Let’s be honest, eating vegan can be quite expensive, especially if you consume a lot of replacement products, like faux cheese, faux meat and the like. Until recently, vegan-certified products were almost exclusively available at organic supermarkets and special vegan stores, at least in Austria. I remember when I first succeeded in becoming a vegetarian almost 10 years ago (I mentioned a while ago that I had a really hard time refusing the Sunday Schnitzel that my grandmother always made when I was little), I would always shop at small organic stores that didn’t have a lot of fresh produce because a relatively small number of people actually went there and other products were also quite pricey. Today, life is a lot easier because vegan products are much more widely available and more affordable, and, most importantly, I eat a more balanced diet that is not primarily based on replacement products. Even the small supermarket down the street now has a nice selection of vegan spreads, organic produce, plant milk, tofu and seitan, just to give a few examples. I know I am really lucky that I live in a city with two vegan supermarkets and a chain of organic supermarkets with 16 stores in Vienna and a few more around the country, but I think my top tips for eating vegan on a budget are even more applicable when you don’t have easy access to affordable vegan products.
Buy local, seasonal products whenever possible
In addition to being more environmentally friendly and vitamin-rich, products from your country or neighboring countries are usually a lot more affordable than those that are imported from overseas. For example, I almost always purchase fruits and vegetables from Austria. Since we have cold(er) winters, it is often hard to find local produce in the winter and the spring, but even in that case, I only buy products from other EU countries, the closer the better. Usually, the price reflects the distance a product has traveled. I also enjoy shopping at farmers’ markets because you get really affordable food and you even know which farm it came from.
Grow your own food
I am fully aware that not everybody has a garden or even a balcony, but you can grow simple things indoors. I live in an apartment with cats, who love to eat and play with pretty much everything (one of our furry boys once almost ate a whole chili pepper plant, which of course his stomach didn’t agree with), but I still grow sprouts, salad, as well as tomatos and herbs in a small balcony green house. Even if you only have a small spouting station like me, you can eat a nutritious home-grown salad that only costs a few cents a portion almost every day. Maybe you even have relatives with a garden who are willing to grow veggies for you. If none of the above is possible in your living situation, try to find a food co-op or a farm that offers vegetable baskets. When we lived in Canada, we were signed up for a weekly organic vegetable basket that “forced” us to experiment a lot with vegetables that we were not familiar with, which was quite an adventure. Everything just tasted really fresh and had stronger flavors that anything that was available from the supermarket, even if it was organic.
Avoid replacement products
I know all too well how easy it is to just use a replacement product, especially when you are a new vegan and still miss the taste of meat. Since I grew up only eating meat once a week, I had no “withdrawal symptoms” whatsoever. The last few times I ate meat before finally going completely vegan, I got so restless and aggressive that I didn’t even know how to deal with myself. As mentioned some time ago, we still eat some replacement products because Herbert misses the concept — and perhaps also the taste — of eating meat. Whenever I cook for myself, I almost exclusively use tofu and beans, but when the two of us are eating a meal together, we often eat seitan or faux sausages. Since seitan is fairly expensive, I often make it myself (you can buy a gluten mix), and, whenever possible, I buy products that are produced by a small company in our district (it is called Hiel for those of you who are interested). Since we are both really busy all the time with work and sports, we have often opted for the easier path of buying replacement products, but whenever I get a chance, I like to make different kinds of burger patties (that we eat without the burger bun… it is called Leibchen in German and is usually eaten on its own with vegetables and/or rice on the side) from vegetables, kidney beans, chickpeas and the like, which is a lot cheaper than buying the finished product at the store.
Cook from scratch
It is really easy to buy bread, plant milk or canned beans, for example, from the store, but it is quite a bit cheaper if you make everything from scratch. Making my own seitan costs about half of what the store-bought version costs and home-made bread basically only takes a few cents’ worth of flour. To be frank, I don’t have the time to make everything from scratch, but I try to whenever possible. In most cases, it also tastes a lot fresher and is healthier since you don’t have to use any additives or preservatives. My recommendation is to find friends and/or family members who are interested in sharing home-made food with you. For example, you can make home-made almond milk and trade it for home-made bread with a friend or your mother since it is often not a lot more work to make bigger portions. Whenever I make spreads like hummus or faux meat spread made from kidney beans, for example, I almost always share them with my mother because it really isn’t more time-consuming to make a little bit more and my blender “prefers” bigger portions anyway.
To conclude, I would recommend always answering two simple questions in your head: how many vitamins and nutrients do I get per Euro/Dollar/(insert your currency) and is it worth making something from scratch? Especially if you are working, your time is money and it might be cheaper and easier to just by canned beans. But it might not be necessary to buy fancy imported superfoods when you can get cheap apples from your local organic farm that are also rich in vitamins. Don’t forget to have fun with your vegan diet though… just remember: it doesn’t have to be expensive!