Living Healthy On a Budget - 7 Helpful Tips | Chris Kresser
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7 Tips for Healthy Living on a Budget

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Switching to a nutrient-dense diet and a healthier lifestyle can initially be a shock at the checkout line. But a little planning and some smart shopping can make healthy living affordable.

Healthy living on a budget
When you're pinching pennies, it can be a challenge to eat healthy. Phekthong Lee/Hemera/Thinkstock

One of the biggest challenges to adopting a healthier diet and lifestyle can be the expense—especially for those on a tight budget.

I’m a huge advocate of eating fresh, organic, nutrient-dense food, and using green, non-toxic cleaning and personal care products. But let’s face it—these products can really get expensive when compared to the conventional varieties. Healthy snacks—like kale chips or beef jerky—can be three times the cost of a candy bar or bag of corn chips. Chemical-free cosmetics, environmentally friendly cleaning products, and organic, fair-trade coffee should be accessible to all; but for many, the high prices of these items puts them out of reach.

Fortunately, there are several steps you can take to make healthy living more affordable.

#1: Get down to Basics

Buy ingredients that are versatile and can be used for a wide variety of dishes. Instead of buying expensive spices that you might use once, get the basics, like all-season salt, fresh garlic, onion powder, Italian/Mexican/ Indian (fill in the ethnic food of your choice!) seasoning, curry paste, and anything else that can be used for a multitude of dishes. Choose a couple of go-to fats like olive oil, coconut oil, and butter and use them for all your dishes.

Don’t be afraid of frozen vegetables, as they’re just as nutritious as fresh, can be used in many different dishes, and have a much longer shelf life than fresh veggies.

For those who tolerate starches, white potatoes and sweet potatoes are cheap and filling and can be used at any meal. Avoid buying specialty items like gluten-free flours or other ingredients that sit in your pantry uneaten for months because you don’t know what to use them for.

A side benefit of simplifying your diet if you’re trying to lose weight is that eating simply tends to spontaneously reduce calorie consumption. In other words, you eat less and lose weight without trying.

#2: Buy in Bulk

To save money on grass-fed meat, try a buying a quarter, half, or whole animal directly from a rancher instead of single cuts from the grocery store. For example, we buy a quarter of beef, a half hog, and a whole lamb a couple times a year from local ranchers. We pay between $4.00–$5.50 a pound, and this includes cuts like filet mignon and rack of lamb that sell for >$20–$25/lb. in the store. You’ll need to invest in a good chest freezer in order to store the meat, but that expense will soon pay for itself with your savings on meat throughout the year. Plus, it’s so much more convenient to have a freezer full of meat that you can just pull something out of than having to shop for meat each week.

If buying a quarter, half, or whole animal is more than you can eat or afford, or you don’t have space for a chest freezer, considering going in with other people. The more people involved, the lower the cost and the less need for extra freezer space. Also, some cities have “meat CSAs”. These are groups of people that have organized together to buy meat in bulk directly from local ranchers. The SF Bay Area Meat CSA is an example. See if you have something similar in your area, and if you don’t, consider starting one!

You can also save on produce when you buy in bulk. If you have a local farmer’s market, talk to one of the farmer’s there about buying produce by the case, box, or tray. They are often willing to sell larger quantities at a discount, and you can go in with friends and split the order so none of it goes to waste.

#3: Don’t Pay Full Price

Health-food stores like Whole Foods are a convenient place to buy everything from organic foods to non-toxic cleaning products. However, they’re not great places to shop for those on a budget (they don’t call it Whole Paycheck for nothing!). And while you can save a lot of money at places like Costco, they don’t tend to carry a lot of the healthy and organic products that health food stores have.

This is where new businesses like THRIVE market come in. It’s the first online marketplace offering the world’s best-selling natural and organic products at wholesale prices. Think Whole Foods products at Costco prices, with the convenience of Amazon.

For less than $5 a month ($59.95 annually), members can shop 4,000 of the highest quality food, supplements, home, personal care, and beauty products from more than 400 of the best brands on the market, all delivered straight to their doors at 25–50% below retail prices.

As a special offer to my readers, the folks at THRIVE are offering a free two-month membership plus $10 off your first order. This will give you a chance to check out the store (which is adding new products daily) and see how much you can save, without paying anything up front. Click here to learn more.

#4: Cook in Bulk

Making large batches of meals yields tasty leftovers that save both time and money. As those living on their own know, it gets expensive trying to buy single-serve food items, and food waste can be a huge problem when buying in bulk.

That’s why cooking large meals and saving the leftovers can be especially helpful for those cooking for just themselves or perhaps one other person. Try making multiple servings of an all-in-one meal like a soup or stew and freezing them for later in the week. Not only will you save cooking time but you’ll also be able to use ingredients bought in bulk and not have to worry about spoilage if you can’t eat all the meat or vegetables you’ve purchased.

The easiest way to do this is to use a slow-cooker. We couldn’t live without ours! It’s easy to do some basic prep in the morning, throw the ingredients in the slow cooker, and come home to a nice, hot dinner waiting for you. There are a lot of options when it comes to slow cookers, but my favorite is the Instant Pot. It’s not only a slow cooker, it’s also a pressure cooker, rice cooker, steamer, yogurt maker, and warmer. If you’re new to slow cooking, there are tons of great cookbooks out there that will help you get started, including some Paleo slow cooking books.

#5: Choose Your Battles

Not everything you buy has to be organic, grass-fed, free-range, and local. There are many food items that are fine to buy from a conventional grocery store on a regular basis. While you always want to buy organic celery and strawberries, it might not be so important to look for organic onions or mangoes.

See the Environmental Working Group’s Dirty Dozen Plus and Clean Fifteen lists for what to focus on. The same goes for animal products. While you would likely want to avoid conventionally raised chicken, pork, and animal-organ meats, you may be all right buying lamb, eggs, and some natural cheeses that aren’t from 100 percent grass-fed and organic sources. Canned fish like salmon, skipjack tuna, sardines, and herring are far less expensive than fresh, wild fish and are extremely nutrient-dense choices. Of course, you should always get the highest-quality animal foods you can afford, but not everyone has access to ideal sources of meat.

It’s better to eat non-organic eggs than organic cereal for breakfast, and it’s better to have a dinner of conventionally raised beef and non-organic asparagus than a plate of organic pasta. If you’re unable to buy the best-quality meats and produce, it’s a good idea to do your homework and figure out which items are worth the splurge and which might be all right to spend less money on.

#6: Cut out the Extras

Write a list of those luxury items you buy — four-dollar coffees, bottled water, fancy ingredients you use once for an extravagant recipe, protein powders, and so forth — and cut them out.

Yes, high-quality pastured chicken eggs do cost two to three dollars more per dozen than conventional eggs, but simply forgoing your Starbucks Venti Mocha each day will easily make up the difference.

Go through your food spending and see if you can identify what splurges are putting you in the red. Get rid of the nonessentials altogether or find a way to make them at home. Buy a good quality reusable mug or water bottle and fill it up before you leave the house in the morning. Eat real food rather than expensive protein powders and supplements. Don’t waste money on items that you can easily do without.

#7: Buy Ingredients, Not Products

It’s cheaper to buy raw ingredients and cook food yourself than to buy prepackaged meals, snacks, and other food items. A lot of people who are new to a Paleo/nutrient-dense diet tend to be overwhelmed at the grocery store and look for products like Larabars, nut milks, kale chips, beef jerky, and other items that can be made at home but are tempting to buy when you’re just starting out.

There’s nothing wrong with buying these foods—if you can afford them. But the more food you cook from scratch, the more money you’ll save. (Another major advantage to preparing your own food is that you know what all of the ingredients are, and you avoid mystery additives, preservatives, and artificial sweeteners.)

Now I’d like to hear from you. What are your favorite tips for eating and living healthy on a budget? What have you found to have the biggest impact? Let us know in the comments section!

  1. I live in Mexico – Puerto Vallarta.
    The local Costco has quite a few organics in the refrigerated produce section.
    So if you are a Costco member, do take a look at what they now carry and don’t assume because it is either here today or not that is the way it always is.

  2. Also check to see if you have Bountiful Baskets in your area!! I get 25# on average of organic produce every two weeks for $25.00 plus a small handling fee They also have #25 on average conventional produce for $15.00!! Plus they offer many seasonal add on veggie packs and fruits by the case you can split with others.

    • I enjoy Bountiful Baskets in CO. If you help out with the distribution, you can maximize your yield, as the extras and 2nds are usually divided up amongst the volunteers.

  3. Here in my Midwestern college town, we have a food co-op (can buy a membership, and/or volunteer labour for reduced prices on a great array of organic, pastured, etc); two specialty groceries at competitive prices); several farmers markets in season; short drives to local farms with roadside stands selling eggs, vegetables; university agriculture students run a CSA; and regional supermarkets that are continually increasing their offerings of healthier options. I heartily agree that mail order should be the last option-all of the above-listed businesses deserve local support if we want them to thrive. As to offsetting costs, wholesome food is more satisfying, so you tend to eat less; and for many, as noted, improved health means fewer medical costs (e.g., I no longer need to take a blood pressure medicine that cost me over $350 a year – giving me another $30 a month for groceries). And, even if you don’t have time or space for a garden, even a couple pots with salad greens and tomatoes can make a considerable dent in food costs for months.

  4. I would have to agree that Thrive Market is not all that cheap especially when you factor in the membership. Many of the local grocery stores and Costco are carrying organic frozen fruits and veggies and organic meats(although that doesn’t mean a whole lot if the label doesn’t also say grass-fed or pastured.) But I will say that your milage may vary buying local foods especially meats and eggs. I can actually get my eggs from pastured chickens for the same price if not less than what you pay for “organic” eggs in the market. As for the meats, it’s the opposite, I can buy half a grass-fed cow for about $9/lb here in NH(that would include usable meat only. No bones for broth or tallow). Probably still a decent price if you factor in all the cuts you get but quite a bit more than what is quoted in the article. I’m guessing it’s largely due to climate and the cost of buying organic feed over the winter months.

  5. Can I just say thank you! One for all the interesting and helpful information and e-books and, two, for promoting the Thrive Market. I live in the UK but my daughter and her family relocated to LA last year so I forwarded your email to her.
    A very timely intervention it transpires – she was reluctantly about to sign up to another delivery company when she received my email. She was very pleased to say the least. Finally, although it is a UK blog, your readers might be interested to read blogs by single mother and food campaigner Jack Monroe at http://www.agirlcalledjack.com/
    So thank you once again from me and on behalf of my daughter (I wait to hear her views with interest).
    Best wishes

  6. The best thing which i personally use is “Buy ingredients, not products”. Ingredients are raw materials and hence they are much cheaper than the product made from them.

    Also one must not worry if you cannot find all the ingredients as it is not feasible to search in multiple stores for 1 -2 missing ingredients.

    This way one can automatically save money on healthy recipes along with enjoying benefits of such recipes.

    • There is no expiration date set for this offer. We’ll take down the links when the promotion is over.

      • When will the promotion be over? I’m asking because we’re going to be out of town and I don’t want to order until we get back. I need to know how long I have.
        Thank you.

  7. I swear by Aldi’s! While they do indeed have some organic fruits and veggies, my budget is such (a single working grandma raising 2 grandsons) that I but their conventional produce. It’s the best anywhere! This week I got blackberries, strawberries, cantaloupe and pineapple for 99 cents each and raspberries for $1.49. They routinely have the most beautiful peppers, zucchini, cauliflower, etc for unbelievably low prices. I buy grass fed ground beef there and uncured bacon as well. My food budget is $100 a week and although most isn’t organic, I feel like we are eating very well.

  8. I work with a tight budget – AND I shop at Thrive….my first order I got 20% off and it was the beginning of the year when I had a few extra dollars, so I made the most of the discount and ordered, what for me, was a lot of staples. Thrive is a good bit cheaper for me, even though they are located in California where I know prices are supposed to be higher than where I live in Western North Carolina – BUT…I can buy the canned albacore tuna, the good quality canned sardines at half the price of my local Whole Foods or EarthFare…..and that goes for almost everything I have ordered from Thrive – cleaning products AND skincare products. But I also cook in bulk. So I portion and freeze most every meal I cook which aids in stretching the $$$ and also is a good way to prevent eating more than you need. I look for specials and coupons on the fresh meat and fish and spend as much as I can possibly afford at the time, freezing and saving some and cooking the rest. All that said, it is STILL a LOT more expensive to eat this way than the SAD diet – but it is my choice to spend my hard earned $$ that way rather than on other ‘frilly’ extras that are perfect for instant gratification but without any long term benefits.

  9. I have found that Nutri Smart has better prices than Whole Foods on quite a few products. Thanks for the great article.

  10. “(Another major advantage to preparing your own food is that you know what all of the ingredients are, and you avoid mystery additives, preservatives, and artificial sweeteners.)”

    And one more advantage to add to the list: You can avoid plastic packaging! Eating to reduce food packaging can be very healthy — as long as you skip unhealthy carbs and sugars from the bulk bins. Plastic packaging is not only environmentally wasteful but may contain endocrine disrupting chemicals, which are definitely the opposite of healthy.

  11. I’ve checked out Thrive a few times. Their prices are more than my local Whole Foods, with the exception of one product. I just don’t get it. Is it because it’s a MLM company?
    I don’t know what I’d do without Costco and their less expensive organic chicken, organic blueberries and avocado oil.

    • I should mention that yes, Costco cost me $125 a year, but besides saving money on organic foods there, I get a check every January for about $125 in reward points, so basically it’s free.
      I pay $5.99 for ORGANIC chicken breast, where else can you find a it that cheap.

  12. I appreciate the sentiment of a budget-friendly post, however for those of us who are TRULY on a budget (I have less than $200/month after bills and before gas or any other incidental expenses, usually leaving less than $150 for groceries), buying in bulk or paying subscription fees to a site like Thrive Market or a store like Costco is absolutely out of the question; it will be a long time before I have $60 bucks to throw down on a membership fee at one time. What works best for me is to actually shop more frequently, buying only a couple of days worth of fresh produce at a time so that absolutely nothing goes to waste. Canned fish, eggs, ground beef, and local raw milk ($6/gallon here) are major staples of my diet. In fact when times are really tight, like when I can only spend about $20/week on groceries, I do a short “milk cure,” and consume nothing but raw milk and water. While this sort of plan does not work well for families, for a single gal who can only eat so much in the few days before vegetables go bad it works quite well and ensures little to no waste, plus reasonable variety to keep it from getting mind-numbingly dull.

    • I was going to say something about ensuring you only buy what you can reasonably consume. I like to have a range of veg for example but for two people (and i eat very limited two days a week and my housemate is often away 2-3 days a week) it’s not practical because food starts to get wasted. And food wasted is money wasted. Shop your freezer before you go to the shops.

    • Hi Hungry,
      I know just where you’re coming from. I, too, have just a little over $150/mo for food (and medicine) for me and my dog and I often feel like I wish I had more to eat. But I have lost on ave. 25lbs the past two years since I’ve been in financial hardship.
      I’d like to make some suggestions. A much healthier and tastier liquid diet than milk is bone broth. You can flavor the bone broth and add nutrients with the parts of veggies that you normally wouldn’t eat – ends of carrots, celery and parts of the onion. Keep them contained in a nut bag while cooking so you can easily pull them out once the bone broth is done. Also, learn to culture/ferment vegetables. You don’t need a starter culture, it’s cheap, easy and they have a long shelf life. The fermentation process increases the nutrition and turns normal veggies into “super” nutritious veggies full of vitamins and minerals! Plus they help restore beneficial flora to the digestive system.
      Lastly, if you can’t afford a membership to Thrive Market but see they have things you could buy for less than you normally pay locally, email them and ask for a free membership. For every paid membership, they donate a membership to a low income person/family. They gave one to me and I’ve saved quite a bit by buying things from them that I would normally pay more for here locally. Hope my suggestions are helpful.

  13. Once you go organic it’s hard to go back.

    I try to make the point that the extra costs now save you money down the road when you don’t have to spend money on health bills from sicknesses caused from lifetime toxin exposures and nutrient deficiencies!

  14. Chris,
    I love this article, I am a nutritional health coach and work with people regularly that want to make healthy choices yet are on a budget. Even if you can afford eating at a hefty price, why not learn to eat on a budget?! Thanks for all the great information. I will definitely be sharing this article !

  15. I also like the tip of making your own homemade bone stock from leftover bones. If you buy a whole chicken you can get a meal or 2 from the meat, and then make a whole ton stock from the bones. The stock is super nutrient dense and basically free (cost of the spices, if you add a carrot, etc). We also save beef bones and other bones in the freezer and when there is a big bag of them we make some more stock in the slow cooker.

    • Alec – you must be buying a very small chicken or eating very large portions! I joint a whole chicken and get four meals (2 breasts, 2 legs), which I usually cook under the grill along with vegetables such as mushrooms and sweet potatoes. There’s another meal to be had from the meat on the wings and the rest of the carcass which I pressure-cook in a rack above a soup of rice and onions (I don’t think Chris is very keen on pressure cooking, but it’s done in ten minutes!) Where I live, the bones are eventually collected by the local council for recycling, so nothing is wasted.

  16. You CAN save money at Whole Foods and such places if you know what to look for. Their 365 brand products are very competitive with conventional prices (but we simply don’t use many “products”), and their bulk bins have reasonable prices on things like nuts, seeds, spices, shredded dried unsweetened coconut, almond and coconut flours. Look in WF’s freezer case for inexpensive bags of bones from pastured animals. Chicken livers from organic chickens are very reasonable there, too.

    Costco (at least here in Northern California) carries many organic products, almond flour, coconut oil, avocado oil, Kerrygold butter (if you eat it), chia and flax, canned wild caught sardines in olive oil and BPA free cans, etc.

    Trader Joe’s and (from what I understand) Aldis are also carrying increasing amounts of grass fed beef, coconut oil, coconut flour, etc. at reasonable prices.

    Personally I think there’s something wrong with mail-ordering food products available in your own locale by merchants (albeit big chains) who need to be encouraged to keep carrying these items, especially when the price difference is minimal. And the carbon footprint of shipping in small numbers is not insignificant.

    • I love Trader Joe’s for frozen: pastured ground beef, Argentinian wild shrimp, organic veggies. Also, almond meal. Good prices!

  17. Here in southern Arizona we have a grocery store called Sprouts. It’s basically an enclosed farmer’s market merged into a health food store. Their produce is so cheap I feel like I’ve robbed the place! I buy what’s on sale and stock up. Last week’s best buys include 5 nice sized red grapefruits for $1 and 3 red peppers for $1. We also have a non-profit organization called Market on the Move that gets excess produce that was going to go to waste anyway and redistributes it. They come to my town about once a month. For $10 you can take all the produce you can carry — up to 60 pounds.

  18. Great post.

    Another tip we find helpful is buying cheap cuts when it comes to high quality grass fed meats. Tongue, neck bones, shanks and ox-tail are significantly cheaper than ribeyes and fillets.

    • And those “less popular” cuts also give you nutrients that you don’t get in your diet if you only eat the muscle meat like steaks and roasts. Eating “nose-to-tail” is real Paleo.

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