The other day I saw a frozen pepperoni pizza in the parking lot at work. It must have fallen out of someone’s car, but it made me a little sad. I thought about rescuing it but, honestly, what am I going to do with an orphaned frozen pepperoni pizza? So, I sat it up on the ledge and left it, hoping the owner or someone would return (it was gone the next day). Wasting food is depressing.
Years ago, when I was super-broke, I don’t know if I would pass up free food. Honestly? There were times when I couldn’t afford groceries and I would start to feel panicked every time I checked out at the grocery store, knowing I would need to put items back. It’s a bad feeling to not be able to afford food. As a long-time vegetarian (now vegan) I’ll admit, there were sometimes when I might have considered just picking the pepperoni and cheese off the pizza and eating the rest.
You’d think vegetarian and vegan diets are cheaper, but not always. One complaint I often hear from those trying out more plant-based foods, is that it can get surprisingly expensive. What are broke vegans to do? How can you enjoy plant-based foods for cheap?
It’s odd, because meat and dairy are often two of the most expensive items on the grocery list. So you’d think that when you cut those out, you’d save a lot, right? Well, yes and no. Unfortunately, many vegan treats are often a little higher priced than their non-vegan counterparts. Take for example, yogurt. You can often find regular dairy yogurt at the grocery store for 4/$1. Dairy-free yogurt? $1.59+ (and the containers seem smaller!).
The other conundrum for broke vegans is that vegan food is often co-labeled as healthier. So, expect to pay a premium for gluten-free, organic, non-GMO and other aspects of your food you may (or may not) care about. It’s true that a plant-based lifestyle often leads to healthier eating, but when you’re just starting out and want some vegan cookies, you might not care as much that they’re also sustainable, ethically made, non-GMO, local or gluten-free.
Unfortunately, this can leave some people daunted (and starving). How do you follow a plant-based diet without going broke? Or if you’re already broke, how can you afford to stay vegan? Do you have to search for vegan parking lot pizzas?
Well, fear not. Here are ways you can save money while eating vegan foods!
1. Don’t Be Afraid to Cook
One struggle many broke vegans have is that they’re nervous in the kitchen. Cooking’s tough and many of us master grilled cheese or canned soup, but beyond that it gets a little intimidating. If you’re struggling (or sick of Ramen every night) don’t be afraid to try out new dishes in the kitchen. This might mean swapping spaghetti sauce for peanut butter and soy to make peanut noodles for a change. Roasting vegetables is a good place to start–you just throw almost any chopped veggies in the oven with oil on 400 degrees. Roast until they get brownish (usually 20-30 minutes). They will taste amazing and you’ll feel awesome.
2. Embrace Beans & Legumes
I know, when everyone talks about cheap plant-based foods they bring up beans. Well, guys, no exceptions here. Beans are cheap cheap cheap. They’re high in protein. They come in tons of varieties–soy, string beans, chickpeas, white beans, lentils, split peas…the list goes on. Beans are a staple in many countries. Dried beans are the least expensive. Yes, in most cases they need to be soaked overnight (lentils and split peas can be cooked dried), but that’s all you need to do–soak them and cook them. Beans go great with rice. They’re a filling addition to pasta. You can make hummus. Use them to fill burritos. Eat them in soups, toss them in a salad. Oh, and yes, you can use them with commercial cake mix instead of eggs and oil (black bean brownies are so good!).
3. Shop Discount Stores
Did you know Aldi has a huge selection of vegan foods? Trader Joe’s (owned by the same parent company) also has a big selection and often runs specials and discounts. I have found vegan treats at closeout stores like Big Lots and even the dollar store! Check out this Dollar Tree shopping video from Chris at the Vegan Zombie which is seriously inspiring. Walmart and Target also carry many vegan products, and yes, you can even find plant-based items at a gas station (no guarantees on price). So, even if you’re away from home or can’t shop your usual store it’s possible to find inexpensive vegan foods.
4. Watch for Clearance Foods
Always check the discount bins and shelves, typically in the back of your grocery store, for any product on close-out. Even seemingly expensive, Whole Foods offers clearance items on deep discount. I’ve found cans of pumpkin there for .69 each, beans for cheap, frozen foods on closeout and of course produce that was nearing the “end.” It never hurts to ask at the front desk for items that are close to expiration and getting cleared out. Sometimes stores pull them from shelves a few days before their expiration date, but will still let you buy them at a fraction of the normal price.
5. Peanut Butter is Your Friend
Peanut butter can be found almost anywhere–the dollar store, grocery stores, Aldi, Walmart… Peanut butter (and almond butter if you can find it for cheap) is great in many different dishes. Don’t be afraid to use peanut butter in savory dishes as well. You can make soups, curries and peanut noodles using cheap PB. You aren’t limited to only eating sandwiches (although PB&J is delicious and should be loved)! You can also use peanut butter as a dip for fruit.
6. Buy in Bulk
It’s tough to buy in bulk if money’s really tight. You might be blowing your whole food budget on a case of beans or applesauce or a giant box of granola bars. Even if it’s cheaper in the long run, when you’re living paycheck to paycheck bulk buys are daunting. If possible, rotate your bulk buys to one per shopping trip. So, one week buy a case of tomato sauce, the next buy apple sauce. This saves you from having to buy too many big budget items at once (but you’ll still take advantage of the discount). If you have a membership to Costco or Sam’s Club (or a friend will take you), stock up on items that are individually packaged and shelf-stable. Buy grains and dried foods in the bulk section of the supermarket (in the bins)–you’ll spend less because you don’t need to pay for labels and packaging.
7. Grow Herbs & Buy Spices
You can find huge discounts on herbs and spices at the dollar store. But also keep in mind–stores like Penzey’s often offer certain products on deep discount. For example, this week they’ve got granulated garlic for $1 and a free Frozen Pizza Spice blend if you spend $5. When money’s tight, spending it on flavoring may seem like a waste, but adding a few spices really helps food taste better. You won’t feel like you’re eating “poor food.” Instead meals feel simple-but-fancy. For this same reason, consider growing a few herb in a windowsill or container garden. The addition of fresh herbs (or lemon) to your foods helps them feel extra special and costs just pennies per meal.
8. Start a Container Garden
For most broke vegans, growing your own food isn’t that plausible. After all, you’re probably busy working, creating, trying to survive and live. Do you really have time for a garden? The good news is, some basic gardening is really easy. You can put a few pots in your window or on your porch and grow some easy-and-prolific foods like tomatoes, zucchini and lettuce. Start simple and you’ll be surprised what will grow. Green onions are great for gardening newbies (and onions and lettuce can be started from normally discarded food scraps). We grow container lettuce every year, and NEVER have to buy lettuce in the summer.
9. Behold the Humble Potato
Sam’s college roommate once decided he could live off JUST potatoes. He bought a bag for a few dollars and ate them every day (it lasted for about a week). Now, most of us might not last that long if we were eating only potatoes, but don’t dismiss this tasty root. Potatoes and sweet potatoes are inexpensive. Baked potatoes are delicious and can be easily made ahead and reheated. Potatoes are great oven roasted, cut into oven fries, mashed (as Samwise Gamgee says, “boil ‘em, bake ‘em, stick ‘em in a stew.”) Potatoes are filling, inexpensive and delicious.
10. Freeze Your Food
When you’re trying to save money, food waste is the worst! When I make soup, curry or a casserole, I often freeze half to enjoy later. You can either make the entire dish, cook it and freeze half cooked (or in individual portions so you can microwave them later) OR you can prepare the dish and then freeze it before cooking. This works best with soups, stews, casseroles and saucy dishes. On busy nights, it’s great to pull a meal out of the freezer, pop it in the oven and eat it later without having to “cook” on a weeknight.
11. Make it a Wrap
Bread isn’t terribly expensive (you can usually find loaves of vegan bread for under $1) BUT if you have a tough time getting through an entire loaf, freeze half OR consider buying tortillas instead. The thing I love about tortillas is the versatility. They work great as sandwich wraps, you can use them as breakfast burritos or as freezer burritos for lunch or dinner. Simply saute up your beans and veggie filling and then wrap them in plastic wrap and freeze. You can take them with you to work (put a paper towel around them and microwave for a minute). You can even use tortillas with hummus and veggies and a sandwich.
12. Go Simple
When you’re struggling with money, it can help to shift your mentality to “simplifying” rather than suffering. This one’s hard because yes, it sucks to worry about money. It’s sort of frustrating when you’re eating canned spaghetti for the 30th time thinking, “oh I’m simplifying my diet, this is so fun.” It’s not. It’s tough. BUT I found that rather than focusing on what I didn’t have to work with, I tried to focus on what I could enjoy. So plain noodles dressed up with some dried parsley and garlic salt became a “simple comfort food.” Eating a salad from lettuce I grew and tomatoes let me really think about the flavors. I tried to add some herbs to salsa or roasted vegetables to make them seem like a special meal rather than “broke vegan food.” Simple food is often more “whole” and natural anyway. While it’s a bummer to not be able to afford treats, there are plenty of people shifting toward a more simple, whole way of eating, and it turns out it’s also less expensive.
13. Don’t Be a Brand Snob
As a kid my grandma babysat me and my cousin. Every morning my cousin would bring a fun mini-box of brand name sugar cereal with her. I got generic cheerios (because I had a practical single mom, who was working her way through school). I remember being so jealous and I swore I wouldn’t ever eat generic cereal from the big bags again. Well, you know what? It turns out there’s not that big of a difference. Yes, some generic foods don’t taste quite as good as their brand name counterparts, but many are pretty close. Try the storebrand–Aldi, 365 Everyday Value, and Market Pantry. They really are as good and they’re often a fraction of the price.
14. Lean on Rice, Oats & Pasta
It’s important to get fresh fruits and vegetables as much as possible (frozen has similar nutrients though, so don’t dismiss frozen!) BUT fill out your meals with rice, oats and yes, even pasta. Grains make a great base for meals and they’re less expensive than other foods. Whole grain pasta may cost more than white pasta but watch for deals, discounts and specials. Go as whole grain as you can, but there are many white-flour based vegan options (and they often cost less). When you’re trying to make ends meet, pasta or white rice can be a terrific base for a meal. Oatmeal is filling and easy and oats are very cheap!
15. DIY Except When it’s Cheaper to Buy
A few years back I thought I’d make my own bread. I started putting together loaves of bread each Saturday. It took a few hours. Yes, it was delicious, but when I realized that the ingredients (which weren’t terribly expensive) PLUS my time and labor added up to way more than premade bread, I stopped. Sometimes it’s cheaper to make your own products and other times it’s much less expensive to just buy them. When it comes to vegan foods, making your own seitan and even cookies can be labor and ingredient intensive. If you’re a beginner, do yourself a favor and weigh the cost of the ingredients and effort before you dismiss pre-made foods.
Being a broke vegan isn’t easy, but you can stick to a plant-based diet, eat delicious food and not spend all your time cooking. It’s possible with a little planning and strategy. If you need advice on broke vegan food and cheap plant-based cooking ideas, let me know! I’m always happy to help! Don’t give up. You can do it (without having to resort to parking lot pizza)!