Vegan on a Budget: 8 Tips for Vegan Living in College
Oh, college. A time of new beginnings, lesson learning (both in academics and in life), and stress. Oof, the stress! For many, you’re on your own for the first time in your life and have to navigate things like bills, buying groceries for yourself, and learning how to keep it together without help from mom or dad. Blech.
When I think back to my college years, one thing that always comes to mind is how broke I was 24/7. There were several occasions where my bank account was near (or below…) $0.00 and I was left scouring the remnants of frozen vegetables and rice for dinner since I couldn’t afford anything else. Shortly after the fourth or so time this happened, I realized I needed to step up my budgeting game and figure out how to stretch my dollar further with each grocery trip. Fortunately, I was able to adapt and picked up a few tips along the way for surviving college on a budget while maintaining a balanced plant-based diet.
Tip 1: If you can buy in bulk, do so!
With increasing awareness of the zero-waste movement, bulk food options seem to be on the rise throughout grocery stores. There’s a growing interest from consumers to contribute less plastic waste and buying in bulk is a wonderful place to start. Personally, I love buying my bulk goods from Sprouts. They have everything from grains to nutritional yeast to trail mixes in bulk, and they also sell pre-tared jars in case you don’t have any of your own yet. Best of all, buying in bulk can save you a ton in the long run! I recently purchased TVP there for $2.99/lb, which got me significantly more for the value than the pre-packaged options. This is also a great way to buy dry beans and rice which are a staple in many vegan diets. Plus, you don’t have to deal with the plastic waste from buying in bags!
If you don’t have a Sprouts near you, Whole Foods also has a decent selection of bulk items which can usually be located near the produce. I’ve also been to smaller, natural-foods grocery stores that offer bulk options. Either way, gather some containers (which you can save on by thrifting or repurposing old sauce jars!), tare them out, and get comfortable with the bulk section.
Tip 2: When weighing options between differing brands, check the unit price (price per ounce). This will let you know how much each product costs at its base unit of 1 oz, which can help you understand whether or not it’s a better deal to buy the bulk or generic version.
This is probably the best tip I’ve learned regarding budget grocery shopping, so listen up! When you’re at a grocery store, you’re usually faced with way too many options for any given product. Say you want to pick up some frozen spinach to throw in your post-workout smoothies. You go over to the freezer aisle and immediately see 5+ options for frozen spinach. Do you want chopped spinach? Baby spinach? Organic spinach? Organic-chopped-generic-brand spinach? You get what I’m saying. If you really don’t have a preference for which kind of frozen spinach you want to buy, the easiest way to find the best deal is to check the unit price or the price per oz. This value will be displayed on an item’s price tag on the shelf, and may say something like “$1.08/oz.”
This information is especially helpful when comparing the price of generic or bulk products to the standard, name-brand option. You might think the bulk option of 5 lbs is cheaper because it must be, but that’s not always the case and some manufacturers rely on you not checking the unit price to trick you there. Regardless of the item, if you’re grocery shopping and see several variations of a product you’re looking to purchase, quickly glance at the unit price of each item to determine which one offers you the best deal.
Tip 3: Look for discount grocery stores in your area.
Growing up in California, I was beyond blessed with the ability to shop at Grocery Outlet. In case you haven’t been, it’s a discount grocery store stocked with items anywhere from 30% to 70% off. Many of the items are snack foods or sugary cereals that aren’t great for you, but every time I visited there was also a sizable selection of organic, wholesome goodies at insane discounts. They also have aisles of cleaning supplies, toiletries, and skincare products at steep discounts. When you’re on a tight budget, every bit you can save goes a long way so this was a huge factor for me in surviving college.
Tip 4: Find farmer’s markets near you to save on produce.
If you haven’t been to a farmer’s market yet, prepare to be amazed! The first time I went, I couldn’t believe the difference in produce from the grocery store, in both price and quality. Not only is it great to support your local produce farmers, but farmer’s markets are usually a fantastic way to stock up on in-season fruits and vegetables at a much lower cost than you’ll find at your local grocery store. Additionally, there’s the added bonus of a lessened carbon footprint when your food only needed to travel 10 miles to get to you rather than 200+ miles by diesel.
For the best experience, I’d recommend bringing along some reusable mesh grocery bags and reusable totes to take your produce home with you. Most often, these are cash-only markets so be sure to bring cash with you, too. To find them, simply Google farmer’s markets in your area! Even in the middle of nowhere, my college town had biweekly markets full of incredible produce to choose from.
Tip 5: Stick to buying foods that pack a nutritional punch.
When it comes to budgeting, the further you can stretch your dollar, the better. For grocery shopping, that means buying items that will (a) last the longest and (b) provide comprehensive nutrients in each serving. Consider the nutritional difference in a $1.00 bag of potato chips and a $1.00 can of black beans: The former has a high calorie and fat count with little else to offer nutritionally, and the latter has a balanced supply of calories, fiber, and protein that can get you through multiple meals on a dollar. Comparatively, it’s a no-brainer.
As a snack lover myself, I understand it’s easier said than done to avoid snacks altogether so keep in mind that it’s not always necessary to do so. If you buy a couple of snacks throughout the month and your budget is feeling okay, then by all means continue! If you’re feeling extra tight on cash, however, the snack foods should be the first to go from your shopping cart. Instead, center your grocery list around foods that meet the criteria for a worthwhile purchase. Depending on your preferences, some of these foods may include brown rice, beans, lentils, tofu, oats, veggies (fresh or frozen), and in-season fruits.
Tip 6: Sign up for your favorite grocer’s loyalty list.
This one, I didn’t do until about halfway through college and it totally saved me once I did. I went to college in California’s Central Valley, AKA the land of not much. We didn’t have a Whole Foods or any natural grocery stores, and the nearest Trader Joe’s was a 45-minute drive away. Instead, my options were Grocery Outlet, Raley’s, and Save Mart (which, for the record, will not save you much at all). Since Grocery Outlet didn’t have the best selection of produce, I frequented Raley’s for my fresh purchases. Unfortunately, Raley’s can be on the more expensive side compared to TJ’s or similar stores. Fortunately, though, their loyalty program was fantastic! Once I signed up and started making purchases, I received coupons in the mail regularly based on my previous purchases which brought my total down considerably on each grocery trip. I also earned cash rewards based on my shopping, so an extra $5 here and there was always exciting.
Currently, I live near a King Soopers and they send similar coupons throughout the year based on your most frequent purchases. On my fridge, I have coupons for $1-3 off of produce, Gardein, Larabars, etc. It’s great! Check with your local grocer to see what “loyalty” programs they offer and definitely consider signing up if you shop there often.
Tip 7: Limit your takeout + restaurant outings to 2-3x per week, depending on your financial situation.
Fortunately for my wallet, my college town was devoid of any vegan takeout or delivery options so I never really had the opportunity to splurge on meals from nearby restaurants. For those of you in cities, though, that temptation may be a bit more difficult to resist! Depending on your financial situation, you might not need to cut these takeout meals out of your life entirely, but it is helpful to limit DoorDash and meals out in restaurants to 1-2x per week. Considering an average meal costs maybe $10 out at a restaurant (plus delivery fees if you’re going that route), that’s at least an extra $20 in your pocket just by eating at home 2 more times per week!
Tip 8: BYOS – Try to avoid buying snacks at campus stores and bring your own instead.
If your college campus is anything like mine was, there are campus stores and vending machines spread throughout campus full of tempting snacks like chips and candy (even the “healthier” kinds). While it’s best from a health standpoint to avoid indulging in snacks regularly, it’s also best for your wallet. If you find yourself getting snacky between classes, bring some with you from home! Taking servings of snacks out of a $3.00 box at home with 6 servings will be much more cost effective than buying one bag of chips for $1.75. Plus, you’ll be saving plastic!
So often, I hear financial hardship cited as a barrier to adopting a vegan diet. What I don’t want to do is undermine the struggle of those obtaining whatever food they can get their hands on in times of true financial despair. When food is provided to you by government subsidies or food banks, there is very clearly no expectation to deny the only options you’re given to sustain yourself. Once you’ve reached the point financially where you are able to curate your own shopping list, however, going plant-based is completely doable—even on a strict budget! And yes, I’m sure. You may not be able to indulge in meat substitutes on a daily basis, but crafting a balanced, fulfilling plant-based diet of vegetables, whole grains, tofu, beans, and so on is not unattainable (despite the widespread narrative that it is).
Consider this: Currently, chicken breast averages $3.06/lb nationally, ground beef averages $3.76/lb nationwide, and boneless pork chops come in at $3.72/lb. This doesn’t even factor in more “prime” cuts like bacon which comes in at $5.50/lb, or sirloin steak which averages at $8.53/lb across the US (1). Comparatively, dried beans clock in at $1.34/lb and are chock full of fiber, protein, and nutrients to provide a base for a balanced, plant-based diet. Another popular budget-friendly vegan option is tofu, which sits between $2/lb and $2.50/lb, still significantly lower than animal-based options while providing roughly 11g of protein per 100 calorie serving. It goes without saying that vegetables are a low-cost vegan staple as well, particularly those that are sold in bulk rather than pre-bagged veggie assortments. If you find yourself unable to eat the vegetables you buy before they go bad, consider frozen ones to reduce food (and $) waste! These tend to be $1-3 per bag, and will last much longer than fresh produce. As a bonus, frozen veggies are typically packed at their peak freshness and they’re able to retain those nutrients until they’re cooked.
It may not seem like much at first glance, but switching over to vegan staples can save you big on your grocery bills while significantly benefiting your health in the process. Going away to college is an exciting, scary, rewarding, and stressful time for many people and with so many new parts of life to navigate, overhauling your diet may seem near impossible in the mix of it all. What’s important to remember in switching to a vegan diet during this time of life is to see the change for what it is: simply choosing to remove animal products from your diet in favor of plants. And plants are everywhere! In every grocery store, at every farmer’s market, plants will be there to affordably sustain you through life from here on out. For more tips on how to build a wholesome vegan diet, check out my handy beginner’s guide.
If you have any additional questions regarding a fulfilling plant-based diet on a budget, please let me know in the comments below!