great deals. I noticed that my local Weiss market had a (BOGO) Buy One Get One FREE Deal on a 1 pound bag of almonds or walnuts which brought the total unit price to $4 per pound!
This was a better deal than any price that I've found online.
Keep in mind that local stores are always trying to liquidate and move through inventory so you may catch one of your vegan staples at a huge discount if you keep your eyes open.
Specialty Vegan Items on a Budget
I must admit, I’m a sucker for vegan specialty items.
I love cashew milk, I love mock meats, and I love Brad’s Kale Chips!
Sometimes my impulsive-self gets the better of me and I go ahead and splurge on these items.
Delicious Looking Seitan Stir Fry
However, there is absolutely no reason not to make these kinds of products yourself right in your own home for way cheaper!
Here’s a quick lesson in what you’re paying for…
A majority of the cost for these specialty items doesn’t come from the ingredients themselves.
In most cases, it comes from the following:
- The labor for crafting the item (in the case of mock meats).
- Because it’s heavy and costs money to transport (think nut milks)
- A mark-up for “branding”.
The good news is, you can most likely make a majority of these things yourself. To make things easier on yourself, it may be worth investing in some new kitchen appliances, such as a high powered blender to make nut-based creams a breeze or a spiralizer to cut new and interesting vegetable shapes just to change things up.
Here are just a few examples on how to make my favorite specialty vegan items (milks, meats, and cheese) on a budget!
Keep in mind that the bulk upfront ingredient cost might be a bit pricey, but making these things yourself on a consistent basis will save you a bunch over the long run.
How to Prepare Your Own Nut-Based Milks
Buying Silk or any of those other nut milk brands can get super expensive (and you're getting a lot of water anyway).
In this video, Anya from Cooking with Plants shows us how to make almond milk on the cheap by using whole plant ingredients.
You can also make the process a lot easier using a soy milk maker.
How to Prepare Your Own Mock Meat (Seitan)
In my experience, seitan is mainly used as more of a "beef" mock meat, but can be used for chicken as well. It can cost a whole lot from the store, but making it yourself can greatly reduce the cost.
Keep in mind that you may have to spend a bit more up front on the bulk ingredients such as vital wheat gluten. However, just use the principles laid out in this article and you'll be able to have your (mock) steak and eat it too!
Be sure to check out our full article on seitan to learn more.
How to Prepare Your Vegan Cheese
While vegan store-bought cheeses have come a long way, brands like Daiya can get awfully expensive. Making your own with whole plant ingredients will be a healthier and cheaper option in the long run (once you get all of the ingredients). Check out this recipe from Laura of Raw Vegan, Not Gross.
Cooking with Your Staple Foods
Wow! You made it to the end of the article. You’re now on your way to becoming a smart vegan shopper.
But now you must be thinking: “Wow those were some great tips, but what do I actually buy?!”.
Not to fear.
I’ve gone ahead and included some of my favorite budget recipes below so you can get to shopping, eating and cooking!
Vegan Lentil Dahl Recipe
Vegan Chickpea Sweet Potato Burger
Lentil Loaf (Meatloaf out of Lentils)
If you've made it to the end of the article you should be convinced. Eating vegan, if done correctly, is the cheapest and healthiest diet that you can follow. Stick with the advice in the article and start enjoying the savings and health benefits right away.
Be sure to offer any additional tips and share your thoughts in the comments section below!