Frugal Strategies for People Dealing with Diabetes

Tony writes in:

I was recently diagnosed with Type II diabetes. My doctor gave me multiple prescriptions and gave me a dietary plan that seems very difficult to follow. I don’t make a whole lot of money and I’m struggling to make ends meet as it is. I am hoping you have some advice.

First of all, when you’re facing a diagnosis like this, your doctor’s instructions and recommendations should be first and foremost in your plans. You should aim to follow what your doctor recommends to the best of your ability, as your doctor knows the specifics of your ailment, other conditions you may have, and so on. A random person on the internet doesn’t know any of those things.

What follows are common sense suggestions that anyone with diabetes should strongly consider. I am not dispensing specific medical advice here; I am not a medical doctor, and even if I were, the specifics of each case are very different and shouldn’t be fixed with a “one size fits all” plan.

So, let’s walk through what I do feel confident advising anyone with diabetes and a frugal mindset should do.

First of all, learn about your illness using free legitimate resources available to you. This doesn’t mean visiting some obscure website that is trying to point you to specific “cures.” This doesn’t mean trying some “natural cure” that someone is promoting. This means seeking out well established and authenticated information.

A good first step is to go to the American Medical Association website and seek out resources related to your illness, or to medical associations specifically related to your ailment. For example, the American Diabetes Association has a great website, including a section on their website devoted to books on diabetes, particularly a section on books for the newly diagnosed.

Take that list of books, go to your local library, and try to find some of the titles on the shelves. If you can’t find many that match up, ask the librarian for help in seeking out books via interlibrary loan.

Take those books home and read them thoroughly, taking notes along the way. Your goal should be to absorb as much information as possible. Your aim should be to have a good understanding of your illness so that you can make sense of the advice your doctor is giving you.

If you’re reading established books on diabetes (or whatever ailment you may have – this strategy is good for almost any widespread ailment), be sure to note practical strategies that you can do yourself. What can you do on a daily basis to improve the symptoms of your ailment or even improve the ailment as a whole?

In general, the practical advice I’ve read from reputable sources on diabetes focuses on weight loss, better dietary choices, and exercise. Again, I’m not offering any sort of medical advice here, only pointing toward the general types of strategies I’ve found when researching diabetes on my own.

As you’re reading, make a giant list of practical steps as you go. What things do these books suggest that you do? What things do these books suggest that you eat? What do these books suggest that you don’t do and don’t eat? Make lists of all of these practical lifestyle steps and cross-check them with the advice given to you by your doctor. If you’re reading reputable materials, most of the advice should line up perfectly.

You’re likely going to find a lot of suggestions for reducing carbohydrates in your diet, getting more exercise, and losing weight. Almost all of those things are practical steps you can do without big expenditures.

In terms of dietary choices for diabetics, you’ll want to compare lists of foods that are encouraged with a list of what foods are inexpensive staples. Some foods that may show up on both lists (I can vouch for inexpensive but you’ll want to check out information regarding your own ailment) are chicken, eggs, oatmeal, non-starchy vegetables (taking advantage of produce sales at your store), and beans of all kinds.

One great step you can take is to compare the suggestions in the meal planning materials provided by your doctor with that list of low cost food staples. So, simply take your doctor’s meal plan and any other food suggestions you find in reputable materials and compare them with low cost staples. What matches up? Those meals should become the strong backbone of your diet going forward.

As you’re making changes like this, talk to your doctor and make sure your changes are in line with what you should be doing with your specific situation. Your doctor will likely be thrilled that you’re so engaged with it and, if you’re reading reputable materials, your suggestions will probably be sensible and will get a big thumbs up from your doctor.

There’s one final big issue that needs to be discussed, and that’s medicine and medical supplies. There’s no question that this is a major expense for most people and it can even be overwhelming for some.

If you’re in a situation where your health insurance does not adequately cover the expenses related to this, ask your doctor for help. Be absolutely frank about it; tell your doctor that it is extremely difficult for you to afford this.

It’s extremely likely that your doctor – or someone in your doctor’s office – will know of resources that you can use to figure out a better insurance solution and find lower cost medications and medical supplies, but you have to take that first step yourself. Many communities have services for people in this exact situation – they don’t have a ton of extra money and are facing intense medical costs, so there are people that will help them find ways to keep that cost low.

The situations in each state and with each person are as varied as the colors of the rainbow, so rather than suggesting specifics, I’ll simply strongly encourage you to be frank with your doctor about the challenges of the expenses and follow up on those resources that they provide.

Much of what will lead to success with fighting back against diabetes are healthy routines, and what makes for healthy routines is your own behavior. You have to be willing to make difficult choices in the moment in order to achieve better health outcomes. The good news is that good behavior choices are almost always free or at least very low cost. Simply having the willpower to say no to a food you shouldn’t be eating doesn’t cost anything. Simply having the willpower to get some exercise by going on a nice walk or doing some exercise at home doesn’t cost anything. The challenge is in your willpower, not your money.

Simply put, the best thing you can do to make an ailment like diabetes inexpensive is to give it your best shot in terms of doing everything right to minimize the symptoms and even reduce the impact of the ailment as a whole. A lot of that comes down to behavior, not buying things. You have to make good choices, and a lot of them.

In my experience, the best way to make good choices when making a personal change is to make those choices have as little resistance as possible, while adding resistance to bad choices. Simply eliminate foods that are unfriendly to diabetes from your home entirely. Give them to food pantries or give them away to friends. Fill your cupboards with foods that are diabetic friendly, especially ones that you happen to like. For example, if I were in this situation, there would be a lot of beans and eggs and oatmeal in my house. A lot.

For things like exercise, do everything you can to establish normal habits that involve moving around more and walking more. If you have an assigned parking spot at work, offer to trade with someone and get one that’s on the far end of the parking lot. Better yet, if you can, just start walking to work if you live within a mile or two. Make it your normal routine to just go on a walk around the block after every time you eat. One great way to reduce the resistance of walking more is to start listening to audiobooks on your phone or to get into a location-based free mobile game like Pokemon Go.

If you have a friend that’s in a similar situation, turn that person into a “buddy.” Go on walks with that person. Share meal tips with that person. Nudge that person a little when needed, and accept their nudging. Talk about how things are going with that person. Most importantly, listen to that person. You might learn more than you think by just carefully considering what that other person is going through. There are often solutions to your own challenges hidden in there, plus by listening and considering carefully, you’re being a more sympathetic and empathetic friend, which is going to solidify that friendship, and that friendship will be so valuable for you when things are challenging.

There may even be free support groups for people with type 2 diabetes in your community. Ask your doctor for information on any such groups, or check Meetup or your local library’s calendar of events to see if there are any such groups in your area. They can be a great resource for finding local resources, support, and friendship.

The most important ingredient in all of this is you. You have to commit to making changes in your life. There is nothing more powerful than that in terms of keeping costs low and actually improving your own health outcomes.

If you want to know more, there’s nothing I can recommend more highly than the website of the American Diabetes Association. Get started there, and then supplement that with reading from their list of books for the newly diagnosed.

Good luck!

Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.