If you’ve read any of my prior posts (or know me personally) you know that I’m pretty darn passionate about eating and living healthy. No surprise, I love discussing it with any willing participants, online or otherwise – friends, family, fellow shoppers at the grocery store, whatever!
Time and time again, though, one concern repeatedly comes up as a limiting factor for eating healthy (especially if we’re talking eating organic). And that, of course, is the M-O-N-E-Y.
That being the case, I really wanted to shed a little light on this topic, and see if I can’t air out some of the misconception about what it costs to eat cleaner and healthier.
Before I go on, I realize that everyone’s personal finances are uniquely his or her own, so I don’t ever intend to imply what’s affordable for anyone. Only you can truly determine what’s “affordable” given your current situation. In some cases, it’s truly a matter of what one can or can’t afford in the budget; in other cases though, when one does have the finances to do it, it’s more an issue of what one is or isn’t willing to spend on eating well.
In either case, I hope to be able to show that eating well is less expensive than it can seem up front. And for those who truly do want to eat better, I’d love to help them achieve it more affordably, regardless of their financial status.
I also have to note that I’m very lucky, in that I have many, many store choices in my ZIP code for buying organic. All of these options allow me to be a savvy shopper and seek the best price. Unfortunately, I’m well aware that such options don’t exist in all areas of the country, and prices are going to vary greatly by region and by which stores are in your area.
Money-Saving Shopping Tips
These are totally applicable no matter what stage of the healthy-eating journey you’re in. If you’re new to eating fruits and veggies, but aren’t yet ready to go organic, these tips apply too! Or, if you’ve been wanting to go organic, but want to save money while you do it, it’s just as effective.
- Plan your meals in advance. Every week, Sunday is our meal planning/grocery day. We determine what we want for dinner each night of the coming week, and buy what we need for those meals. This drastically eliminates the temptation of coming home from work tired, staring into the fridge, and going, “We have nothing to eat. Let’s get takeout.” It also reduces the likelihood of, “I want this for dinner. But wait, we can’t make that – we don’t have ____! Never mind.”
- Shop sales. The first step of our meal planning is to see what’s on sale. I check out the online flyers for the grocery stores, and make it a point to build meals around what I find on sale, where I can. Organic broccoli on sale? Broccoli Alfredo, plus plenty left over for salads/smoothies/steamed as a side dish. You get the picture.
- “My momma told me, ‘You better shop around!'” No, seriously! Do not shop at one store only. I know it’s time-saving, but it’s also a huge money-waster, especially if the store you do all your shopping at tends to be one with a higher markup on most items. We actually shop between five stores for groceries, based on the week’s needs. Four are actual grocery stores: Publix, Whole Foods, Native Sun (like Whole Foods, but smaller and only organic produce), and Aldi. The fifth is a Super Walmart, which has a huge market area. This doesn’t mean we hit all five each week – no way. Usually I work it so we hit about three of them. They’re near each other, so it’s not as crazy as it sounds. See #9 for more on this.
- Pull double duty. As I mentioned at the end of #2, if you can buy one item and find a way to use it in two meals instead of one, like a head of broccoli, you’ll stretch your dollar even further. And it reduces the chance of waste.
- Waste not, want not. This goes right along with #4. When you know you’re going to have more than you need of an ingredient, plan a way to incorporate it into another meal. Otherwise, anything you don’t use is literally the same as throwing money in the trash. Example: We buy whole wheat tortillas for taco night, and we know that this leaves extra torts, so this triggers us to use those leftover torts by planning for turkey cucumber feta wraps another night.
- Turn dinner into lunch. Take dinner leftovers to lunch the next day! This prevents spending money on expensive takeout lunches, and stretches the money you spent on your weekly groceries even further. For example: If I spend, say, $10 on the ingredients for one dinner for myself and my husband, that’s $5/meal. But, if there’s enough left over for lunch for us both, guess what – now it’s $2.50/meal!
- Coupon where you can! The more whole food items you buy, the less coupons exist, since most tend to be for packaged foods. When you’re buying organic, this becomes even tougher because manufacturer coupons are few and far between. However, it does exist, even if only as store coupons. Just keep your eyes open. Sign up for store sale emails, and check to see if your stores offer a savings card/mobile app too! [**UPDATE** Check out my newer post: Shop Like a Crazy Person, Eat Like a Healthy One!]
- Stock up when it’s on sale, especially if it’s not perishable. It’s okay, be a little bit of a hoarder. This is harder to do with fresh items, but use your judgment. When our favorite organic snack crackers/chips/pretzels/etc. go on BOGO, we stock up like we’re headed to an island. It’s a bit absurd, but it lasts us until the next time it goes on sale. Rinse and repeat. Now, for perishable items, you can usually get away with buying two weeks’ worth at one time. Organic apples or oranges have gone on sale for far cheaper than conventional ones, and we’ve bought enough for two or three weeks, and it’s lasted fine. Many items are freezable too!
- Know where your best bargains are. As I mentioned in #2, to really have the most effective method, you’ve got to shop around. I love a good bargain, and even while eating organic, I want to know I’m getting the best deal I can. Say, for example, when I want organic spring mix, I know I’m going to Aldi for the best price. Or, when I buy bags of frozen organic fruits and veggies, I head to Whole Foods because they have the best prices across the board with their 365 brand. How do I know? See #10.
- Get organized and keep track! Here’s my mildly-obsessive side. I love data. I love tracking things. In the spirit of getting the best deals, I keep a very simple Excel spreadsheet of prices. (I keep it in my Dropbox, so I can access it on my PC or on my phone while shopping. If you’re not technology-inclined, do it on paper!) Over time, I’ve made note of the most common items we buy (especially produce) and how much each store charges. So, while we’re meal-planning, I easily know which stores we need to hit for the best prices on the things we need. Also, when looking at the sales flyers, I can easily tell if a sale price trumps the regular best price. This sounds complex, but I promise, it’s super easy when you do it every week.
- Size/unit price matters. Don’t forget that buying a bigger package usually nets you a lower price per ounce. For example, when I get my frozen strawberries at Whole Foods, they have two package sizes available (10 oz or 32 oz). No surprise, the 32 oz package results in a lower price per ounce. This kind of thing adds up!
- Mind your Clean Fifteen and Dirty Dozen. These are the items typically with the lowest levels of synthetic pesticide residue, which are considered safe(r) to buy conventional. So, you can definitely save some money by not buying the organic option of these items. Instead, focus especially on the Dirty Dozen, the items that are most heavily bombarded with the highest levels and most types of pesticides. Those are the produce items you definitely want to buy organic if at all possible.
- Grow Your Own! This one isn’t a “shopping tip” per se, but you can keep items off your shopping list and save money by growing your own! Make the initial investment in some organic seeds, and start growing whatever you most commonly buy.
My Tips in Action: Example Weekly Haul
Okay, so now you know my best shopping secrets, let’s take a look at an average week for my husband and myself, doing our Sunday shopping. This was Sunday, 3/6/16:
- Grand total spent between four stores: $112
- Total spent on items for weekly meals (dinners and lunch items): $70
- Amount of that $70 spent on fresh produce: $36 [Side note: I cannot wait to bring this total down by growing some of our own produce!]
- Total spent on other food items not necessarily for the week’s meals (i.e. buying sales items or stocking up on items we’ve run out of): $42
- Total SAVED by taking advantage of sale prices on items for weekly meals or stock-up items: $30
Now, don’t get me wrong, the $112 total spent on food wasn’t 100% made up of organic items. Included in this total are a few regular items, like deli turkey breast and Chobani Greek yogurt. I don’t want to misrepresent my totals as “This is what I spend a week to buy completely organic!” Close to it, but not totally. Now, the produce, yes – everything we bought that week was organic, with the exception of cauliflower (a Clean Fifteen item). So, in terms of “This is what it costs to shop healthy for two adults”, yes, absolutely true.
Below is our produce haul from one store visited on 3/6, all of it organic. As I mentioned, we went three other places too, so this wasn’t our full produce haul for the week. This, though, is a good example of how to take advantage of sale prices:
- 3 mangoes (sale price $1 each)
- 2 lbs. potatoes (sale price $1/lb.)
- 2 lbs. oranges (sale price $1/lb.) – two weeks’ worth
- 4 lbs. bananas (reg. price $0.89/lb.)
- 1 lg. head of broccoli (sale price $1.79)
- 1 stalk celery (sale price $1.89)
- 2.5 lbs. Bartlett pears (sale price $1/lb.)- two weeks’ worth
- 1 lb. bag of carrots (reg. price $1.19)
→ Grand Total: $18.50
Surprised? This is over 12 pounds of organic produce, for less than a $20 bill.
All About Those Sales! Putting Tip #2 to Work…
Do you notice which word dominated my list above? Sale! Everything on the list (with the exception of the bananas and oranges) was added simply because of the sale, so I built meals around it. Also, we make daily breakfast smoothies that always contain certain fixed ingredients, but we switch up some ingredients based on sales. In this case, the mangoes and pears were for our smoothies, due to the sale. (I’m sure it goes without saying, but the sale prices beat all other prices for those items elsewhere.)
Keep in mind, some sale prices for organic items can match or even beat the prices for regular (conventional) produce! This is especially true for special promos. Like, how about the in-store coupon I had a few weeks back at Whole Foods?! From their app, I got a $5 off any $15 produce purchase. Awesome!
Now, we know that this isn’t always the case, finding such fantastic sales on so many items at one time. However, this goes back to #9 and #10 above. When things aren’t on sale, and you’re stuck paying regular prices, you’ve got to know where they’re lowest. This is especially true for organic produce – it can vary greatly between stores, way more than conventional prices vary, in my observation.
Buying Organic Packaged Items
I’d love to say we only eat whole foods, but that’d be untrue, so let’s talk organic packaged stuff. I’d go nuts if I didn’t have tortilla chips, pretzels, graham snacks, and the like. So for snack items, as well as other (non-produce) pantry must-haves, I’ve found some really great organic finds for very reasonable prices and awesome quality.
I’ve got to give Aldi a huge shout-out, since their blossoming Simply Nature organic line has been a game-changer. Ditto for Walmart’s Wild Oats organic brand, which was some of the first organic stuff we started buying. Other stores with their own organic store brand can yield some great everyday prices too, so definitely explore all options! Target has Simply Balanced, which is pretty decent price-wise depending on the item, and Whole Foods has 365 Everyday Value, which also yields some good buys and good sales. (As I mentioned above, but don’t have pictured below, I buy all my organic frozen fruits/veggies of the 365 brand at the best price).
Click on each picture to show the regular prices/where I get it. Some of these packages, like the bag of popcorn, are absolutely huge for the price! (Fun fact: The pumpkin flax granola you see below for $2.74 is an item that retails elsewhere for between $3-5!)
What you see above are everyday prices. With packaged items, mind your sales too! Take a look at some of the amazing sales I’ve taken advantage of, like some super nice BOGOs, as well as unique one-time promos (e.g. a FREE 16 oz organic peanut butter w/a $10 purchase at Whole Foods). Remember, when you find great sales, stock up!
Click on each picture to show their prices and where I get it:
Putting the Cost in Perspective
Now, I wouldn’t be doing full justice if I didn’t put the cost of produce into perspective versus other expenditures. Overall for one week’s worth of produce, which was almost entirely organic, we spent $36. This produce goes into smoothies M-F for us both (so 10 total smoothies a week), plus supports six dinners a week. For a month, let’s call that $160, rounded up for argument’s sake.
Let’s compare that $160 to other example expenditures that a person may choose to make over the course of the month:
- Buying Starbucks daily M-F (est. avg. cost $3): $60/month
- Dish satellite TV 250-channel package: $75/month
- Internet service: $60-90/month
- Takeout for lunch (avg. 2x/week, est. $8/lunch): $60/month
- Smartphone monthly bill: $150/month
- One average dinner (for two) at a sit-down restaurant: $30-40
- Smoking 1 pack a day (using U.S. 2015 avg. cost $5.51): $165/month
- Going to one movie, two adults, evening price: $20-25
For those with money for discretionary spending, it really comes down to the choice of how to allocate it – what we as individuals decide is a worthwhile expenditure. The way I like to think of it, spending money on eating healthy (especially organic) is an investment in your health and longevity.
In truth, instead of asking why healthy food is more expensive, we should be asking ourselves why junky food is so cheap. Food for thought, right?
If you think eating healthy is expensive, you sure won’t like what it costs to be sick! Here are some really scary factoids for you:
- Prescription drug spending hit $297.7 billion in 2014.
- The average American spent $185/month on out-of-pocket prescription drug costs in 2014.
- 7 out of 10 Americans take at least one prescription drug.
- More than 50% of Americans take two prescription medications, and 20% of Americans are on at least five prescription medications.
- What cancer really costs. The U.S. spent $42.5 billion on cancer drugs in 2014. Cancer patients are more than 2.5x more likely to declare bankruptcy.
Unfortunately, until we as a country start putting greater focus on eating/living healthy instead of lining the pockets of our disgusting sick-care system, those statistics listed above are just going to keep getting worse. The good news is, you hold all the power you need to start making changes right now, one step at a time, whatever you can afford.
Well folks, there you have it. You’ve seen how we plan, how we shop, and the cost of our typical weekly shopping trip. You’ve also seen items I score at regular prices, plus some of my favorite sale victories.
Hopefully, seeing some of the prices I’ve listed can help you start comparing versus your own current shopping list – I truly believe you’ll be surprised. If nothing else, I hope that this post has at least raised some hope in your mind that you can eat healthy for less than what you previously may have suspected. With a little diligence and planning, you can really stretch your dollars to their max.
Questions? Comments? Feel free to hit me up in the comment section below!
Wishing you healthier, happier days, my friends!