Updated: Aug 21
One of the most asked questions I get about being vegan is:
Isn't being vegan so expensive?! How do you afford to eat vegan food all the time?
The thing is, I thought the same things before I was vegan, and it took me a while to figure out how to make it more affordable.
I was vegetarian for almost a year before I made the full switch to veganism. Part of my problem was a lack of education and understanding of how to cook entirely plant-based meals. Honestly, I wasn't aware of the ethical and environmental aspects of a vegan lifestyle yet either.
When I made the switch, I did it primarily for health reasons. I started strong on a plant-based diet, but at first, it wasn't cheaper for me. I would say it was similar to what I was paying on a vegetarian diet, and maybe even sometimes more expensive.
Here is where the misconception that being vegan is too expensive lies: mock animal products.
Think Beyond Meat, the Impossible Burger, Just Egg, Morning Star, Gardein, and oh so many more.
These faux-meats and cheeses were an excellent transitionary tool for me when I was vegetarian and again when I was newly vegan. The problem was, I was eating them for almost every meal. This was the exact opposite of what I should have been doing, especially since I switched to a plant-based diet for health reasons.
Then, I moved to rural North Carolina and had limited access to specialty vegan products. This forced me to evaluate my diet to improve my health and cut my grocery budget dramatically. It also helped that we were growing most of our own produce, but that's a different story.
So, how did I make a vegan lifestyle less expensive, and is it possible for everyone?
Did you miss the last installment of "I can't go zero waste?" Read more about affordable zero-waste tips here!
Is mock meat more expensive than the real thing?
In most cases, mock meat isn't more expensive than animal flesh, but mock cheese is. Non-dairy milk will also run the range of prices depending on the plant used to make the milk. For instance, cashew milk will often be more expensive than oat milk, and oat milk is more expensive than soy or almond.
With vegetarian and vegan options on the rise, faux-meats' price has drastically declined compared to even a few years ago. Still, some of these specialty options will rack up a much higher rate than others.
For instance, Beyond Meat used to sell for around $12 per pound while some ground beef sells for only $6 per pound. That's essentially double the price. However, since they began selling their value pack of meat patties this year, Beyond Meat has dropped to almost the same price as ground beef at $6.40 per pound.
These particular faux-meat products like Beyond and Impossible are competing directly with meat, though. In comparison, chickpea and black bean burgers know they're not beef, are cheaper to make, and have far less saturated fat.
Part of the reason why brands like Beyond Meat charge such a high price is that we exist in a free market system. From a business standpoint, there is no reason for them to charge less because both Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods can barely keep up with the demand as it is.
But as meat giants like Tyson and Smithfield enter the arena of faux-meats, prices will fall drastically. At the moment though, there isn't enough infrastructure in place for mock meat producers to keep up and supply on a larger scale. This can make getting the raw materials like soy and pea protein more expensive, and they just won't be able to produce as much in comparison with animal agriculture.
As the demand for plant-based proteins rises, availability of raw materials grows, and infrastructure is in place for large scale production, vegan meat substitutes will soon be cheaper than animal flesh.
How being vegan can be cheaper than the average American diet
When most Americans view a vegan diet, it goes one of two ways:
Vegans only eat lettuce and hate their lives!
Why do vegans eat faux-meat when they could eat the real thing?
While this may be true in some cases, these are generalized assumptions made with little to no actual knowledge of a plant-based diet. A pure vegan plant-based diet will consist of primarily whole foods like whole grains, legumes, nuts/seeds, fruits, and vegetables.
This means that you're getting the majority of your protein from legumes like lentils, chickpeas, and other beans in the whole form. This protein is complemented with whole grains, other starches like potatoes, and tons of fruits and vegetables.
Faux-meats should only be eaten as a treat, not a staple in the vegan diet. In my opinion, I'm happy to see such a wide range of mock meats, cheeses, ice creams, and other faux-animal products readily available. I enjoy eating many of these foods too! But I am also aware that eating processed foods isn't the best way to live my life.
It is possible to live a fully vegan life with an occasional treat and meal at a restaurant while only spending $200-400 per month on groceries for two people. The thing is, it takes planning, budgeting, and cooking.
If we are comparing vegan specialty foods to an American diet though, we need to look at all the options. See the chart below.
In the chart above, I only compared commonly bought animal products that are staples in an American diet, and I didn't include produce or grains. It is evident that the vegan specialty items make the price more expensive, but when moving over to the few things on the whole-foods list, prices are lower.
What's more is that flax meal and nutritional yeast packages will last far longer than a standard bag of shredded cheese or carton of eggs, because you use them differently. A part of making eating a plant-based diet more affordable is changing how you eat. Instead of focusing on what you are missing out on, focus on the new food experiences.
The trick is to center your meals around plants instead of meat. If you center your diet around produce and whole grains, your grocery budget will drastically decrease. I like to think of my food budget as a part of my health/life insurance policy, too. This helps me prioritize healthy food options and not feel bad if I optimize my food budget.
Note: Organic products will always be more expensive, so you will have to take that into account as well.
Access when eating plant-based
Health aside, eating a whole foods diet is one of the most inexpensive ways to live. Yes, you will have to cook, but if you're thinking a tight budget keeps you away from a plant-based diet, it's time to reevaluate your mindset.
In most cases, when people say being vegan is too expensive, what they mean is: being vegan takes too much time because I have to cook. And I get it; not everyone has time! This is a real problem when it comes to working multiple jobs, raising children, or having down-time.
This is when your mindset and overall motivations come into play. If your health, the planet, and animal rights are important to you, you'll find a way to make it work. If not, then finding excuses is often easier.
However, food deserts are real, and we need to realize that not everyone has the same options as us. These are challenges that many people face every day, and it has a huge impact on their whole body health. Finding ways to make the right choices for your life, budget, and state-of-mind is essential, but in many places where food deserts exist, there are still options. In some places community gardens, traveling produce trucks, and other fantastic food pantry options do pop up, it's just a matter of knowing when they do.
It is more about being aware of your options and what is available, and not being ashamed to step out of your comfort zone to try something new.
Tip: If you don't have much access to whole foods in your area, but you have room in your budget, try meal delivery services to help you get a knack for cooking at home. They send you the ingredients you need and cooking instructions to keep. If you like a few of those recipes, you can also adapt them to what is available.
Make it work for you and your budget
Whether you're vegan or not, having a grocery budget is a good thing. It keeps you on track and helps you from spending unnecessary amounts of money on impulse buys as you shop. Being vegan doesn't have to be more expensive than any other diet or lifestyle, but you also need to have the time to do it.
Instead of replacing your favorite meat and cheese-based meals with a processed mock meat alternative, explore new cuisine that is meant to be plant-based. Yes, this takes time and energy to do right, but cooking more of your meals at home is a rewarding and money-saving experience.
With people spending more time at home because of COVID-19, we can discover new recipes each week. Then, once you find a few favorites, make these staples in your diet. I've found that the nights I've spent cooking, it takes my mind off of the many issues of the world and helps to keep me in the moment more.
Wherever you live, there will be nuances in grocery shopping and food availability. The main thing to remember is to shop in season, and don't forget about discount produce or farmer's markets.
Many grocery stores do have a marked down produce area. Getting to know the stocking schedule and transitioning these perishables can be key, but once you get to know the schedule, fresh produce won't be as hard to come by, even on a budget.
COVID-19 has also given rise to gardens once again-- hooray! Growing your food is not only empowering, but it can save you a ton of money. Having an overabundance is never an issue because of canning and freezing. This will keep you stocked for weeks to come.
Is this your first time reading? If so, welcome! That also means that you missed the other installments of the "I can't go zero-waste" article series. Get caught up here!