FAQ: “How Can I Afford The High Cost of Healthy Food?”

iStockSmallAppleDollarThis one might hurt a little.

My goal is to educate and help, but turning toward the mirror and examining ourselves, our motivations, and our priorities can often be uncomfortable.

So take a deep breath. Because the goal is to equip and edify, but part of the message might sting.

One of the most frequently asked questions I get is: “How can I afford the high cost of healthier food?”

Let’s not beat around the bush. There are increased up-front costs associated with eating well. It costs more money to eat real food, because it typically isn’t subsidized like cereal grain crops. It also costs more in time to shop frequently, seek out whole food vendors, and prepare food.

I’m going to touch on some sensitive subjects. And lest I run the risk of being labeled an elitist who “wouldn’t understand,” please realize that just because I have a website and some initials in front of my name doesn’t mean that I haven’t been there. You know – trying to decide between paying the electric bill or getting the coconut oil? I have been there and I’ll explain as I go.

But first I want to address the cultural beliefs surrounding money. Most of the world lives on less than $10 / day. So if you have more than that, if you have cable TV, a smartphone and a car (even a clunker), you are relatively rich!

We live in one of the most affluent societies in history. Unfortunately, we also live in a very materialistic culture. This often means we get sucked into working jobs we don’t love to buy things we can’t afford to impress people we don’t like.

But it’s not just things that can trip us up. It’s long ingrained belief systems. So the question “How can I afford to eat Paleo?” is a loaded one. It’s loaded with a belief system that supports paying $300-$500 per month in sick care insurance so that we aren’t obligated to take care of ourselves. It’s this underlying belief system that often discourages up front, proactive expenses in favor of deferring costs down the road in the form of reactive sick care, lost time at work, and lowered productivity. (Ouch).

An important question becomes “What are our priorities?”

Herein lies the answer to the first question. If we can establish health as a priority, then we can figure out better ways to pay for them.

Because once upon a time, I was living month to month.

I opened a new business on the heels of one of the worst economies in recent history. I was shackled by massive student loan debt on top of new business debt. I was working long hours to launch my dream. And nothing was going to stop me. But one day I woke up and realized I was putting in jeopardy the very thing I was instructing others to take care of – health.

So I sat down and prioritized. If I was going to help anyone, I needed to take care of myself. Side note: Self-care is not selfish! Hey moms – I’m looking at you! You can’t be your best for others if you’re chronically ill.

I knew I needed to eat better and join a gym. Where was I going to find the extra dollars that weren’t in the current budget? I needed a new budget!

  • I cancelled my cable and used the extra time to find healthier food at lower costs (I’ll tell you where below).
  • I used the money to pay for a gym membership and went on my lunch breaks. I made my own protein-laden salads and homemade dressing everyday.
  • I cancelled my expensive sick care insurance ($220/month) and signed up for catastrophic coverage ($75/month).
  • I put some of the premium savings into an Health Savings Account in case I needed care (which I haven’t).
  • I then took the rest and put it toward the healthiest food I could afford.

I also simplified my life. I made a list of all my possessions and marked off whether I had used them in the past year. Almost all of the ones that had a “no” went bye, bye. I sold, gave or threw away at least one thing per week for about 3 months. It was seriously liberating. Try it. Please. Now I do an abbreviated version of this every 6 months or so.

The decision to simplify ‘bought’ me more free time, more money and less distraction. This meant I was more productive at work and more successful. Then I could afford healthy food and basic cable :)

So back to the question of priorities. What are yours? Health, or keeping up with the Joneses? Health, or the newest gadget? Health, or 200+ TV channels? Using vacation time or deferring rest and recovery till retirement for a couple of extra bucks?

Money is probably one of the toughest subjects to tackle, because everyone’s situation is different. I fully realize that my situation (at the time) as a single 30+ year old professional with no dependents isn’t the reality for many of the folks reading this. I realize that my example above may have nothing to do with your situation. There are a lot people experiencing legitimate hardships and I’m not here to minimize that. But for many of us, the issue of healthier choices that cost more is an opportunity to check our priorities.

Practical Application
So, we’ve determined that a lot of us need to (re)establish healthy priorities, but also address the legitimate concern of making healthy food more affordable. Here are my top 5 tips for lowering food related expenses:

  1. Cow and Pig Shares – This year I connected with a small local farmer who raises 100% grass-fed beef. I ended up paying an average of $4.77 / pound and filled my freezer with a quarter cow worth of steaks, ground beef, bones (to make broth), and organ meat. As the demand for ethically, sustainably raised animals increases there are more and more farmers offering options like this. In most cases the cost is substantially less than a similar product at the grocery store. Not only that, but eating healthy animals improves your chances of less health expenses in the long run. Find local suppliers at eatwild.com
  2. Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) – Similar to the animal shares, these contracts with local farmers provide weekly shares of seasonal produce. For about $15/week I went to a local farm and picked up 100% organic produce through the growing season. More info at localharvest.org
  3. Buy in Bulk – For non-perishable Paleo pantry items like coconut oil, almond flour, or coconut milk, watch for sales and free shipping and stock up. You can also setup an Amazon “subscribe & save” to save up to 15% on regularly shipped items.
  4. Plant a Garden – While not feasible for those without space, and certainly a time commitment, a garden can be one of the most fulfilling aspects of your healthy food transition. You can also turn this into a community or family effort. You can compost your organic kitchen waste to fertilize the garden and then sell, can or give away extra produce (who needs 3 dozen zukes?). Don’t discount this option if you’re in an urban setting either – urban communal gardens are becoming more popular and even growing your own herbs can help pinch pennies.
  5. Cook More, Dine Out Less – Sometimes I forget what it was like to be scared of the kitchen and feel like I had such limited options. Eventually, this fifth and final tip simply develops into a rhythm and habit. You learn how to make new, fun, and delicious recipes. Utilizing the plethora of books and online resources available, you get creative so you don’t feel like dining out is such a treat anymore. For many, less dining out means a substantial boost to the budget. I also encourage people to plan out meals in advance which eases the strain of constantly figuring out everything on the fly. Plan ahead. Crock-pot it. Make double portions and freeze for later. You get the idea.

Your situation is probably different than mine…how have you made it work financially? I’d love to hear reader tips on this one, because my hunch is that for many of you I’m preaching to the choir about priorities. You’ve already made healthy food a priority…how have you made it affordable?

Yours in Health,

Dr. Scott


28 thoughts on “FAQ: “How Can I Afford The High Cost of Healthy Food?”

  1. GREAT post Dr. Scott! This is so practical and realistic – I hate other articles that are just like “don’t buy organic everything” because I already do that… What else!? I’ve been contemplating cancelling my cable for a while now and am finally going to do it next month so I can put that extra money towards better quality meat :)

    • Thanks for the feedback Steph! I really appreciate it. My 6th tip would’ve been, “turn your passion for health into a business that helps off-set your grocery bill”…which it looks like you’re starting to do with your blog. Keep at it!

  2. I can’t tell you how much I love this post. Great on so many fronts, looking at our priorities in life from that big-picture perspective.

  3. I have a funny feeling someone’s been listening to Dave Ramsey lol. And it’s quite true at that. I’ll be looking into the Joy of Less and see what I can gleam from it. Thank you. :)

  4. My Paleo Coach just messaged this article to me and I signed up for future readings and posts. Thanks so much. Sometimes I worry about affording the proper foods to eat in order to keep up with the Healthy Lifestyle I chose to follow. I feel better for it but on the same hand sometimes feel bitter because I would think there isn’t enough money to go around. Now, I can see for myself there are ways to make this work. Thanks for the great article…

    • Aw thanks! I really appreciate the feedback. I know that bitter feeling…there’s a hint of it in me every time I hear someone talk about really good craft beer (something I used to enjoy, but never tolerated the gluten well). I try to focus on the blessing of what we can have/afford. Very few places have as much abundance. Anyway, glad you found this helpful – it means a lot.

  5. With a family of 4, it’s hard to cut corners. However, we manage. We hardly ever dine out and vacations away are a thing of the past. This is a question I hear a lot as well. It’s all about priorities. I choose to be healthy and provide the healthiest food I can whenever I can. There are some weeks that I can’ t afford the organic version of everything or the grass fed beef. I do the next best thing and I don’t beat myself up over it. Thanks for all the great tips. The bottom line is that it is all about making your health and your families health a priority.

    • Absolutely! It’s really important to not feel negativity in that situation. Keep doing your best and thanks for the feedback!

  6. Scott,
    While I agree with most of this post, I think people are making a fundamental assumption that misses the point regarding the alleged higher cost of quality.
    My experience is that it has not cost me more to eat real, quality food. The reason is that I used to have to eat more. I was always hungry (pre-paleo). By increasing satiety with good fats and highly nutrient dense foods, I’m eating less and feeling better and it costs about the same. If you subtract the medical and drug expenses (including OTC painkillers), it is actually cheaper to eat Paleo. Couple that with a simple fact: People buy stuff to make themselves feel better. When you are healthy, you already feel good, so it requires less stuff to compensate. You don’t need much when you feel fantastic.

    • Really interesting points. I agree that in the long run, on average it is less expensive. But it’s not in people’s minds, and especially not when just starting out.
      I debated going into a paragraph on “the real cost of a $1 cheeseburger” ala Michael Pollan and the relative cost benefit of eating nutrient dense food. I’m always trimming back so I don’t lose people with long posts :)
      I hadn’t considered satiety as another cost benefit though…Maybe a follow up is in order?
      Again, good points and thanks for the feedback.

      • Yes, re follow up: I think the satiety factor is huge. People think they have to trade 1 for 1 – cheap to expensive. When I look at shopping carts at the Grocery store piled high to feed families, what I see is that they are feeding their hunger, not their bodies. No Judgement, I used to do that. Chips, cookies, pizza, grain products, popcorn. Filler. Stuff to keep me from starving. Wheat products kept my blood sugar out of whack so I had to keep eating. That was expensive! I sometimes forget how I used to have to plan to have stuff on hand to feed my hunger. Nobody has to replace cheap junk with costly junk. You just don’t need it anymore and it’s such a pleasure eating Grass fed, organic, non filler foods. Worked for me. But, in truth, I’m not feeding a family anymore either and can’t actually speak to how to win kid’s hearts with wild caught Salmon vs cookies.

  7. Great post Dr. Scott. We were having a hard time swallowing the cost in the beginning but it has been worth it. I lost my health insurance at the beginning of the year do the all the new changes. I had to see my Neurologist for the only prescription I still use. She could not believe how much I had changed in a year. I am down 60 pounds and I feel great. All my Nuero tests showed much improvement. Last time I saw her it was $600.00 this time she said I will take a $100.00 there is nothing wrong with you ;) Best feeling ever!

    Buying a quarter cow and raising chickens has been a huge cost saver. We are planning the garden and green house now. This lifestyle is worth the extra money I feel great and I know my kids are getting the best!

  8. Thanks so much for this. I get tired of reading that people feed their families of 4 or 5 on $400 or less a month. We sacrifice to buy our family quality food because we see the enormous benefits of eating healthy. However, I’d love to see a real family of 4 or 5′s average grocery budget when eating like this. When the only public examples out there are those who eat a SAD diet and coupon, it can get frustrating.

  9. Great post, with lots of great tips! My family is working hard to find balance. I am typically an all or nothing kind of girl. When I personally “fall off the wagon”, the family follows. I think it’s important to get everyone on board in making the changes that are needed. And then make those positive changed permanent. No “wagon” to fall off of. No doubt that when you put good things in, it makes for a healthier person overall … physically and mentally. It is all about the mindset. Our society seems very shallow and does not really focus on what is important. (IMO) Getting rid of cable (almost a year ago) was the best thing we did. There are many other ways to watch the shows we love without sitting through the endless commercials advertising “stuff” we don’t need anyway. I agree, it is all about priorities!
    Thanks for your post! :-)

    • Thanks for the feedback. I honestly was hesitant to write this post, since I have no experience trying to feed a large family on a budget. Glad that it has been well received by everyone, seeing the big picture.
      Appreciate your comments!

  10. THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR THIS !!!

    I try to tell people this and so many times they just want to whine about why they can’t afford to do the healthy thing (buy organic, cancel the smart meter, go to the natural health practitioner when needed, etc.).

    A down-sized life is happier and simpler. Our family has been through some really tough times, but we made it through those times because we had our health! You may not always be able to eat perfectly, but do the best you can and get rid of the extraneous stuff. Then when you can afford to eat right and have cable again, you’ll realise how much better life is without the extra junk and you’d rather be outside enjoying the seasons anyhow!

  11. Great article! We are a family of four on one income and my hubby is a self employed contractor. Needless to say, we have some lean months and living is just expensive! We have been full paleo for about 5 weeks and I ( the one with the health issues that caused us to go paleo) have never felt better! While our food budget is still probably more than most, I stick to it. I’m finding not making many paleo treats helps cut cost as the nut flours can get expensive. We don’t do big vacations, we have nexflix( no cable), inexpensive health insurance cause we never use it, and are planning on buying a quarter cow from a local farmer this spring when my husbands work is busy and we have the extra $. My hubby is also a hunter, so we are REALLY hoping he brings home an elk and deer this year! Ive also started getting a veggie box weekly and we are hoping to do a garden this year. My fav meal stretchers, I roast 2 chicken at a time every other ish week, then pick them clean of meat for meals and boil the skin/carcass to make broth. I also make soup or stew at least once a week and add lots of veggie to stretch it. :) I try to prioritize quality meant and do what I can with produce and wash or peal what I can’t buy organic.

  12. Great post. It’s my first time to the site and it was refreshing to read an honest post with practical tips. The idea of a garden is more and more tempting as time goes on.

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