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The Simple Guide to Healthy Living on a Budget in 2021
One of the most common new year resolutions is to get healthier, but gym memberships, grocery store bills and other health-related expenses add up over time.
According to a study from sports and nutrition company My Protein, the cost of living a healthy lifestyle can cost more than college tuition. The study surveyed 1,350 U.S. adults from 18 to 65 years old and found that the average American spends $155 each month on health and fitness. That’s $112,000 over the course of a lifetime – $13,000 more than the average tuition costs for a public, four-year college education.
Good news: there are many strategies for making nutrition and fitness more affordable. Many of these strategies boil down to having a plan, doing your research, and making small lifestyle changes that can have a big impact down the line. At The Simple Dollar, we believe healthy living doesn’t have to be at odds with living within your means. Keeping a long-term view is the key to making smart financial decisions — and healthy decisions, too!
Why prioritizing your health makes financial sense
Getting fit can actually help you save money.
There are plenty of situations in which the healthier choice and the frugal choice are one and the same. It’s true that junk foods tend to be slightly cheaper than whole foods at the grocery store (about $1.50/day less than healthier options, according to researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health). But what if you made up that negligible cost by eating out less often? That’s a relevant question for the average American, because in 2015, spending at restaurants exceeded grocery spending in the U.S. for the first time ever. How much might you save by skipping the drive-through once a week — and what healthy foods could you buy instead?
Eating at home is a lot less expensive than eating at a restaurant, especially if you prep meals in bulk. Plus, when you cook at home, you can control what goes into your meal. You can make healthy substitutions or reduce the salt or oil. You can control portion size. In this case, cooking for yourself is both the healthiest and the thriftiest option.
Additionally, there are many direct and indirect costs associated with poor health. Being significantly overweight can increase your risk of developing diabetes and heart disease, among many other conditions. Poor nutrition can cause anemia, and lack of exercise is associated with higher risk for certain cancers. Long-term, staying healthy will keep healthcare costs low — and quality of life high.
Fitness is an investment in your future.
What’s the point of being frugal? Broadly financial independence: the freedom and financial means to live life on your terms. For most people, retiring well — and even early! — is a major piece of the FI puzzle. But even if your nest egg makes retirement a breeze financially, poor health could put a damper on your Golden Years.
Everything you do today to stay healthy is an investment in your future, just like a 401K or Roth IRA. Eating well and exercising can keep many health concerns at bay, protecting your mobility and independence so you can fully enjoy your retirement.
We believe a healthy lifestyle is possible on any budget.
In this guide, we’ll cover tips, tricks, and resources that can make healthy living more affordable. Between budgeting and utilizing tools such as secured credit cards, even those who currently don’t consider themselves financially independent can afford to create a healthy lifestyle.
Armed with this information, you’ll be able to make a personalized action plan that includes:
- Smart nutrition strategies
- Ways to keep fitness affordable
- Weight-loss resources for everyone
We’ll begin with simple strategies for eating well on a budget, then move on to staying fit on a budget. Ready to get started? Let’s go!
Eat better on the cheap with these 7 simple strategies.
1. Plan your meals in advance.
Never grocery shop without a grocery list! There are many health and financial benefits to creating your meal plan — and corresponding grocery list — before you hit the supermarket.
Having a meal plan:
- Reduces likelihood of impulse buys.
If you limit yourself to buying the ingredients for your planned meals, your wallet and your waistline will thank you. (Resolving to buy only the ingredients your menu calls for — including pre-planned, healthy snacks — can help you resist tempting junk food.)
- Ensures you’ll have a healthy option ready on busy days.
Decision fatigue is a real thing — especially when it comes to choosing what’s for dinner. If you have healthy groceries waiting to be cooked at home, you’ll be less tempted to swing through the drive through or head to a restaurant when life gets busy.
- Prevents waste.
If you know the quantity of perishable items like eggs, produce, or dairy you’ll need for this week’s meals, you won’t buy too much. This will help you avoid excess groceries spoiling before you have the chance to use them.
- Gives you control over what you’re eating.
Prepackaged meals aren’t just more expensive than the raw ingredients for a similar meal would be. They also tend to be loaded with bad stuff like sodium and preservatives. Similarly, when you order a meal at a restaurant, you don’t know exactly what you’re getting. Preparing meals yourself gives you the freedom to make healthy substitutions that can help you meet your fitness goals.
- Helps you accurately budget grocery expenses.
Meal planning can help you accurately budget out what you’ll be spending on food. If you know ahead of time how much you’ll be spending on your meals throughout the month, you can more easily see opportunities to put money into savings or pay off debt. If you use a credit card for your grocery purchases (which can help you earn rewards and build credit when used responsibly), knowing your monthly budget based on your meal plan can help you pay off expenses without interest each month.
You’ll be more likely to stick to your plan if it’s convenient. So take steps today to make things easy for future you! Start by creating several weekly meal plans to keep in your rotation (including breakfasts, lunches, dinner, and snacks). That way, you can pull a ready-made menu when it’s time to make your grocery list.
A Walkthrough of Our Weekly Meal Planning Routine
Meal Planning Ideas for Busy Families
How to Plan Ahead for Next Week’s Meals and Save Money
How to Turn a Cupboard Cleaning Into a Great Meal Plan
11 Tactics For Meal Planning That Will Save Money
2. Buy (and prep) in bulk.
Bulk meal prep is one of the simplest ways to balance your budget with nutritional goals.
Overall, groceries purchased in bulk usually cost less per unit — up to 89% less than smaller-portion packages.
Shopping and cooking in bulk is a little different than preparing smaller portions, but it’s not as complicated as you might think. With a few adjustments to your routine, you can make the jump this week.
Meal prep strategies
Join (and strategically shop) a wholesale club.
Wholesale clubs (AKA warehouse clubs) offer members-only bulk pricing on items ranging from grocery to paper products and home goods. Creating a monthly meal plan will allow you to buy nonperishable/freezable ingredients in bulk (and reduce the number of visits you’ll have to make the club monthly). But even if you don’t plan a month’s worth of meals in advance, it makes sense to buy pantry staples like rice, flour, oats, and certain meats in bulk.
When planning your bulk shopping list, The Simple Dollar’s founder Trent Hamm recommends asking yourself: Am I going to be able to use all of this before it goes bad? If an item has limited shelf life and can’t be frozen, you could end up wasting some of it, which negates the per-unit savings. To avoid waste, think critically before purchasing perishable items in bulk. If you can freeze extra portions or need a lot of it in the near future — say, prepping for a family barbeque — buy it at the club. If not, it might make more sense to buy that particular item at the grocery store.
Want to try a wholesale club but afraid to commit to an annual membership fee? Take a trial membership for a spin! Watch for promotions in mailers, in the newspaper, or on deal sites like Groupon. If you don’t find a trial advertised, it’s worth calling your local club. In addition to trial memberships, many offer special “open house” days when you can shop without a membership card or single-day passes.
The Ultimate Guide to Buying in Bulk
Maximize Your Savings at a Warehouse Club
Waste Not, Want Not: Strategies for Warehouse Club Shopping
Six Strategies for Maximizing the Value of a Warehouse Club
Get friendly with freezer meals.
The freezer meal phenomenon deserves all the positive press it gets! The idea is simple: designate one day per week or per month to prep multiple meals, then freeze them to enjoy later. By opting to prepare homemade freezer meals, you can save money and time.
When you’re preparing multiple meals at once, you can buy groceries in bulk to save per serving. Plus, having meals on standby will help you avoid the temptation of fast food on hectic days. Once prepped, freezer meals are the ultimate convenience food. Consolidating meal prep for the week or even for the month means minimal time in the kitchen outside your prep day — and who doesn’t want that? It’s efficient, too; you’ll only have to clean the kitchen once.
Strategies that go hand-in-hand with freezer meal prep
- Slow cooking
If you don’t have a slow cooker, you should! Slow cooker freezer meals are incredibly low maintenance, and they require very little cooking know-how to get right. Simply pull the prepared meal from your freezer, drop it in/turn the cooker on, and go about your day. A hot, home cooked meal will be waiting for you when you get home — no babysitting a skillet or preheating an oven required.
- Meal swapping
Making extra-large batches of meals is efficient and cost-effective. But eating the same meals on a regular basis can get old. Solution: organize a meal swap to vary your freezer meal selection and share your favorite frugal recipes with friends and family.
- Disposable pans
Try freezing casseroles and other baked items directly in disposable foil pans (if you have the space in your freezer, that is). When you’re finished, simply rinse and recycle the pan. That way, you can enjoy a homecooked meal without prepping or scrubbing a pan the night of!
3. Shop smarter.
Highly processed foods are convenient, but often, they’re neither the most frugal nor the healthiest option. Impulse buying snack foods and pre-prepared meals can run up your grocery bill and set you up to consume lots of empty calories. But impulse buys aren’t inevitable. To minimize temptation:
- Stick to the perimeter.
Think about the layout of your favorite grocery store. Most nutrient-dense foods, from produce to dairy and fresh meats, are arranged in refrigerated cases along the outer edge of the store. By primarily “shopping the perimeter,” you can avoid the processed foods in the center of the store.
- Eat before you shop.
When you’re hungry, you’re more likely to choose high-calorie foods, according to a 2013 Cornell University study. Set yourself up to make good choices by eating a healthy, filling snack before you head to the grocery store.
4. Make healthy substitutions.
The ability to tweak recipes for healthfulness is a major advantage of home cooked meals, so take advantage! Here’s a list of common substitutions to get you started. Note: results may vary, depending on the recipe — but don’t be afraid to experiment!
|Trade this…||…For that!||Good to know|
|All-purpose flour||Whole wheat flour||Whole wheat flour can affect taste, texture, and baking time, especially for more delicate items like pastries. Try substituting 25% of your all-purpose flour with wheat flour to start. If you like the results, you can up the percentage of wheat flour next time you make it! (Whole wheat flour absorbs liquid more readily than all-purpose, so you may need to add a little more liquid to compensate in some recipes.)|
|Corn syrup||Maple syrup, agave, honey, or cane syrup||Different substitutions work best for different purposes. Agave may be a good place to start, since it has the mildest flavor of the substitutes we’ve listed. Note: you’ll want to stick with corn syrup when making candy or caramel to prevent graininess.|
|Mayonnaise||Plain yogurt, sour cream, or mashed avocado||Different substitutions work best for different purposes. Avocado works well as a sandwich spread or in tuna/chicken salad. Plain yogurt is a fine replacement in most recipes, especially dressings and rich dips. Sour cream will work in a pinch, but it has the most noticeable flavor; it may add a tangier taste to your recipe.|
|Milk||Almond milk||Use plain, unsweetened almond milk to minimize differences in taste.|
|Pasta||Spaghetti squash||Baked spaghetti squash has a pasta-like texture.|
Learn more about how to prepare at TheKitchn.
|Potatoes||Sweet potatoes||While white potatoes and sweet potatoes both have a place in a healthy diet, sweet potatoes have a lower glycemic index. They’re a great substitution in mashed potatoes or as an accompaniment baked/roasted dishes.|
|Sugar||Stevia||Stevia is plant-based and has zero calories. It’s available in liquid concentrate, powdered extract, and dried leaf form. Because Stevia tastes sweeter than refined sugar, substitution ratios are drastically less than 1:1 and may vary by type.|
|Vegetable oil||Olive oil||When baking, you can also try swapping oil for applesauce. (This may make baked goods more moist, so you may need to add additional flour to compensate.)|
5. Keep a food journal.
Keeping a food journal can help you lose weight and keep your food spending in check. A 2008 study found that adults who kept a food journal 6 days per week lost 2X as much weight as those who journaled 0-1 days per week.
Why do food journals work so well? First, they encourage self-monitoring, which fosters awareness of both healthy and unhealthy eating patterns and helps to target areas for improvement. Second, they emphasize awareness of portion sizes. In America, average portion sizes have increased by somewhere in the neighborhood of 138% since 1970. But many people underestimate how many calories they’re consuming in these supersized portions. Keeping a food journal puts the spotlight not just on what you’re eating, but also how much. (As a fringe benefit, reducing the amount of food you consume can help lower your monthly food bill, too.)
It doesn’t matter whether you journal on paper or in an app. Whichever method you use, focus on recording the basics like food type, portion, and context of the meal to identify where your challenges lie — and how best to tackle them.
6. Get professional help.
Struggling to meet your fitness goals? Seeing an expert may be more affordable than you think. Visits to a dietician or nutritionist may be covered under your health insurance policy under the umbrella of “nutrition counseling” or “nutrition therapy”. Compile a list of questions to ask your insurance provider to find out what type of expenses are covered (and which would be out-of-pocket).
Dietician vs. nutritionist: what’s the difference?
Both dieticians and nutritionists can offer nutritional help, but qualifications differ between the two professions. Learn more about the differences between the two roles, then ask your doctor which type of nutritional counseling is right for you. Depending on your insurance provider, a referral from your doctor may be required for coverage.
How Dieticians & Nutritionists Differ
|Role||Qualifications||Scope of work|
|Registered dietitian nutritionist (R.D.N.)|
7. Go meatless.
If you’re an omnivore (read: not vegan or vegetarian), consider preparing meatless meals at least once per week. Meat products are typically the most expensive items on most omnivores’ grocery lists — and excessive consumption of red meat is correlated with increased risk of cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and more. Going meatless even once a week could reduce your grocery bill and improve your health long-term!
Our favorite nutrition apps
This handy app ensures your meal plan and your grocery list are always on hand. Use Paprika to clip recipes from the web, add recipes to your meal plan, and — the best part — pull ingredients from your meal plan to your grocery list with just a few clicks. Ingredients in your grocery list are automatically sorted by department, and items that appear in multiple recipes are added up for you so you know the total amount needed. If you need to adjust the number of servings for freezer meal prep, the app will multiply ingredients for you. And it’s available for pretty much any device. (Check out our tips for meal planning with Paprika.)
It’s a weekly circular. It’s a coupon manager. It’s awesome! Flipp compiles circulars from your local stores (800 retailers at time of writing) in an attractive, easy-to-navigate package. It also allows you to search and “clip” digital coupons, which you simply present through the app at checkout. If you choose to use its shopping list feature, Flipp will search deals at local stores to automate the couponing process. And it’s completely free.
Ibotta brings cash back to grocery purchases — and online shopping, clothing stores, and more! It works like this: first, add rebates for the products you’re planning to buy. Next, go shopping as you normally would. After your shopping trip, take a photo of your receipt as proof of purchase. Then wait for your cash back to roll in! Ibotta rebates are actual money, not points, so in addition to redeeming for gift cards, you can transfer them to PayPal or Venmo to cash out.
Ever wondered how healthy your morning granola bar really is? The answer may surprise you. Fooducate is a website/app that helps you find healthier alternatives to your favorite packaged foods. It makes eating well simpler by assigning foods a letter grade, explaining the why behind the score — and suggesting better alternatives for you to try. If you download the app, you’ll also get a food/exercise tracker.
Last but not least, MyFitnessPal is a longstanding favorite among food journal apps. Its user-supported search functionality is the real headline, with nutritional info for dishes at popular restaurants, packaged foods, whole foods, and everything between. (The database includes 5,000,000 food items so far!) Just enter the type of food and the serving size to log calories and more. You can use it to log exercise too — and any exercise you log will be subtracted from your calories consumed for a complete picture of your day.
Try the following tips and tricks to spice up your fitness routine without breaking your budget.
How to score an affordable gym membership
Becoming a member of a gym can be a good investment in your fitness — as long as you’re willing to go often enough to justify the membership fees. If that’s you, and you’re wondering how to make a gym membership fit in your budget, it’s worth doing your homework to get the best deal possible. Here’s where to start.
Know when to join.
Most people focus on fitness in the first few weeks of January. (New Year’s resolutions, anyone?) But at many gyms, the best deals may be found in the summertime. When the weather is nice, lots of people prefer to exercise outdoors. That means fewer signups for gyms and potential savings for you. If you don’t see an advertised sale, ask if your local gym will waive your signup fees or give you a two-for-one deal if you sign up with a friend.
Other times to consider joining: the end of the month or in December, when gyms may cut membership costs to meet monthly or yearly quotas.
Shop bargain class passes.
Discount sites like Groupon and LivingSocial regularly offer sets of fitness classes at a discounted rate for new customers. Shop discounted class passes to sample new types of classes or to take multiple local gyms for a trial run before you sign a contract.
Look for freebies.
Leverage free or reduced cost gym visits to choose a gym you’ll enjoy for the long term and/or score a sweet welcome gift when you’re ready to commit. Common types of gym freebies include:
- Trial memberships
- Guest/day passes (Go to a friend’s gym!)
- Sign up and get _______ (pool access, personal training session, massage, etc.)
- Complimentary or reduced-cost membership tier upgrade
If you don’t see what you’re looking for advertised, call and ask! Local gyms may offer freebies to earn your business if you express interest.
Check with your employer and insurance provider.
You’ve done your research, you have a list of possible gyms — but you’re looking to lower the costs of membership even further. When you’re looking for ways to trim your fitness budget, don’t overlook your employer and insurance provider. If you work for a midsize-to-large company, local gyms could offer a “preferred employer” discount you could take advantage of, so it’s worth dropping HR a line to find out. Additionally, many insurance providers have negotiated discounts with national gym chains. Call the customer service number on your insurance card to find out if you’re covered.
Making personal training fit within your budget
There are many benefits to working with a personal trainer, from help developing a customized workout regimen to learning proper form that can prevent injury or strain. If you’d like to give it a try but aren’t sure your budget has the room to spare, try these tips before you dismiss the idea. You might be surprised how affordable personal training can be!
Sign up with a friend (or group of friends).
According to Thumbtack, the 2017 average cost of personal training falls around $40/hour. (Enter your zip code in the calculator to get an average for your area.) If that’s higher than you’re comfortable with, many personal trainers offer discounted hourly rates when you share a session with other people. Use a directory like IDEA or FitnessTrainer to find trainers in your area, then contact them to ask about group rates.
Try a free or low-cost boot camp.
Boot camps are a great way to get to know experts within your local fitness community — many personal trainers lead community boot camps to meet potential customers and demonstrate their expertise. To find out about boot camps coming up in your area, search Eventbrite, discount sites like Groupon, and your city’s event calendar.
Practice on your own.
Maybe you can swing one or two sessions per week, but three would be too much for your monthly budget to absorb. That’s okay! Once you find a personal trainer you’re comfortable with, work with them to design a personalized workout you can do yourself on the days you don’t meet.
Check with your gym.
If you have a gym membership or are in the market for one, inquire about the gym’s personal training services. It’s common for gyms to offer free initial sessions or reduced-cost sessions for gym members — so don’t be afraid to ask!
Reduce unhealthy spending (and put that money toward personal training).
Want to do something good for your wallet and your health? Search your budget for opportunities to trim spending on unhealthy activities or habits. Maybe it’s your morning fast food or latte run, your weekend bar tab, or high spending on cigarettes. Try reducing that area of your budget by ⅓ or ½ and putting that money toward personal training instead. You’ll free up room in your budget, and kicking unhealthy habits could help you meet your fitness goals even sooner.
Get plugged into your local fitness community.
Working out alongside other people promotes accountability and can help you stick with your fitness routine when you might otherwise get discouraged. Community-based fitness works — and it’s more fun than working out alone. Get to know people in your city who enjoy the types of activity you do, make friends, and enjoy working toward your goals together! Here’s how to get started.
- Join some Meetup groups.
Ever heard of Meetup? It’s a directory of local communities in every category you can imagine, from entrepreneurship to book circles and board game groups. Use the free app or website to search for biking, running, hiking, and other fitness groups in your city. Whatever your workout of choice, there’s probably a Meetup group near you built around it!
- Find an accountability partner you trust.
When you start to get tired, an accountability partner will keep you honest. When you feel tempted to skip a workout, your accountability partner can encourage you — and you can do the same for him or her. Whether it’s guilt or a sense of competition that motivates you, you’ll be more likely to stick with a routine if flaking means standing someone else up. Having trouble finding a friend or family member who’s willing to step in? Use a service like WellSquad to find your accountability partner.
- Watch for community events.
Check your town’s event calendar and keep an eye out for advertisements — your city may offer free or low-cost clinics, classes, and more! (Eventbrite is also a good resource for this.) In the past year, my city has offered yoga and Zumba classes, Saturday boot camps, and athletic conditioning sessions. If you don’t see what you’re looking for, check in surrounding cities, too.
Our favorite fitness resources
Gym memberships and personal trainers offer a host of benefits you won’t get when working out alone. But if you’re looking to mix up your fitness routine at home, there’s a huge variety of free and almost-free resources online.
Looking for an online fitness community with a stellar app? Check out Strava. It’s part social network, part fitness tracking, and completely awesome. Strava is compatible with just about any fitness device you can think of. Use it to track your workouts, measure performance across metrics like heart rate and mile breakdown, and join groups. Strava can help you find new running and biking routes by highlighting popular routes nearby. It can even help keep you safe when exercising alone; its popular Beacon feature (available with Premium) allows you to share your location in real time.
If your goals include weight loss, look into SparkPeople. It’s an online community, calorie counter, and personalized fitness program all in one — essentially the Swiss Army Knife of fitness tools. You can use it to explore healthy recipes, keep a food journal, or research diet tips from nutritionists. Joining is free, as is downloading the mobile app.
7 Minute Workout
Even on your busiest day, you can probably carve out seven minutes for a workout! The free 7 Minute Workout app walks you through a variety of quick-hit circuits that include short sets of exercises meant to tone, build endurance, and promote weight loss. The programs you’ll find in the app are based on HICT (high-intensity circuit training) for a quick, effective workout. Voice prompts between sets guide you through the circuit, and videos of each move help you learn proper form to reduce the chance of injury. On days you can’t make it to the gym or meet with your trainer, the 7 Minute Workout is a great way to get your heartrate up with minimal equipment or fuss.
An accountability partner can do wonders for your motivation. If you’re having trouble finding someone IRL, try WellSquad. Much like an online dating site, it’ll use a questionnaire and “exclusive algorithm” to match you with a compatible workout partner. WellSquad integrates with multiple fitness devices so you can share your progress with your team. You can also message with fitness partners or connect with “Squad Leaders” (certified fitness trainers and registered dieticians) in your community to kickstart your fitness journey. It’s free to join and find a fitness partner in your area, though there’s a monthly fee for access to Squad Leaders.
Visit online: WellSquad.com
Advertised as a “personal trainer in your pocket,” Endomondo is a low-cost way to get coaching and encouragement during your workout. This free app helps you choose a workout plan (via a quick Fitness Test), set goals, and train to meet them. You’ll get real-time audio feedback while you run, bike, or do 40+ other activities, so you’ll know when you’re on track and when to push harder. Metrics tracked include calories burned, miles logged, and rate of improvement over time. The optional Premium version includes personalized training plans for even faster results.
Download for: iOS
Want to add weight lifting to your fitness routine? StrongLifts will help you train smart. Based on the StrongLifts 5×5 program, the free app offers guidance on when to add or subtract weight, what to do when you hit a plateau, and how long you should rest between sets. And with single-tap logging, you can focus on your exercise rather than running a timer.
Couch to 5K
Aspiring runners, this one’s for you. The popular Couch to 5K program helps you train from zero running ability to a 5K (that’s about 30 minutes of continuous running) in just 8 weeks. It’s broken down into 3-per-week 30 minute sessions that gradually increase your running-to-walking ratio to get you running your local road race in no time. There are many C25K apps out there; we like Zen Labs’ version. It’s free for both iOS and Android.
Consider adding meditation to your fitness routine to foster a healthy body and mind. The Calm app offers guided meditations of various lengths, so you can get a mindfulness boost even on busy days. The flexibility to choose the accompanying music from a list of soothing options helps to tune out background noise — a useful feature for the times when it’s difficult to find a quiet place to practice, especially for beginners. You’ll get access to a variety of meditations with the free app download, but you can also upgrade to enjoy premium features like the Daily Calm (a new, themed meditation each day) and meditations for commuting, walking, calming anxiety, and more.
Making a plan
We hope this guide has empowered you to make a plan you can stick with. Feel free to use the resources we’ve covered to design a plan that both fits within your budget — and helps you achieve your nutrition and fitness goals. Good luck!
Did you find this guide useful? Do you have fitness tips, tricks, or resources to share? Let us know in the comments below!