Thursday, February 12, 2015

How to Eat Super Healthily on a Super Tight Budget

A pic I took at Whole Foods last year.
When I was in the US last year, I met and stayed with a really awesome lady, Daniella Silver, a holistic health coach. While I was there, we went shopping together at Whole Foods, and after seeing the prices there, Daniella inspired me to write this post... Life kinda got in the way, and I sort of forgot about it... until a picture of Daniella popped up on my Facebook feed this morning, and I realized that I never wrote this post that I really wanted to write about, because I think it would be helpful for a lot of people!

So, the question posed was:
Most people know that if you want to buy cheapo processed foods and don't really care much about nutrition, you can get a lot of stuff free or super cheap via couponing, etc...
But what do you do to save money if you actually care about nutrition? Is it even possible to have a low grocery budget if your first priority is health?

So, I must say that if I wanted to have as cheap of a diet as possible, I'd have to sacrifice nutritionally. A healthier diet, bought as frugally as possible, will cost more money than a processed food diet bought as frugally as possible. Sad as it may be, and counter-intuitively as well, the more processed a food item is, the farther it is from nature, the more cheap it'll often be. "Health items" are viewed as a luxury, and you have to pay more for that- even if it takes less work to make/undergoes less processing. Whole wheat vs bleached white flour, and brown rice vs white rice anyone?

Since switching to a gluten free and refined sugar free diet, my grocery bills have certainly gone up. Healthier diets will generally cost more money.

(Those who claim that healthy diets are cheaper are only correct if they're comparing expensive unhealthy grocery shopping- think Pop Tarts, fish sticks, and soda- to healthy from scratch grocery shopping, but if you're going to compare cheaply bought processed foods or from scratch less healthy items to from scratch healthy foods, healthy food is 100% more expensive. I hate all those posts that talk about how the Paleo diet will save you money since it's from scratch- if you're already cooking everything from scratch with white sugar, white flour, canola oil, etc... and serving white rice and beans, switching to Paleo is SUPER expensive and literally unmanageable for many.)

However, despite the fact that healthy diets are invariably going to cost you more money, that doesn't mean that frugality has to go out the window. Here are some tips that hopefully will hope you super healthy eaters save money on your shopping.

When I say "super healthy" I am kind of generalizing, and lumping all sorts of different diets together, including organic eaters, people on Paleo or Primal diets, those who stay away from processed foods like refined sweeteners and refined flours, etc... In short- this is a post written for the average "Whole Foods" shopper, no matter the specifics of your diet. Not every tip will work for every diet, but hopefully you'll get some good tips here

How to Eat Super Healthily on a Super Tight Budget

Basic Frugal Tips For Healthy Diets

Price compare.
Comparison shop. Price compare. Comparison shop. Price compare. Comparison shop. I cannot say this enough. Price compare. Comparison shop.
The absolute biggest mistake you can make in grocery shopping, even more so in super healthy diets, is to just do all your shopping in one place without price comparing, and seeing if you can get what you want cheaper in other stores. Whole Foods is nicknamed Whole Paycheck for a reason. It will likely eat up your whole paycheck if you just shop there without checking prices.
I highly suggest that you do not do all your shopping in one place. Figure out what you need, figure out the cheapest places to buy those foods, and buy those foods there. Most places that offer good prices don't offer good prices for everything. But most places, even expensive places, often offer good prices for some things. If you can find the best price for each item at different stores, instead of doing all your shopping in one place, your grocery bills will be significantly lower. I promise this.

I already hear people responding to this and saying "Penny, I have a life! I can't spend all my free time (what little I have) going to 10-20 different stores each week, picking up the cheap stuff in each store! That's just not doable!"
I agree! I feel the same way!
First of all, you can price compare without even going directly to the store. More and more stores have their prices available online, so you don't need to first check it out to see what is cheaper- even before you go to a certain store you can know what the deals there are.
Second of all, I generally shop at one, maybe 2, or on a super rare occasion 3 stores per week. I do not want to be going to a million different stores- first of all, I don't have the time, and I don't feel like paying for transportation to each of those stores all the time- the savings I may have will get wiped out by my transportation expenses most likely.
That's why this next tip saves my sanity!

Bulk and Stockpile.
I am a big, big, big fan of shopping in bulk. This saves so much money, and if you buy organic and health food items, it'll save you even more than someone who doesn't eat super healthily. And the best part about it is that it saves time, doesn't use more time. When you buy stuff in bulk, especially once you have all or almost all your essential items at home, stocked up, you don't need to go shopping every single day to hit up all the stores for the items they have cheapest. But you still buy everything in the cheapest place. Because one month you might be buying 10 items in bulk from one store that sells it cheapest, and the next month you might buy 3 more bulk items from another store, etc...  and another month you might be buying a 3-4 months supply of a certain item on sale from the grocery store. Bulk buying saves so much time, and often, buying in bulk will not just be cheaper, but often it'll be insanely cheaper.
Take an example- I put in an order for coconut sugar in bulk (I just have to go pick it up now- it already arrived). Instead of the $11.68 per pound it usually is locally, I'm only paying $2.98 a pound, because I ordered 44 lbs instead of buying it in 1 lb packages- 75% cheaper, and $382 dollars cheaper for those 44 lbs!! Buying my coconut oil in bulk costs me $2.59 per pound instead of $12.98 per pound when I buy 44 lbs- 80% off, and $458 cheaper for those 44 lbs! Buying my buckwheat in bulk costs $1.10 per pound when I buy a 55 lb sack instead of its usual $2.07-$2.59, which works out to be 46%-57% off and $53-$81 less for each sack (not as much of a savings percentage-wise, but since buckwheat is a staple we go through quickly- the last sack was finished in less than a month and a half, even smaller savings add up significantly- this saves me $35-$55 per month!

However much I recommend that everyone buy bulk, if you're into healthy eating, and use expensive specialty items, buying them in bulk is really the way to go, because the percentage savings by buying bulk will likely be higher, and even if not, its you who likely needs more ways to cut your spending to be able to manage to eat healthily without breaking the bank.

And if you're not sure how you'll have enough money to lay out to buy stuff in bulk, especially organic bulk foods, read this post of mine on bulk buying with no extra money.

Make From Scratch. 
Again, I can't say this enough. In general processed foods are more expensive than cooking from scratch- even with non healthy processed foods, like store bought white bread vs homemade white bread... but healthy prepared foods are even more expensive than healthy from scratch items. Have you ever looked to see the price of organic candies, fair trade chocolates, whole grain/gluten free/sprouted flour breads, etc...? Super expensive!
Just note that even "healthy" processed foods often have all sorts of unhealthy hidden ingredients- don't think that just because its from Whole Foods it is healthy- on top of its over-inflated prices.
Making things from scratch will save a lot of money! So many things can be made from scratch instead of buying ready made, and if you make those from scratch, it'll make a significant dent in your budget. Examples of things you can make from scratch that are significantly cheaper than what you'd buy in health food stores, especially if you combine it with bulk buying:

The list is not nearly limited to what I mentioned above. Basically if the store bought item has more than one or tops two ingredients, making it from scratch will also be healthier and also save you money, often significant amounts.

Watch For Sales. 
Most stores, even expensive and health food ones, offer sales on specific items at intervals, so stock up on those sale items. For example, before I bought my coconut sugar in bulk, I stocked up and bought 15 lbs at $5.16 per pound instead of $11.68 per pound. I also recently found quinoa on sale 30% off its over inflated prices... It pays to sign up for newsletters from health food stores, where they often announce their latest sale items.

Look For Coupons. 
Contrary to popular belief, there are coupons available for health food items! You just have to look for them! If you can't find coupons in the circulars for the items you use, consider contacting the companies whose products you enjoy and ask them if they have any coupons- often they'll be happy to send you some. 
Alternatively, you can search google for coupon codes for various items. Retailmenot.com often has.

Prioritize Where You Spend Your Money. 
Even when buying organic, healthy foods, you can prioritize and spend money on the things that are more important to you, while saving on the things that are less important. Like if you can't afford everything organic, do research about whether it is more important to get organic grains, meat, dairy, eggs, produce, etc... 
According to my research, it is most important to get organic for the produce most tainted by pesticides, called the dirty dozen, and least important to get organic for the produce least tainted by pesticides, called the clean 15. I've read that organic grains are less important, but organic meat and dairy are more important. I've also read that organic eggs are less important.
Everyone needs to do their own research, but if I had just a little extra money to spend on organic, I'd be focusing on the dirty dozen and organic meat, but not get organic eggs, the clean 15, or grains.
I currently prioritize to spend money on gluten free food, non refined sweeteners and healthy fats, but organic isn't something I prioritize now. 

Buy Local.
While there are a bunch of super foods and other cool health food items that I might want to buy, I try to focus as much as possible on locally grown good foods, and stay away from the expensive imported so called super foods, like goji berries, quinoa, and chia seeds. Sweeteners that are cheaper here are ones based on dates, since dates grow locally, so I'll use dates as sweeteners before I'll use maple syrup which is imported and a fortune, since you can't make maple syrup locally.

Skip the Nuts (or minimize them).
I know, I know, all the health foodies use lots and lots of nuts... But did you know so many nuts aren't even so good for you? And on top of that, they're pretty expensive. I find seeds tend to be cheaper than nuts, so work well as a replacement (sunflower seeds, peanuts, and pumpkin seeds, for example). But if you're looking for a protein, almost everything, even meat, tends to be cheaper than nuts, so... Better snack on veggies or fruit, or even eat some meat if you're hungry, and don't go overboard on nuts.

Cheaper Proteins
For those who are on animal protein heavy diets, sticking with cheaper cuts can save significant amounts of money. Usually chicken wings are the cheapest (yes, even once you factor in skin and bones), as are organ meats. Eggs are one of the cheapest sources of animal protein.

Where To Buy Cheap Foods

Ok, so we have some basic tips and tricks of how to buy cheap healthy foods, but where are we actually supposed to be shopping, if not whole foods/the health food store, is what many of you are probably thinking...

While I do have some ideas of specific places to shop, mainly in the US, there is also a general rule for how to look for a place that sells these type of items, so that those who don't live in the US can also find it:
Skip the Middleman
If you're buying something that is already expensive- organic foods, unprocessed foods- you want to do whatever you can to stop there being even more expenses added on. The more "middle men" you have, the more the price increases, because each step of the way, the middle men are making a profit, increasing the total price.

If you buy directly from the farmer you will end up saving the most.
CSA- Community Supported Agriculture- is when you pay a membership fee to a farmer- and each week you get a delivery- usually a box- to a pick up location in the city- filled with whatever is in season and harvested. You don't pick which produce you'll get- you use what there is. These are typically organic and much cheaper than buying organic from the grocery store. Because it skips the middleman.
If you live near farms, you often can just buy directly from farmers, even without a CSA membership, from farm stands.
Buying a Whole Cow- If you can buy meat directly from a farmer who raises animals and has them slaughtered, this can be significantly cheaper than from the store. Usually, though, this entails buying a whole cow, half a cow, or quarter of a cow, at once, for example- and it includes all the different cuts, not just one cut. A spare freezer would be necessary for this. If that is too much meat for you, you can split with a friend. Farmers will often sell organ meats super cheaply or even throw them in free when buying a whole, half, or quarter animal from them.
(A note from those local to me. There is someone who slaughters meat and sells it directly to the consumer. I find them to be overpriced, and significantly more than the store, so I don't buy from them. But I'm not sure if the animals they sell are organic, and if they are, its possible they are cheaper than the organic alternatives.)
Other Stuff From Farmers- My friend Sarah buys sacks of wheat directly from the farmers, and I have heard of honey, dairy, olive oil, beans, etc... and other non produce things being bought directly from the farmer for much cheaper, generally in bulk.

Do It Yourself
If you can produce any food yourself, it'll be significantly cheaper than even buying directly from the farmer.

..are all options for how to procure your own foods, without a farmer.

Buying From The Store's Suppliers
This is another trick I learned from Sarah. Instead of buying directly from the store, find out who it is that supplies the store, and call them up and order from them instead of buying from the store. She did this for the coconut sugar- she looked at the label of her coconut sugar, saw the name of the importer, and called them up to price buying from them directly. I did the same- and now the importer is selling it directly to me- but sending it to the local store so I can pick it up there- for a fraction of the price it goes for in the stores.
Sarah also does this for grass fed butter, organic coconut oil, and many other things.
Sometimes you don't know who the store's suppliers are, or they won't sell to individuals... In which case, you can ask the store if they're willing to sell you a case/sack for cheaper. They often are.

Buying From Amish Stores
If you have any Amish communities in your vicinity, you can often buy cases of bulk, often organic foods from them for very cheaply.

Buying From Regular Grocery Stores
I find that regular supermarkets sell organic and health food items cheaper than at health food stores, often the same brands even. Discount stores even often sell health food items- Walmart, for example, launched an organic line, as did Target. Kmart and Aldis also sell organic foods cheaply. My local cheap grocery stores each have a "health food aisle" but you often can find other health food items scattered around the store, often on sale as well.

List of Stores (In the US) That Sell Things Cheaply

Azure Standard is a store without a store front. They sell bulk organic and other health food items, but deliver by truck to specific pick up points (in most of the United States, but not all) on specific dates, and you pick up your delivery from that point at that dates. People who use them have been very happy with what they have to offer.
Mountain Rose Herbs sells many spices, herbs, etc... for cheaper than many other places, and if you buy in bulk, you get even cheaper pricing.
Tropical Traditions is probably the cheapest place to buy coconut oil products in bulk in the US, and they often have sales- right now they're having a 50% off sale on coconut oil, and buy one get one free on many other items.
Iherb sells many health food items, and they have good prices on many things, as well as free shipping within the US. They raised their overseas shipping, but until then I was buying a lot of things from them. Now I am still buying some things, but factoring in the now higher shipping costs. Bonus points- they give you reward credits, so often you can use your reward credits to get stuff free. They also often have sales, so keep your eyes on those.
Vitacost- pretty much the same deal as iherb. Similar pricing, some stuff cheaper there, some stuff cheaper on iherb.
Amazon.com sells groceries, many of them organic, most of it in bulk, and much of it has very good prices.


This was an extensive list. And I've just begun to skim the surface of the topic.

Healthy food is important. Yes. And if you can afford to spend more money on healthier items, that's great. But if healthy items seem out of reach to you because of your finances- hopefully these tips will help you. And if you currently are eating healthily and you see it's breaking your bank account, hopefully these tips will help you change that.

Yes, it is doable.

It takes more work.

More research to find the stores, more storage space to store the bulk, and sometimes driving a little further to pick up your bulk foods... but it will definitely pay off in the long run.

If you are into "healthy eating", first off, how do you define that?
Secondly, what tips do you to do lower your grocery budget while not sacrificing health? Which items on my list do you do already? Any of them you want to start implementing?
Do you have any tips to add to my list, or cheap (US) stores that you recommend people shop from?


  1. Great post! Thanks for the info.

  2. Great list! I do many of the things on your list. Right now my priority is on grass fed meat and grass fed raw dairy. I buy half a cow from a local farmer per year and pay about $3 a pound, which comes out to less than I can usually find conventional meat for in our local grocery stores. I am a member of a herd share and am able to get pastured raw whole milk from a local farmer. The rest of our diet is made up mostly of tons and tons of veggies and fruit (primarily not-organic from Aldi, though I can get broccoli, green beans, spinach, and peas organic at Costco for the same price as conventional, so I take advantage of that). I do use Azure standard to buy our rice, oats, and legumes, not-organic. Our family of 4 plus a baby in belly (I'm 7 months pregnant!) spends $400 a month on food total ($75 of that gets put aside each month into a beef fund for our once a year meat purchase, the other $325 is split between the herd share, Aldi, Costco, Azure, and occasional purchases at a regular grocery store for specialty items). I've found that keeping away from regular grocery stores and almost exclusively shopping at "bottom dollar", bulk co-ops, or discount warehouse type stores helps me keep my food budget relatively low. I definitely could make it cheaper if we ate meat less (and only the cheapest conventional cuts), ate more beans and white rice, eliminated the grassfed raw dairy and replaced with cheap shelf stable milk, and reduced our veggie/fruit intake. However, we are well able to afford this food budget and enjoy the luxury of being able to prioritize health right now over the absolute cheapest diet possible.

  3. Agree with Jess about the bulk co-ops. Azure and Frontier are great! http://www.frontiercoop.com/ is the one I use. Along with buying milk from a neighbor, growing my own lamb and eggs and buying a half cow, all our meat/dairy is local and organic and at cost.

  4. Great list, Penny! I'll definitely share this with my friends.

    It makes me happy I do many of these already! :) I think one thing you could add with the "Price Compare" is "Price Matching." Many of the larger stores like Walmart, Target, and I think Kroger and even some local grocers will match the prices of items from other store ads. It's not useful for things that aren't in the ads, but it can be useful for things like produce. Also in the US and some parts of Europe, Aldi has a LOT of organic items and their items cost less simply because for the most part, they don't use shelves and set the product out on pallets.

  5. So helpful! Thank-you for all the good info. My husband installed an app called "invisible hand" on our computer that automatically searches for the best price on whatever you happen to be looking at (say, if I am on EBay looking at vitamins, it will have a pop-up showing the best price and where to find it.) I was able to find a site called the Natural that had great vitamin prices that way, and it's saved me doing the comparing work myself! There is another one called Honey.

  6. Here in Australia we don't have couponing so can't do that. However we have a few acres and have chooks, bees, garden and small orchard (though often what we grow gets eaten in the garden). We buy at the farmgate when we are out that way and the local markets, cheaper than supermarkets. Even if you grow a few things in pots makes it worthwhile.

    When shopping at the supermarkets I look for what is on sale and try and stick with the whole foods.

    One important thing (or two) is to buy what is IN SEASON and GROWN LOCALLY, this will make things cheaper than out of season and out of the state or country. I know that is shouting but if you buy things out of season and not for your climate, you will ALWAYS pay more because of freight, storage cost etc. So buy local and in season.

  7. Personally, I believe that as long as you're eating "healthy" (which I define as not eating too much processed junk and sugar), then you're good. Unless you have food allergies/sensitivities, then food should be about pleasure first, and virtue later. IME, when you focus on food you like, the virtue part of it usually just happens. I believe in mindful eating--paying attention to how food makes you feel during and afterwards--and that's why I don't really pay attention to what's "more healthy" than what. I feel sated--physically and mentally--after a small bowl of good beef stew filled with veggies, butt still ravenous after three slices of pizza from Domino's, for instance. I read a quote once that said something like, "Our food is not healthy. Our bodies are healthy. Our food is nutritious. If you eat nutritious food, then you will be healthy." And this is what I try to teach kidlet--that some foods are more nutritious than others. NOT that some foods are more "healthy" than others.

    I would actually not recommend Aldi for produce. Even in stores where organic produce is available, it tends to be old, wilted, and just generally very, very pathetic (there are 3 Aldis that I use on a semi-regular basis, and I have NEVER bought produce from any of them). If you are in Europe, the Lidl is a much, much better discount store--Aldi prices, supermarket quality, though bananas tend to be hit-or-miss--and the quality of their items, not just produce, but overall, is much better than Aldi.

  8. Excellent list. I don't think I ever would have considered grinding my own flour. (And if I'm being honest I still probably won't do it unless I'm with someone who cant eat gluten.

    Food is the one area of my budget I allow for some breathing room. When organic apples go on sale I'll snag about 2 or 3 weeks worth. Same for meats, too. I just can't stand the idea of eating low quality food all in the name of frugality (not that they're mutually inclusive concepts!)

  9. The CSA is key. It varies by the location and season though. Our CSA runs 44 weeks a year. This week, wow. So we pay ahead of time. We got a discount for paying the year early, so it's $935 for 44 weeks, or $21.25 a week. And we also got a $50 gift card to the farm stand.

    Anyway, this week was HUGE for that $21.25.
    2 bunches kale
    1 bunch chard
    1 bunch collards
    1 bunch carrots
    1 bunch radishes
    1 bunch parsley
    1 bunch cilantro
    3-4 lemons
    2 oranges
    1 lb potatoes
    1 avocado
    2 apples
    2 heads lettuce

    I think that's it? Anyway, it's a ton

  10. Some great advice in this article. We have an Aldi grocery store nearby and over the past year their organic food line has grown by leaps and bounds! At first, the only thing you could get organic was lettuce and carrots. Now they have organic milk, chicken, canned goods, more produce, and much more. They've even started stocking more specialty items on a regular basis, like quinoa and cane sugar! And at low, low prices compared to specialty stores! If you haven't shopped Aldi, run don't walk to these savings!

  11. I don't like going to a bunch of different store either, but once you learn what's cheapest at each store and rotate when you shop at each, it's not too complicated. We also shop at Aldi and Costco.

  12. Glad to read this. I am a coupon girl and save thousands of dollars a year. This week my groceries were free. I would love to buy healthier foods but can not afford them. I would rather give to people in need then spend $400 on my family a week in groceries. I have to admit that I feel guilty about buying normal milk, veggies, fruit ect. It makes me extremely happy to hear I have other options thank you.

  13. We live far out from everything so making our own, growing, making due and stretching are a way of life. We do have a scratch and dent store in a nearby small town and get very inexpensive chia seed,bob's red mill items, organic canned items for cents on the dollar.
    We also have Amish stores here that sell bulk items and more scratch and dent groceries. Pound of coffee can run .99...we also barter. Great article, thank you.


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