As a somewhat new vegetarian, I am always shocked at the amount I still end up spending on food. Yes, I eat dairy and buy organic to the most reasonable amount, so I am prepared for larger totals at the checkout line, but it still hurts to see large sums for my eco-friendly, super healthy groceries. So, that got me wondering, could I save money on groceries if I was a meat eater? Is eating a vegetarian diet cheaper or costlier?
For those who want to cut right to the end, the answer is you do save money on groceries when living as a vegetarian. Yet, I wondered, how is eating a vegetarian diet cheaper if I experience frequent bouts of sticker shock? I decided to figure it all out.
The Official View of Vegetarian Eating
Back in 2015, federal agencies noted that the government’s view of “healthy eating” was not supposed to include anything relating to sustainability. So, when they determined the most cost-effective ways to eat healthily, they couldn’t also say things like “and if you also want to save the planet along with money…”
They decided that the benefits of any food had to be measured by its nutrient content alone. They couldn’t even take into consideration the variation in nutrient density from things like organic, locally grown, antibiotic free, non-GMO and all the rest.
Even so, the experts had to agree that eating a vegetarian diet is cheaper. Here is what one said, “According to the research, by eating a plant-based diet that uses olive oil—instead of lean animal protein—as a healthy source of fat, you could save nearly $750 a year compared with the average cost of a 2,000-calorie diet that follows the federal MyPlate nutrition guidelines. Not only was the meatless diet cheaper than eating meat, but it provided more of the fruits, vegetables, and whole grains that are generally considered to be integral to a healthy diet.”
I’m not quite sure how they calculated costs, but they determined that seven days of the government’s “MyPlate” eating would cost just over $53 (per person), and more than 20% of it would go to meat. Still other frugal vegetarians were able to do the math. Producing sample daily meal plans for meat eaters, pescatarians (fish only), vegetarians and vegans, they determined the following:
- Vegans came in the lowest averaging just over $11 for a healthy and complete diet
- Vegetarians came in second, averaging just under $12.50 per day
- Pescatarians were the next with a cost of just under $12.75
- Meat eaters were, surprisingly, much higher, averaging almost $14.75 per day
That clearly means I could save money on groceries with a vegetarian diet, and even more as a vegan (but, seriously, who can live without cheese?). In fact, one report noted that a vegan saves close to $1300 each year over the meat eater. Another calculates that the vegetarian or vegan saves closer to $2200-$3000 per year (and around $800 by swapping out four weekly meals to vegetarian).
Of course, this all makes complete sense when you look at the average cost of plant-based proteins versus meats. Standard ground beef (not grass fed and organic) is around $5 per pound while a pound of beans is around $1. So, eating a vegetarian diet is cheaper because of the protein issue.
Yet, that only rings true when those proteins are not processed foods. What I mean is that the veggie bacon, veggie hot dogs, vegan cheeses and pre-packaged vegetarian or vegan foods are neither cheap nor as nutritious as whole foods used in recipes (such as homemade hummus, black bean burgers or lentil stews, and so on). Sure, you can find all kinds of coupons and savings for these processed foods to bring per serving costs down, but they are never as nutrient dense as whole foods.
Naturally, this is where I saw how to start to save money on groceries, because the reports also pointed out that costs escalated when you chose free range, antibiotic free and organic. This was true whether or not you ate vegetarian.
So, I had the foundation of an answer – I could, indeed, save money on groceries as a vegetarian. The problem then became how to still support organic and healthier food producers while sticking to that way of eating.
How to Ensure Eating a Vegetarian Diet is Cheaper
Clearly, I was going to have to turn to the internet to learn how others were cutting costs and still eating a diet that was complete, tasty, meatless and good for the planet. (Yes, even I agree it seemed like I might be asking too much). That’s when I discovered the Environmental Working Group.
This is an organization that produces a few food lists each year, including their Dirty Dozen. This is a detailed list of produce that contains the highest amounts of pesticides. In other words, this is the list of foods that all vegetarians will want to ensure they buy only in organic forms.
For instance, the 2017 list said that (from worst to still pretty bad) included strawberries, spinach, nectarines, apples, peaches, celery, grapes, pears, cherries, tomatoes, sweet bell peppers and potatoes.
So, if I wanted to save money on groceries and still buy organic foods, I could use that list to ensure I was spending my money most effectively – buying the foods from the Dirty Dozen strictly as organically grown options (fresh and frozen).
They also have another handy list called the Clean 15, and it pointed me towards foods that I didn’t have to be so worried about if I purchased as non-organically grown. That list features sweet corn, avocados, pineapples, cabbage, onions, frozen sweet peas, papayas, asparagus, mangos, eggplant, honeydew melon, kiwis, cantaloupes, cauliflower and grapefruit.
Clearly, eating a vegetarian diet could be cheaper just by adjusting my buying habits. By focusing grocery dollars on the produce best purchased as organic, and skipping organic options for the Clean 15, I’d save a lot.
For instance, we eat loads of onions, eggplant and cauliflower and I was buying organic options at much higher prices. On the flip side, we don’t eat a lot of fruit, and rarely fruit out of season (expensive!), but we love pears. So, now we use only organic options, and when not available, we skip them.
I still wondered if my two new discoveries (below) were able to helpsave money on groceries to the greatest extent. After all, I had already learned that eating a vegetarian diet is cheaper when you:
- Skip any and all processed foods and forms of protein
- Buy organic only when it matters most (using the Dirty Dozen and Clean 15 lists as guides)
Was that it? Would I save money on groceries just by making such changes? No, of course not – there were a lot more options and routes to follow.
Other Ways to Ensure Eating a Vegetarian Diet is Cheaper
Eliminating the packages of pre-made vegetarian protein foods saved us a lot (coupons or not). Looking around for recipes online introduced me to an array of tasty recipes that took very little time and gave a lot of bang for the buck. For example, I learned how to make all kinds of “burgers” and “meatless meatballs” using staples that cost very little at the checkout.
I also took my own advice from loads of previous articles and started to use the different cost cutting methods to save on groceries. These included:
- Going generic – Did I need the boutique label dried beans, or could I just go with the store brand? I am an avid Stop & Shop shopper and they have their own brand and an organic brand. I decided to support organic growers and use the generic, Stop & Shop organic dried beans. I also learned how to cook them in my slow cooker and then freeze them in appropriately sized batches to make my life super easy. So, going for generic is one of the best options. I’ve even found store brand organic dairy foods like soymilk, butter, cheese and more.
- Going bulk – I did just mention this, and it is one of the most common methods I recommend to those who wish to save money on groceries. Whether it is canned foods at the warehouse store or seasonal produce that can be frozen (either on its own or in a recipe), dried, or preserved, I save huge sums by buying in bulk (at a discount) and setting it aside for another time.
- Growing my own – In a recent article about monetizing your yard, I mentioned the cost benefits of growing your own foods. As a vegetarian or vegan, you can really max out your savings if you choose foods you eat the most. For instance, high producing tomato plants, lettuces and greens, herbs and other veggies can all help you stock up the pantry and freezer and eat healthy fresh foods.
- Plan carefully – Of course, I always advise those who want to save money on groceries to be very attentive to meal planning. Yes, it can be a bit boring to map out things like shopping trips and the foods you will eat, but it is a great way to save. It can also save loads of time.
For instance, I make a list of the dishes we’ll eat in any given week (including things like oatmeal at breakfast or the amount of bread we need for lunches). I then make large batches and divide them up into daily portions.
As an example, we eat two loaves of homemade bread each week and so those are made over a weekend. We eat oatmeal every morning, so a huge batch is made and divided into five portions that are reheated and divided up at breakfast.
If something can be made ahead, such as lasagna, that is done over the weekend, too. I also look at the recipes that require things like diced onions, chopped carrots, minced herbs, and so on. As I put groceries away, I prep these foods to ensure I am not too tired to cook fresh dishes on weeknights. I then just measure out the amounts the recipe needs and whip up whatever it is I am making.
I’ve learned that using these methods does make eating a vegetarian diet cheaper and even less time consuming over the long run. I use basic formulas for meal planning to ensure we get enough protein, fiber and vegetables. I do meal prep as much as possible to make it easier to stick to the diet.
And naturally, I make absolutely that eating a vegetarian diet is cheaper using all of my other cost cutting techniques. For instance, I always tell my readers to use cash back and money saving solutions such as:
- Ibotta – This app incorporates cash back on much more than the usual pre-packaged, less than healthy foods. I’ve gotten cash back on produce, yogurt, canned coconut milk, and more.
- SavingStar – I love to coupon, but most vegans and vegetarians will tell you that you don’t find a lot of coupons that apply to your diet. Yet, that is not actually true. I still save on things like pasta, canned foods, sauces and other pantry essentials. And, really, just because we don’t eat meat doesn’t mean we don’t use toothpaste, paper goods, household cleaners and all of the other things a grocery store sells!
- Drop – This rewards-based app gives me cash back for every shopping trip to Trader Joes, Costco, and Whole Foods – incentivizing trips there to see what they have for vegetarians.
So, you now understand that you will save by going vegetarian, and you have even more tips for cutting costs as you do. Look for information in the EWG’s lists of safe and less safe produce choices and use your dollars to even help improve the environment!