How to Be Vegan on a Budget

One of the biggest complaints I hear from new vegans is that the lifestyle is expensive, or that the cost of vegan foods makes the diet cost-prohibitive.

This simply isn’t true - shopping for a plant-based diet shouldn’t be any more expensive than shopping for an omnivorous diet.

With a little planning and creativity, your grocery budget can be the same - even cheaper - as it was when you ate meat, eggs, and other animal products.

There are a few steps to budget-friendly shopping that will help keep your grocery spending low, but even by implementing just a few parts, you’ll notice a difference in how much you’re saving every week at the supermarket.

Read below to see just some of the ways you can save a little green while going green.

Limit Your Processed Foods

When many people first go vegan, they seem to think that they must immediately replace every meat- and dairy-based food with a vegan alternative.

Vegan burgers! Vegan yogurt! Vegan lunch meat!

While these products are delicious and can help you bridge the gap between your omnivorous life to your new vegan lifestyle, they come with a hefty price tag.

A one-two punch of a convenience food, along with a “specialty” vegan item, can eat up a good amount of your budget, and make it seem like it’s your vegan diet that’s causing the sudden jump in costs.

In reality, by buying something packaged and marketed, you wind up paying much more than if you had just focused on fresh, whole, plant-based foods.

No matter which grocery store you go to, you’ll see that they all have a similar layout - the center aisles are filled with pre-packaged, processed goods, while things like fresh produce, refrigerated products, and the bulk bin for things like pantry staples are located along the perimeter of the store.

Keep the majority of your shopping to those sections on the perimeter, limiting the amount of processed foods you buy. Your wallet - and your body - will thank you!

Shop in the Bulk Bin

Bulk Bins

Photo Credit: eatcreative.org

As you’re strolling through the aisles, you may stumble upon the bulk bin - large canisters with dispensers that provide everything from rice to coffee to spices.

The power of the bulk bin is that it allows you to buy exactly the amount of the ingredient you need, rather than committing to a larger packaged size.

Only need a cup of walnuts for a recipe?

You can buy a cup of walnuts, instead of having to purchase a two-pound bag and having them sit around in your cabinets and become potential food waste.

In addition to only buying what you need, bulk bins tend to have a lower price per pound than the pre-packaged items on the shelf - you’re just paying for the product, not the packaging and someone to package and market it!

While you probably won’t do the entirety of your grocery shopping in the bulk bin, there are five things that should be bought almost exclusively from these treasure troves:

  • Nuts & Seeds: In addition to plain raw and toasted nuts and seeds for cooking, baking, and snacking, you can also find them in special flavors here. My local co-op has fun flavors like curry cashews and tamari, or cocoa, roasted almonds, in addition to things like peanuts and raw pumpkin seeds. Nuts are the best place to employ the “buy what you need” strategy - because they’re high in oils, they can go stale and rancid quickly if they sit too long in your cupboard. By buying only what you know you’re going to use for a recipe or your weekly afternoon snack, you reduce food waste - which is just throwing your dollars in the trash.
  • Oats: In addition to being a simple and heart-healthy breakfast item, oats are an incredibly versatile ingredient to have at home. I eat oatmeal every morning to start my day off on a high note, but I also use these little cholesterol sponges for bases for cookies and fillers for lentil loaf. However, because of their health benefits, a canister of name-brand oats can run you a lot of money, with generic oats being only slightly cheaper. Even in a major metropolitan U.S. city, the oats from my bulk bin are less than $1.50 per pound (which is a lot of oats), and I’m not stuck throwing away a giant cardboard tub afterward.
  • Spices: I buy my spices almost exclusively from the bulk bin - it’s high-quality spices at great prices, and you can buy just a few tablespoons of that one spice you only need a little bit of for that recipe you’re trying. My love for bulk bin spices comes out when I’m making Indian recipes, where I need a little bit of lots of different spices that I don’t use on a daily basis, and don’t want to buy in a large quantity. When shopping for spices in the bulk bin, it’s important to remember that they don’t weigh a lot, so don’t avoid them based on the per pound sticker price. Bulk cumin seeds might be $20 per pound, but if you’re only buying a small amount of them for one recipe, you probably won’t even reach a tenth of a pound (remember that small quantities of fresh spices pack a ton of flavor). In a lot of cases, I can fill up a small spice bag at the bulk section for less than a dollar.
  • Dried Fruit: When I first started living on my own and paying for my own groceries, I thought I would have to say goodbye to dried fruit forever - have you ever looked at how expensive a bag of dried cranberries is? How much for how much? Luckily, the existence of the bulk bin allowed me to reintroduce these sweet morsels back into my diet, and I find the variety in the bins to be a lot of fun, and a great way to introduce variety. Rather than getting an expensive three-pound bag of sweetened dried cranberries, I can get just a few handfuls in my bulk bin for weekly salads - and I won’t be stuck with the sugar-laden kind either. My co-op’s bulk dried fruit offerings include unsweetened and unsulfured dried cranberries, and lots of fun options like dried blueberries, cherries, mango, and pineapple.
  • Snacks: Some of the best bulk bin offerings are their snacks - right alongside the dried legumes, rice, and seeds, and fun and exciting, healthy snacks - fat Medjool dates, energy chunks made from dates and seeds, and peanut butter covered pretzels. The bulk bin allows me to take only what I’m craving - maybe just a handful of trail mix, rather than a three-pound bag - and pay only for that little something sweet. This method is also super helpful if you’re like me, and can’t resist the siren call of an open bag of peanut butter pretzels or chocolate-covered almonds once they’re in the house. By having the flexibility to buy a serving at a time, I’m able to save both money and calories, while still indulging my sweet tooth.

While the price per pound in the bulk bin tends to be lower than the pre-packaged counterparts in the center aisles, it’s always important to compare the price per pound to get the whole story.

Compare the Right Numbers

While the overall price is certainly important, the most bang for your buck will come from comparing the unit prices of different items, namely the price per pound.

This is useful in comparing the real cost of foods that come in different sizes - while a smaller package of a food might have a cheaper total price, you may find that it is actually more expensive per pound than a larger container - so, if this is something your family eats relatively frequently, you’re better off purchasing the option whose total price is more, but you’re saving on the per pound cost.

If your grocery store doesn’t list the price per unit, whip out your phone and use the calculator to find the per-pound price and make your decision from there.

Shop the Ads & Make a List

Every Sunday, I get a pile of grocery store ads in the mail for our supermarket’s price reductions for the week.

Every weekend, I peruse the ad for my preferred grocery store to see what items they have on sale - usually produce, since my diet has a base of lots and lots of fresh produce.

The availability of sale produce is almost entirely what dictates my menu for the week - if peppers, onions, and zucchini are on sale, you know burritos and fajitas are going to be on my weekly menu.

In the fall and winter, butternut squash means our lunches and dinners are going to contain lots of soup and sweet cubes of roasted squash.

You can also buy large amounts of sale produce to stock your freezer, too.

In the summertime, when mango and zucchini are widely available, cheap, and super ripe, I buy them in large quantities to process and keep in the freezer.

That way, while it’s cold and snowy out, I can enjoy cubes of super sweet mango and fresh rounds of summer squash, without paying the premium to buy the fresh stuff off-season.

While it does take a little more time than walking through the aisles and making a game-time decision, it will help save you money by basing your menu off what’s on sale.

And, because the produce on sale tends to be seasonal (i.e., pineapples don’t go on sale in the Northeast in December), you’ll have the opportunity to try fun, in-season recipes for those items.

Action Plan:

  1. Once you have an idea of what you’re going to buy, take a few minutes to make a list of exactly what you need.
  2. Take stock of your recipe and staple needs for the upcoming week, mentally walk through the aisles, and write down the items you’re going to get.
  3. Most importantly, stick to the list once you get to the store!

Don’t go to the grocery store hungry!

If you go to the store when you're still hungry, you’re more likely to give in to unlisted cravings.

If you absolutely need to, maybe get a small handful of peanut butter pretzels from the bulk bin, instead of a large bag!

Think of your shopping list as your game plan, and don’t deviate from it - it will help ensure all that fresh produce you’re buying will be put to use, and there will be minimal food waste.

Be Choosy About Organics

A healthy vegan diet uses a foundation made of fresh, nutritious produce - lots of vegetables and fruits for maximum nutrients to create healthy bodies.

Whether you’re just starting out as a vegan, or a longtime vegan looking for a more whole-foods approach to food, you want to make sure the produce you’re buying is top-quality, which usually means buying organic fruits and vegetables free of any pesticides.

But, as you probably know, that organic label can mean a huge difference in the cost of produce, which can deliver a huge hit to your grocery budget if you’re eating mostly whole foods. That first grocery bill after buying all organic groceries can provide a lot of sticker shock!

While it’s great to eat all organic produce if you’re able, you can save money by abiding by the laws of “the dirty dozen” and “the clean 15”.

These monikers refer respectively to the fruits and veggies that are most and least contaminated by pesticide use.

If you’re able, purchase the organic variety of foods on the dirty dozen list, and feel free to buy conventional fruits and veggies that are listed on the clean 15.

And remember, if you can only afford conventional, go conventional - a vegan diet rich in fruits and vegetables, organic or otherwise, is still healthier than a diet based on processed foods.

The "Dirty Dozen"

The following foods are considered the dirty dozen, and are listed in order of contamination. If at all possible, try to buy the organic versions of these foods, as they are the most contaminated by pesticides:

1. Apples

2. Celery

3. Bell peppers

4. Peaches

5. Strawberries

6. Nectarines

7. Grapes

8. Spinach

9. Lettuce

10. Cucumbers

11. Blueberries

12. Potatoes

The "Clean 15"

The foods below are the clean 15 - if you’re looking to save some money on your grocery bill, you can purchase the conventional versions of these foods, as they are the least affected by pesticide use. These fruits and veggies are listed in order of least contamination:

1. Onions

2. Sweet corn

3. Pineapples

4. Avocado

5. Cabbage

6. Sweet peas

7. Asparagus

8. Mangoes

9. Eggplant

10. Kiwi

11. Cantaloupe

12. Sweet potatoes

13. Grapefruit

14. Watermelon

15. Mushrooms

You’ll see some themes here - the foods on the clean 15 are overwhelmingly dominated by fruits and veggies where you throw away the rind or covering and consume the inside of the plant - things like avocado, mango, and watermelon.

Meanwhile, the foods on the dirty dozen list are those with thin skins, where we consume the entire fruit or vegetable, where pesticides might easily permeate the food, or would be ingested with the skin.

By using these lists to guide which produce you buy organic and which you can choose conventional, you can reduce some of the sticker shock that comes with buying organic produce.

Prepare Your Own Food

So now you’ve got all that fresh produce, beans, legumes, and grains from the perimeter of your grocery store...

now what?

Just like reducing your consumption of processed foods, preparing your meals at home rather than picking up lunch at the office or ordering takeout for dinner is one of the most efficient things you can do to eat a vegan diet while sticking to a budget.

With just a little preparation on weekends or evenings when you have some extra free time, you can meal prep lots of meals - or components of meals - for easy, delicious, and nutritious meals during the week with minimal effort.

That time between waking up and getting out the door can be hectic, and the last thing you want to worry about while getting ready or trying to get your kids out to the school bus is what you’re going to make for breakfast.

Ditch the Grab-N-Go

Instead of grabbing breakfast at the coffee shop on your way to work, try making a big batch of oatmeal in the beginning of the week - this requires basically no active time on your part, and plain oats cooked with water or soy milk can be changed up every day to keep you from getting bored.

TIP: Try topping oats with fresh fruits, peanut butter and jelly, or chopped nuts and chocolate for a sweet morning treat. If you’re more into a savory breakfast, cook a big batch of tofu scramble with veggies to heat up with a slice or two of toast.

Beat the Heat

In the sweltering summer months, when it’s too hot for things like chili and stew, cold soups are a great option, as well as salads topped with all the sale produce offered by the supermarket that week.

Leftovers: Zero-Effort

My personal favorite cheap and easy option (or dare I say, lazy!), is to just heat up some leftovers from the previous night’s dinner - a zero-effort meal perfect for crazy days at work, or busy evenings where I don’t have time to cook.

The Slow Cooker - Your New Best Friend!

The slow cooker is also a powerhouse for lunches and dinners and is one of my favorite ways to easily make big batches of meals I can leave in the fridge or freezer and heat up throughout the week.

Use your slow cooker to make a hearty lentil soup, veggie chili with lots of chopped vegetables and cooked beans, a huge batch of rice and beans, or a stew with seitan or tempeh. An up-front purchase of a slow cooker can make a huge difference in the amount of effort it takes to eat healthy, delicious meals on a vegan diet.

I use my 6-quart programmable Crock Pot on a weekly basis to make big batches of black beans, soups, stews, and chilis.  It's reasonably priced and is available on Amazon Prime!

It Doesn't Have to be Complicated

Making your food doesn’t have to look like a page from a 1950s housewife book, where you have to create a new soup, entree, and dessert every single day - nobody has time for that.

The effort involved would be a huge deterrent for people on a plant-based lifestyle.

With just a little time and planning, you can whip up meals for the whole week with the help of a few basic appliances, which will help save you time and money in the long run.

Pinch Pennies, Plant-Based Style

Veganism gets a bad reputation for being an expensive, labor-intensive lifestyle, but this is really an unfair accusation.

With just a few guidelines, some time planning, and a few hours a week in the kitchen preparing meals, veganism can be just as affordable, if not cheaper, than a diet that includes meat, dairy, and eggs.

When your focus is on meals made with fresh, whole foods rather than prepackaged burgers and entrees, or take-out from local restaurants, it will be easy to stick within even the tightest grocery store budgets while living a compassionate and plant-based lifestyle.

Give a diet with fresh plant-based foods a try, and see how easy it is to eat nutritious, high-quality meals without having to sacrifice a huge portion of your budget - or your morals.

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