A lot has changed since the days when a fat belly indicated a fat wallet. Now, people pay more for the healthy stuff while the least expensive foods are often the ones packed with waist-widening calories.
But just because you’re on a budget doesn’t mean you can’t lose a few pounds without breaking the bank. To prove it’s possible, we checked in with some of the nation’s leading weight-loss experts and asked them how to get lean for less.
The following tips are simple things that fit easily into your life, won’t empty your wallet, and can help whittle down your waistline without emptying your wallet.
Cook at home and cook in bulk, suggests registered dietitian Lauren Minchen. “Depending on how frequently you eat out, cooking your food at home can save you hundreds of dollars a month. And cooking in bulk is great if you’re time-strapped,” she says. “It saves you time while allowing you to monitor the ingredients, calories, and portions in your meals. Win win win!” Not sure what to make? Soups are super easy to make and will last you all week.
Register for a race or competition. They’ll cost you anywhere from $35 to $125, but the training aspect, which can last for months, is practically free. “There’s no better way to motivate yourself to get up from your office chair than knowing you have a race coming up,” says registered dietitian nutritionist Michelle Dudash. “Plus, running is one of the cheapest sports you can do because the only special equipment you need is good pair of running shoes and a training program, which you can get online for free.”
“Eggs are very inexpensive and have been shown over and over to help with weight loss,” says registered dietitian Cassie Bjork. “What’s more, eggs are considered the most bioavailable source of protein, which means your body digests, absorbs and uses the protein in eggs better than in any other food in the world.” A pricey cut of steak can’t even claim that!
“If you are going to buy fresh produce, it’s important to know what’s in season and what isn’t,” says registered dietitian Leah Kaufman. Things that are out of season will cost you far more cash than produce that’s just hitting its peak. Registered dietitian nutritionist Sarah Koszyk agrees, saying: “For the winter season, try Brussels sprouts, butternut squash, kale, turnips, persimmons, tangerines and kiwis.” Broccoli, berries, tomatoes and salad greens will be cheapest in the summer, while asparagus, cauliflower, and spinach are easiest on your wallet in the spring.
“Whether you’re on a budget or not, frozen vegetables are a great buy,” says Kaufman. “They’re cheaper than fresh vegetables and contain just as many nutrients.” Wondering how stocking up on the stuff can help you slim down? “Vegetables are vital for weight loss because they’re low in calories and high in fiber. Consuming fiber keeps you feeling fuller longer so you will feel satisfied and won’t be tempted to snack.” But fair warning, not all frozen foods are created equal: If you want those last five pounds to come off quickly steer clear of these frozen foods!
Pre-made meals may save you time. But they aren’t necessarily the healthiest picks, and they’ll seriously cut into your budget. “By cutting back on pre-made meals, packaged, and processed snacks you’ll have a lot of room leftover in your food budget for the nourishing, real foods that fuel your body with the nutrients it needs for weight loss,” says Bjork.
“Grabbing a quick snack, whether it be a snack bar or a piece of fruit costs far more at a coffee shop, airport or gas station than it does at a grocery store or farmer’s market,” says Dudash. To avoid spending unnecessary cash when hunger strikes, she recommends building a clean eating arsenal stocked with grab-and-go pieces of fruit, like apples, pears, and bananas.
“Don’t blow your budget on sugar-laden beverages that will only stand in the way of your weight loss goal. Instead, sip tap water. This simple swap will save you calories and cash, and supports weight loss by nourishing your cells and flushing out toxins,” says Bjork.
Research shows that switching to a plant-based diet not only promotes weight loss but also lowers your cholesterol, reduces hypertension and extends lifespan. There’s more good news: A meat-free diet can also save you thousands—yes, thousands—of dollars. “I recently switched from a moderate animal protein diet to a plant-based diet and so far I’ve saved about $40 per week, which will easily add up to savings of $2,000 per year,” says the owner of Naples Personal Training, Dr. Sean M. Wells. That’s enough cash to spend on a tropical vacation! (Hawaii, anyone?)
Can’t imagine giving up your favorite burgers and fillets for good? Consider adopting Meatless Mondays—the campaign that encourages people to kick off their week sans meat. “I’m an advocate for Meatless Monday for both budgeting and ethical reasons,” says personal trainer Ajia Cherry. Although there are many vegetarian and vegan sources of protein, Cherry is a big fan of beans. “Beans, especially dried black beans, are inexpensive and contain heart-healthy antioxidants, filling fiber, iron and muscle-building protein,” she says
Nutritionist Tammy Lakatos Shames, who’s also a proponent of going meat-free once a week, likes to swap ground beef for mushrooms. “If you’re not ready for a complete swap, you can start by mixing meat with mushrooms, it will boost your meal’s fiber and stretch you dollar further,” she says.
Drop the excuses about how you can’t get to the gym—you can work out anywhere, really. “Shedding pounds and getting healthy doesn’t require a gym, boutique fitness studio or a CrossFit box,” says Wells. “Join a local soccer league or walking group or do bodyweight calisthenics at home. My next door neighbor loves to use his tree for pull ups and dips. If you’re willing to get creative you can save anywhere from $50 to 300 per month—that’s a car payment!”
Before scouring Pinterest for recipes you want to make, check your local market to see what’s on sale, suggests registered dietitian Ilyse Schapiro. “After you know what the best deals are, then plan your meals for the week. Also, sign up for a bonus card at your local market,” she says. “Rewards programs can save you a lot of money in the long run.”
“Skip the pricey pills and detox juices. They’ll cost you an arm and a leg and most of them don’t work,” warns registered dietitian nutritionist Marisa Moore. A cheaper, more effective solution? These best teas for weight loss!
“Not only is the food from a farmers market tastier, it’s cheaper, too,” says Schapiro. “Food bought locally doesn’t have to travel long distances, so the prices tend to be lower. And if you shop at the end of the day, you may get even better deals because the farmers want to get rid of their stock.
“Commercial bars and workout drinks can be very expensive. What’s worse, they offer little more to your body than what basic fruits, vegetables and nuts can provide,” says Wells. “Ounce for ounce, homemade smoothies or snacks will not only be cheaper but probably healthier for you, too.”
RELATED: This 7-day smoothie diet will help you shed those last few pounds.
You may not have enough leftovers to squeeze out a second meal, but that doesn’t mean you should throw the food out! “Wasted food is wasted money,” says Schapiro. “Leftover fruits and vegetables can always be added to a smoothie or protein shake and vegetable and grain scraps can be added to a soup, a stir-fry, or omelet.”
Love fancy coffee drinks? Learn how to make slimmed-down versions of your favorites at home, suggests Minchen. Not only will making your drinks save you thousands of dollars, but it will also help keep excess fat off of your frame, too. Our healthy Starbucks Caramel Frappuccino copycat recipe is a great way to get into the make-it-yourself groove!
Celebs may pay her the big bucks to whip them into shape, but celebrity trainer Kit Rich says it’s possible to get into your skinny jeans without spending a dime. “The cheapest and easiest ways to lose weight through exercise is by doing YouTube workout videos,” Rich says. “There are a lot of fun and effective programs available for free!”
Getting a proper night’s rest is totally free and it offers major weight-loss perks. “When you don’t get enough sleep, levels of the hormone leptin drop, which increases appetite. This surge in appetite makes comfort food more appealing, which can derail weight loss efforts,” says personal trainer to the stars Jay Cardiello. “I tell all of my celebrity and professional-athlete clients to get between 6 and 8 hours of sleep per night.”
The average restaurant meal contains a whopping 1,128 calories, according to a University of Toronto study of 19 sit-down restaurant chains. And those numbers have likely increased since then! To save money and calories while dining out, registered dietitian Yasi Ansari suggests ordering a healthy appetizer (like seared scallops, mushroom caps or a salad) or splitting an entree with a friend.
“Spend a couple of minutes each morning writing out a list of reasons you want to live a fitter and healthier life,” says author of the top model fitness guide, Methodology X Dan Roberts. “It won’t be conscious, but doing this exercise will help you make better decisions when choosing food and snacks throughout the day.”
Foods stamped with an “All Natural” label tend to cost more, but because the claim isn’t regulated by the FDA, it doesn’t really mean anything. “Instead, read ingredients and then decide which products are worth more of your hard-earned cash,” says Cardiello.
“The average snack bar or bag of chips will cost you two dollars, but a piece of fruit will only cost you 50 cents. Stick with a piece of fruit to save calories, fat and cash on snacks,” says certified dietitian-nutritionist Dana James.
There’s no doubt that protein sources like chicken breasts, tuna, and salmon are healthy, but they’re not the most economical. For that reason, Dudash recommends buying the canned varieties. Not convinced? Consider this: A four-pack of canned tuna from Walmart is around $4. It doesn’t get much cheaper than that! And if you’re worried about the mercury in the tuna? Don’t be. Generally speaking, the smaller the fish, the lower the mercury level. Because canned chunk light tuna is harvested from the smallest fish, it’s safe to consume two to three times a week.
Been a righty your entire life? Eat dinner with your left hand. “It takes roughly 15 minutes for your brain to realize that you’re full,” says Cardiello. “To give your mind time to catch up to your mouth, simply switch your fork to non-dominate hand. It may be frustrating, but it’s a simple and unnoticeable way to curb overeating and lose weight.”