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Becoming Vegetarian on the Cheap

Last updated by on 9 Comments

My wife and I have been mostly vegetarian for a number of years now. I very occasionally eat poultry (holidays), I eat seafood, and I eat dairy as well. So I’m not a strict vegetarian, but I don’t see any reason or desire to go back to a meat-focused diet. No, I do not have the urge to eat a big juicy cheeseburger, so please stop asking (Dr. Praeger’s veggie burgers are amazing, by the way – don’t let your cardboard-like Boca burger experience turn you away).

Humor aside, I’ve found that a vegetarian diet is:

1. healthier: a 50% reduction in meat consumption reduces your risk of heart attack by 45% (source: The Prophet’s Way). And who wants all those added hormones/steroids?

2. more diverse: opens up the palate to so many different flavors vs. whatever seasoning you put on the meat.

3. more humane: Food Inc. should be required viewing by anyone who eats food that they don’t raise.

4. more sanitary: you’re talking about dead flesh. All else being equal, there is less chance of bacterial infection/parasites with a vegetarian diet.

5. more convenient: many vegetarian meals can be cooked in 5 minutes or less and are easy to prepare. There’s no delayed thawing or marinating time.

On top of that…

It’s Cheaper to be Vegetarian

If you haven’t paid close attention, the cost of chicken, beef, and other meat has gone up significantly in recent years with the rise in fuel costs. The cost of a vegetarian diet can be much cheaper if you don’t go overboard with exotic ingredients.

If a couple consuming a pound of meat combined, per meal, made the switch to the same amount of beans or some other low cost vegetable, grain, or legume as a substitute – they could potentially save $2,200-$3,000 per year. Just making the switch away from meat for four meals a week would save them roughly $600-$800 per year.

cheap vegetarian meals

Thinking of Becoming Vegetarian: How Can I Keep Costs Low?

A 20somethingfinance reader, John, wrote in about his recent decision to give vegetarianism a go. He asks:

My girlfriend and I are perhaps looking to go vegetarian or at least try it. We started with a strict vegan diet but found that to be way too expensive. Could you possibly post a suggested diet for a couple for around $100 per month. Not exactly of course but we honestly have no idea where to start. Do you have any tips? 

Before jumping into some tips, lets address the $100 per month number. I applaud you for setting aggressive goals, but I believe that it cannot be done. Unless you are an extreme couponing master and are happy eating Wonderbread and Jif for every meal, it would be nearly impossible for a couple to survive on $100 per month – regardless of diet. Even if you were able to keep costs down to $1/person per meal, it would equate to $180 per month (at 3 meals a day). That is no simple feat and would demand an extremely bland diet.

So, let’s re-set some expectations around budget. According to the BLS, the average couple spent $575 per month on food in 2009 (2010’s #’s will surely be higher when released later this month). 25% off the average would put you at $431 per month and 50% would put you at $287 per month.

So how do you keep your food expenses down? There are a few universal rules for vegetarians and meat lovers alike on  how to cut grocery expenses. I’ll also touch on a few things that I’ve learned in my experience with vegetarianism. I’d also recommend checking out the American Express Blue Preferred card, which offers 6% cash back on U.S. grocery store purchases, making it the best grocery rewards card.

1. Dine Out Only when you have to

It’s easy to spend 4 times as much or more for the same dish at a restaurant. This is particularly true at vegetarian restaurants, where markups can be a bit ridiculous.

2. Document the Cost of Each Meal & Find Substitutes when Necessary

Save all of your grocery receipts. After you find a few dishes that you like, add up the cost of each meal. I just did this over the weekend and quickly found a few items that were a disproportionately high cost per serving. I then came up with a few ideas on how to substitute other ingredients or remove those items altogether – which can be surprisingly easy without taking away from the dish. Vegetarian dishes tend to use a few more ingredients, so this is an essential step. We will be able to save $50 per month with just a few simple changes.

After you’ve totaled up your dishes, cook the cheapest meals more often and the more expensive ones less often. Simple, yet effective.

3. Creating a List & Shop on a Schedule

Go shopping once a week or once every other week and get everything you need in that one trip. This prevents impulse purchases and expensive pre-made meals, which are usually pricey. I’ve found that as a vegetarian it is very hard to go over a week because produce starts going bad.

4. Load up on Non-Perishables When they Go on Sale

Once you have you have figured out your go-to meals, drive costs lower by stocking up on non-perishable items that go into those meals when they are on sale.

5. Dried Grains/Legumes are Cheaper

You can buy dried grains (e.g. rice) and legumes (beans) at significantly lower costs than pre-cooked versions. It does take a little bit more work, but that is necessary as a general rule if you want to keep costs down.

6. Quinoa, Beans, Broccoli, Spinach, Pasta, & Sweet Potatoes are Keystone Ingredients

You can mix and match these 6 cheap and nutritious vegetarian ingredients to make so many different meals. I tend to opt for frozen broccoli and spinach because they don’t go bad (nothing frustrates me more than throwing out produce). I prefer quinoa over rice because I like the taste better and it has a higher protein value and is loaded with vitamins and iron.

Other Advice for New Vegetarians

I’d also recommend starting out slow as a new vegetarian. Learning how to cook new dishes that you like can take time and patience. Don’t get frustrated if it doesn’t come naturally right away. You should also read up on nutritional requirements of becoming a vegetarian. There are a lot of myths out there on what you need in your diet. Living Vegetarian For Dummies is a good book on this topic.

Compiling a repertoire of cheap vegetarian meals and recipes can take some time, but it can be very rewarding and can lower your food costs over meat-based alternatives.

Cheap Vegetarian Discussion:

  • What suggestions do you have for John or other new vegetarians on how to get started and keep costs down?
  • What are your favorite low cost vegetarian meals? How much does it cost and what is the recipe?
  • How much are you paying for month on food as a vegetarian?

About the Author
I am G.E. Miller, & this is my story. My goal is financial independence ASAP. If you share that goal, join me & 7,500+ others by getting FREE email updates. You'll also find every post by category & every post in order.


9 Comments »
  • Elle @ Oddcents says:

    Funnily enough, I just posted a veggie burger recipe on my blog. The burgers are made mostly of potatoes and flavoured with curry. I think with vegetarian food, you need to be creative. Here in the Caribbean, there are lots of “ital” restaurants with a wide variety of food. Ital is the way of cooking with no meat. They use meat subsitutes instead.

  • Laura S says:

    Whether a vegetarian diet is more sanitary is up for debate. There are lots of risk of E. coli and other bacterial infections from eating contaminated tomatoes, lettuce, and other veggies. We are talking about food that is intimately associated with dirt, after all.

    • G.E. Miller says:

      I knew someone would nitpick that. It’s ironic, because e-coli on vegetables usually stems from crap runoff from dairy farms.
      If you wash the food properly, you’re much less likely to get sick. And there’s almost zero chance of food poisoning b/c the food is not properly refrigerated, packaged, etc.
      I guess it’s up for debate, but common sense tells me there’s no way meat is more sanitary than a vegetarian diet.

  • Cécile says:

    Great post !
    I have the same kind of approach and a similar diet, both for financial and environmental reasons.
    I find it very easy too : I mostly cook rice (or another grain like quinoa) and add whatever vegetable grows in my garden. In the summer I eat plenty of fruits. From time to time, I buy some chicken or fish and make a fancy dish for my friend and me.
    Healthy and cheap !

  • UC says:

    Another tip to going vegetarian would be to explore food from cultures where being vegetarian is not an anomaly or where meat is not the predominant food. I am Indian and grew up vegetarian and do not suffer from any protein, vitamin deficiencies. I think this is because our diet has evolved to find meat substitutes in legumes, dairy etc. I’d recommend exploring Indian food (real not the stuff restaurants in the US serve), South East Asian such as Thai and Vietnamese and Mediterranean. You’ll find balanced diets without meat.

  • UC says:

    I forgot to mention ethnic grocery stores will usually stock exotic food items much cheaper than a place like Wholefoods, e.g. legumes, grains, different spices.

  • Amy says:

    I feed my family of 4 on about $250 per month. We are all vegetarian and eat a diverse diet. I make nearly everything from scratch, plan intensively, and produce food at home. While it is difficult to eat very cheaply it can be done.

  • Dan Walton says:

    It’s cheaper if you grow your own vegetables. Cheaper and much more healthier. As for risk of bacterial infection, there are ways to ensure healthy greens. I’ve seen this done in communities that are well-steeped in permaculture. I definitely agree with G.E. Miller: “there’s no way meat is more sanitary than a vegetarian diet.”

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