A common myth associated with a plant-based diet is that it is unattainable if you are trying to save money or live a budgeted life (hello fellow college students). Which, the growth of wellness bloggers posting about cashew cream cheese, non-dairy ice creams, vegan meats, and whole foods galore definitely gives that assumption. However, I’m here to bust that myth and give you ways that you can eat healthy and still have money left over. As a college student, I have learned how to budget my food spending and save at the grocery store. Here are some tips and tricks that I have learned along the way for saving money while still eating plant-based.
1. Focus on whole foods instead of processed alternatives
Like with any diet, your grocery bill can add up when you are buying the expensive meats, cheeses, alternatives, and name-brand items. With plant-based diets, there are so many meat and cheese alternatives out there that make it easier than ever to make the switch. Some are relatively affordable (hello tofu and veggie burgers) but some are on the pricey side (beyond meats, gardein, etc). And while I fully support all these brands, they definitely do not make their way into my weekly grocery haul.
Yes, cashew cream cheese is an awesome alternative that’s great for the cows, but not so much so for my bank account. I’d rather not spend $6 on a carton of cream cheese, thank you very much. Same goes for all those fancy vegan turkey roasts, vegan cheeses, name-brand pancake mixes, and fancy high-protein pasta. Yes, all of those are great for the rise of veganism and for those who can afford it. They are definitely not a necessity to be vegan though. They also are not the healthiest options for people wanting to change their diet. (Even though they are vegan, they are also still super processed)
I will admit buying some of these items myself. Especially around Thanksgiving when Tofurky has their BOMB vegan turkey roasts. However, I don’t include them in my daily life or weekly grocery list.
While a lot of vegan alternatives are super expensive, there are some brands changing the game price-wise. One of my favorite brands is Lightlife foods. Their veggie hot dogs (literally $5 for a pack of 16 jumbo hot dogs) are BOMB and taste like the real thing. They also make veggie meat crumbles, sausages, and deli meats that are reasonably priced. I just bought their meat crumbles the other day on sale for $2 and they were super legit.
My tip, buy these items maybe every other month and focus on buying the cheaper alternatives instead. Tofu, Light Life products, soy milk, and almond milk tend to be pretty affordable. I make these alternatives staples in my fridge and save the rest for special occasions.
2. Always check for sales
Most grocery stores put out a weekly ad that lists what items they have on sale. Whenever I buy the more expensive items, like dairy-free yogurt and ice cream, I always wait till they go on sale first. For example, I can get a tub of Silk Vanilla soy yogurt on sale for about $4.50 which is relative to a tub of Greek yogurt. Also, check for things that are close to the expiration date. Grocery stores will typically heavily discount these products. I have found some meat alternatives and dairy-free ice creams discounted for $1.50. You just have to look.
3. Buy loose and in bulk
I typically buy the loose greens from the grocery stores, as you get more, they are cheaper, and typically last me a week. Sometimes the organic boxed salads will be discounted, so when they are I buy those instead. Most of the time, however, I buy my spinach, kale, romaine lettuce, mushrooms, and spring onions lose in bunches.
I also recommend this for nuts and seeds too. I typically buy chia seeds, flax seeds, walnuts, cashews, and brazil nuts from the bulk foods section and only have to replenish every 4 – 6 weeks. Yes, nuts and seeds are pricier, but you are only buying them every few weeks.
4. Organic is a luxury, not a necessity
I will repeat this over and over until the day I die. Yes, if you can buy organic, buy organic! A higher demand will lead to decreased prices. However, if you can’t afford organic produce, don’t let that dissuade you from eating healthy. I typically buy all the produce on the “Dirty Dozen” list organic, such as my spinach, kale, apples, and berries. However, organic berries are hella expensive. So unless they are discounted or at a good price, I don’t include fresh berries on my weekly shopping list.
Tip: Frozen organic berries (especially Costco’s brand) tend to be a LOT cheaper and then you can add them into your smoothies or defrost them to add to yogurt, etc.
5. Canned foods. I repeat. Canned Foods.
Beans, jackfruit, soups, beets, chickpeas all tend to be super cheap when bought canned. I can buy a can of black beans for less than $1 at the grocery store. I also stock up on veggie broth and soups for the winter months, and they tend to be super cheap as well. Also, beans are the perfect way to make hearty meals! You can add them to salads, soups, tacos, smoothies to get a bunch of protein and iron.
Also, items that are relatively cheap that I include in this category (although they aren’t exactly canned) are couscous, quinoa, rice, and lentils. These are all perfect staples to meals, that I use a lot as a base to build upon. I can get boxed couscous and quinoa from Aldi for super cheap. It’s around $1 for a box of couscous that serves 3 people and around $3 for a bag of quinoa that lasts for weeks (literally a cup of raw quinoa, serves 4 – 5 people cooked). Lentils and rice are also cheap and typically come in bulk bags that last forever.
6. Two Words: Frozen Foods.
Veggie burgers, frozen fruit, frozen veggies, and frozen meals are essentials to eating plant-based. Right now in my freezer, I have about four boxes of veggie burgers, three bags of frozen fruit (mixed berries, blueberries, and cherries), avocado, bags of edamame, bags of mixed peppers, frozen brussel sprouts, cauliflower gnocchi, and more. These are all relatively cheap (a box of veggie burgers from Aldi is about $3) and perfect ways to make quick easy meals.
7. Other staples that may not immediately fall into your vegan list but are super cheap:
- Whole wheat pasta and spaghetti (literally $1 for a box)
- Pasta Sauce (Also only around $1 – unless you choose to buy the uber fancy low fodmap options)
- Peanut Butter
- Almond milk and soy milk (yea pricier than regular milk, but still relatively affordable. I buy my almond milk for about $2.50 and it typically lasts me two weeks and my soy milk for about $3) – I buy both because I use almond milk in smoothies, oatmeal, and cereal and soy milk in my coffee and recipes.
- Bread (duh) – again no need to buy the $5 loaf of fancy Ezekiel bread with ten different seeds. I always buy my bread from the discounted bakery section at my local grocery store. I never pay more than $2 for a loaf, and I freeze it if I don’t end up using it straight away.
Low -cost plant-based food Items that are always in my fridge/pantry:
***What I always buy organic
Produce (I typically buy all of these every week, but again in bulk, and not always organic)
- Cherry Tomatoes***
- Apples*** (I buy the bagged organic apples from Aldi and they tend to be around $3 for about 10ish apples)
- Sweet Potatoes – I buy the large bag from Aldi every other week (they typically last me that long)
- Strawberries *** (ONLY if the organic ones are under $3 – whole foods had a deal recently that their organic strawberries were 2/$5)
Dry/ Canned Foods (I don’t usually buy these every week, usually about once every other month, depending on when I run out)
- Whole wheat bread
- Whole wheat pasta
- Whole wheat spaghetti
- Rice Noodles – perfect for stir frys
- Pasta sauce
- Canned Black Beans
- Canned chickpeas
- Italian dressing
- BBQ sauce (literally the only dipping sauce I use with sweet potato fries)
- Teriyaki Sauce
- Rice (honestly, I typically just buy white rice. Whenever I cook it though, I mix it with quinoa.)
Nuts/ Seeds/ Nut butters (this tend to be pricey, so I wouldn’t necessarily call them super low-cost. However, I only buy them once a month or once every month and in bulk)
- Chia Seeds
- Flax seeds
- Brazil Nuts
- Peanut Butter
- Almond Butter (tends to be more expensive than peanut butter, I just sometimes prefer it)
- Aldi Veggie Burgers
- Trader Joe’s Cauliflower Gnocchi
- Costco Frozen Organic Mixed Berries
- Costco Frozen Organic Blueberries
- Frozen Mango
- Soy Milk
- Almond Milk
- Tortilla Wraps
- Silk vanilla soy yogurt (ONLY buy this when it’s on sale. But it is one of my favorite things to have in the morning)
This is typically all that I have in my fridge/ pantry at all times. My typical weekly grocery shop, which is usually just to replenish produce, tofu, and yogurt, comes to about $30-40.
There are definitely pricier items on this list, that you can definitely cut out. My point here is to show you that produce, tofu, veggie burgers, frozen fruit, and canned products tend to be relatively affordable. You can also make very hearty, filling, and nutrient-rich meals with a lot of these products on this list.
I attached one of my favorite articles “Plant-Based on a Budget: How I Ate Well on $5 a Day,” to give you some recipe ideas and other inexpensive vegan food staples.
I hope this post was informative and helpful, especially to my fellow college students out there!