here. However, this one is going to be more focused on the hard limits of how cheap you can make your diet, and how it becomes exponentially harder to eat all your food when you approach the extreme end of low cost dieting. I'm well aware that most people who visit this site are looking for ways to save money. That's basically the whole premise of what we do here.
This article has been sitting in draft for months, if not years. I forgot I even wrote it. And upon discovering it I decided I might as well release it. It is, perhaps a little rough, and I'm not bothering to put in pictures, or to flesh it out further. I believe I was going to talk about supplements as well but that will have to be for another time. I've got some new supplement review articles coming in the next few months, after I give them all a good testing. I'm waiting for Rogue to re-stock their bare steel Ohio Power Bars, and then I'll pick one up, literally, and let you know what I think of it. I don't have any new projects because I simply don't need anything else at the moment. So that's what's in the works.
The cost of food is something many people don't pay much attention to when thinking about sports or bodybuilding. But it's really no different than buying any other luxury item. If you want to upgrade your house you're going to have to buy the materials and labor to do so. And while we always think about the labor it takes to upgrade our body, the cost of the materials is often overlooked. You already have to eat to survive. But if you want to eat to be strong, it's going to cost you more. Many people find that it costs quite a bit more. Even if you eat the cheapest foods available it's still going to cost something.
My hard answer to the question, "how much do i need to spend on food?" is $120 a month if you're a small guy. Since protein is the most costly nutrient, the bigger you are, the more you need, and the more you will spend. Calories, in general, are cheap. When I say you need $120 that doesn't mean that is the ideal amount. It is the absolute rock bottom amount. It is the point where if you don't have that much I will tell you to devote all your time to getting it before you worry about going to the gym. If you can't pay for gas, you don't need a car. This is the price of admission. It's the worst seat in the stadium. But if you don't have that minimum amount to spend you don't even have to worry about the game because you're not getting in anyway.
Protein is the raw material from which your body will build new useful tissue. The question isn't do you need protein but how much protein do you need. I think people will fight forevermore with that topic. We can all agree that there is a minimum amount of protein needed, and if you go below this you are definitely fucking up your progress in the gym. As to what that limit is, I don't think we will ever all agree. However, since this is an article discussing budget let's be conservative and take a lower end figure as our mark.
There have been studies that basically conclude that anything above 0.8 grams of protein per lb. of lean body mass is "excessive." Now this doesn't mean it's useless. What they are saying is that it won't produce more protein synthesis, and thus translate into more muscle. To make things easier, let's forget about the lean mass part of the equation. I will assume you're not obese and thus it won't make a huge deal. So let's say 0.8 grams of protein per lb. of bodyweight is our mark. I'm not saying this is correct. I'm not saying that more protein won't build more muscle. But for the purpose of this article, let's assume that's true. This is what the studies say. And the biggest limiting factor with protein is that it is the most expensive macro nutrient. So if you're really trying to keep costs down you have to keep your protein down as well.
The following are the cheapest sources of protein. Most of them are not lean since it usually costs the same or less to get fat with your protein it simply becomes cost effective to do so. That way you don't also have to spend more money to get your dietary fat, which is necessary, just so you know.
Frozen Ground Turkey
At Aldi, this costs $1.70 a lb. It is not lean. It has 17g of fat and 17g of protein per 4 oz. This comes out to $0.63 for 25g of protein and you get 25g of fat to go with it.
Fresh Chicken Breast
This often gets to $2 a lb. and sometimes a bit lower. i've seen it as low as $1.70. However, I'll use $2 a lb. as the figure because that is common enough to get without too much trouble. You do have to buy the family size but it freezes well so there's no issue there. This is a lean source but you can always add butter to bring the fat up for a fair comparison to fatty meats. 4oz. will have 25g of protein and a few grams of fat at the most. It will cost about $0.50. If you want to add butter to get the fat up to 25g (for the sake of comparison) it would cost $0.66.
The price of eggs can fluctuate throughout the year. There was a period of time when they were under a dollar a dozen in my area last year. Aldi is generally the cheapest place for eggs. They seem to be predictably around $1.80 a dozen so that's the figure I'll use. 4 eggs will give you 24g protein and 20g of fat for $0.58.
Milk is usually a little cheaper than this but you can get it all day long, any day of the week for $3 a gallon so that's the figure I'll use. 24oz will get you 24g of protein 24g of fat, and 36g of carbs for $0.60. Since whole milk is not more expensive than skim milk you might as well get the free fat/calories if you need them.
These cost about 90 cents a lb. if you buy the dry beans. 1 1/2 cups of cooked beans will get you 24g protein, 42g of carbs, minimal fat, and 24g of fiber for $0.45.
Whey Protein Powder
I get mine from TrueNutrition.com. I am partial to the plain unsweetened, unflavored variety. I typically get whatever is the cheapest whey at the time. I don't care how much fat or carbs is in the mix. I just factor in the cost of protein per serving of 25 grams of protein. Remember that some products have less than 25g of protein per "serving" so you have to do the math and make things equal to get the real story. The nice thing is, TrueNutrition has the nutrition facts for every product right there so you can figure out exactly how much it costs. And the protein at TrueNutrition is always 15 servings per lb. There are no gimmicks or games. So if one whey blend has 19g of protein per scoop, and another has 24, simply multiply each by 15 to find out how many grams of protein you get in a lb. of the stuff. Then divide the cost of 1 lb. by the number of grams of protein. Then, if you want, multiply the result by 25, and that will tell you how much 25g of protein costs. Hypothetical example:
19g of protein per serving, cost per lb. $8.50.
19 multiplied by 15 = 285g of protein per lb.
$8.50 divided by 285 = 0.0298 (basically 3 cents) per gram of protein
0.0298 multiplied by 25 = 0.7456 (75 cents) for 25g of protein.
This is completely hypothetical, I pulled the 19 grams and $8.50 figures out of my ass. This, of course, doesn't factor in shipping charges, so how ever much shipping is, divide that evenly among how many lbs. you are ordering. If shipping was $20 and you were ordering 20 lbs. add $1 to the cost of each lb. then do the calculations above. But if you're debating which type of protein to get, you don't have to factor in shipping to do that comparison. If both proteins have the same amount of protein per serving you don't have to do any math at all.
In any case, I've rambled longer than I intended there. Whey protein typically costs around 50 to 70 cents for 25 grams. It really depends on the source and how much you order. This makes it comparable to the foods listed above. However, it is also a lean source. As such, i wouldn't necessarily use it as a main source of nutrition. But it does have its place as a convenience food. And it's certainly cheap enough to use on a budget. But it's definitely not necessary.
Notes about these foods:
First, this obviously isn't a comprehensive list of protein. I tried to include only the cheapest options. I daresay I've missed some. I'm thinking at the right time of year pork roasts could get very economical. You also have to factor in the bone weight. That's an experiment I haven't run yet so I can't say for sure how they compare. The price often gets down close to $1 per lb. so I'm going to unofficially say it would be comparable, if not cheaper than the sources listed above.
Also, people often talk about beans as though they are dirt cheap. In fact, they are not much cheaper than any of the other sources listed above. So if you like beans, that's cool, but you're not saving a lot of money compared to milk, eggs, chicken, or turkey. However, it should be noted that beans have a lot of fiber, which ultimately limits how much you can eat since you don't want your fiber to be insanely high. Beans also have carbs, but most of the other protein sources have fat, which beans do not. So in a comparison of calories it's basically a wash. 100 calories of carbs costs about 5 to 10 cents. 100 calories of a decent fat, like butter, costs about 8 cents. And it's worth noting that dry beans require you to soak them, then cook them. And sometimes you still don't get every single bean properly cooked. It's annoying to bite into a crumbly half cooked bean. Maybe I just suck at cooking them, but I don't care to use them as a main food source since they aren't that much cheaper anyway.
Like it or not, you do need some fat. Most people will recommend between 50 and 100 grams a day. I don't think there's anything particularly wrong with going higher but you really don't want to go too low. If you are efficient you should just choose sources of protein that already have fat. That way, by the time you get your protein requirements you'll also have enough fat. As such, I don't really give too much though to fat since I don't seek out lean sources of protein. But if it was an issue, butter is about the cheapest source of decent fat that I know of. It costs about 8 cents for 11g of fat (100 calories). There are, of course, other sources of fat like avocados and coconut oil and all that, but that is starting to get into "health food" territory. Since this is about budget dieting, you should just piggyback your fat onto your protein and thus spend no extra money on fat.
However, you should understand that many other cheap sources of calories often have bad fats (vegetable oils) and you could rack up a considerable amount of fat that way, so that is something to keep an eye on. Ramon Noodles, for example, do have 14g of fat mostly from vegetable oils in one package.
I say calories instead of carbs because once protein and fat are squared away that's all that really matters. We can endlessly complicate and refine, but that is beyond the scope of this article. Carbs are by far the cheapest source of calories. So in theory you would get your needed protein and fat and then use the rest of your calories on carbs. That would be the cheapest way to approach it. I'm not saying I endorse this method, so keep reading for the full story, and the ultimate point of this article.
I'm starting with this for two reasons. It is the poster boy for cheap food, although it's not as cheap as it used to be. And most people trying eat on a budget have had this before so they have an idea of the serving size. One packet is 380 calories. I don't consider protein from these kinds of sources to be of good quality so I don't count it. Ramon also has 14g of fat per package so that's worth noting (it's vegetable oil so not good).At Aldi you can get a 12 pack box for $2.10. This comes out to 2,171 calories per dollar.
Pasta is pretty much 89 cents a lb. but if you buy it from Aldi in a 2 lb. box it's only $1.50. This comes out to 2,133 calories per dollar. And you also don't get all the fat from vegetable oil, like with Ramon noodles.
20 lb. bags of this can be had for $11 any day of the week at my local Meijer, which is a big chain grocery store. This equates to 2,948 calories per dollar.
One of the easiest recipes ever. It's essentially flour, butter, salt, baking powder, and water or milk. It comes out to about 2,050 calories per dollar.
If you buy the generic packets at aldi you get 20 for $1.50. If you mix it to full strength it takes 1 cup of sugar, 1 flavor packet, and 2 liters of water. This will cost 29 cents and have about 100 calories per 8oz. Compare this to soda and premixed artificial juices. It's 1/3 of the price. This comes out to 2,670 calories per dollar. I personally like lemonade mixed to half strength, which means makes double the amount but gives half the calories per glass, of course. My main use for this is to add whey powder and make a protein shake.
As far as junk food goes duplex sandwich cookies (generic Oreos, usually with a vanilla cookie on one side and chocolate on the other) are the cheapest source of calories I've yet to find. At Walmart a pack is $1.40 which makes them 2,428 calories per dollar. They do, however, have 2.33 grams of fat (vegetable oil) per cookie.
Notes about these foods:
Clearly I'm not going to list every possible cheap source of calories. We can see a general pattern developing. 2000 to 3000 calories per dollar is approaching the limit of how cheap you can make things in the average non-city locale in the U.S. This bring us to the main points of this article.
Let's say you're 150 lbs. By our low standards that means you'll want at least 120 grams of protein per day. Looking at the foods above we can see that a 25 gram serving of quality protein is costing about 60 cents. Since you'll want 5 of those a day (not that I'm saying you need to split it that way) you'll spend $3 just on your protein. If you chose wisely you should be able to get your 50 to 100 grams of fat from that as well. So then this, in theory, just leaves calories left. Best case scenario, you got about 1400 calories from your fat and protein intake.
How many calories you need is an individual thing. For our hypothetical situation let's just say you need 4,000 a day to fuel your progress in the gym. I'm not saying YOU need this much. You need however much it takes to gain weight at a rate that you feel is appropriate. In any case, it won't effect the bottom line too much since cheap calories are cheap.
In this scenario you would need an additional 2600 calories. The absolute cheapest, that I've found, would be rice, at 2900 calories per dollar. But let's just take an average from all those cheap foods. The average is 2,352 calories per dollar. So you would spend $1.10 to get your 2600 calories. This brings your daily total to $4.10.
Keep in mind this is the theoretical absolute cheapest you could make things, on average. This requires you to eat the cheapest protein, which isn't too big a deal because there are multiple sources. And even harder is the fact that it requires you to eat only the cheapest sources of calories: pasta, rice, and other flour/sugar based items.
Yet the hardest aspect of this is the fact that 2600 calories of these cheap foods is quite a bit of food. To give you an idea, this is what 2600 calories of each food amounts to:
46 "oreo" cookies
13 cups of cooked rice
About 13 biscuits
Just shy of 7 packs of Ramon Noodles
728g (dry) of pasta, this is the (volume) equivilant of 8.5 packs of cooked Ramon
4000 calories of any food is going to be "a lot" for most people in a day. However, variety is the key that makes such a thing moderately easy. If you opt for only the cheapest food sources things become much more difficult. Because while you may be able to eat 2600 extra calories, in addition to your meat and dairy, you might not be able to eat 13 cups of rice, or 7 packs of Ramon, or nearly 2 lbs. of pasta (dry weight). So that is definitely something to keep in mind.
Of course, not everyone needs 4000 calories a day. just because that is what I seem to need at the time, even when pretty sedentary, doesn't mean that's what you need. Maybe you need 3000. It seems like some people need even less. Who are the lucky ones? The guys who "get to" eat 5000 calories a day, or the guys who "don't have to" eat but 2500 calories. The answer is, whichever one you're not, it seems. As they say, the grass isn't greener on the other side, it's green where you water it. In any case, if you need less calories you'll need to eat less food, and thus it will cost less money. But it won't cost that much less, since 75% of our budget goes to protein anyway. And as you get bigger and heavier you'll need more protein, and thus your cost will go up.
But the main point of this article is the most obvious.
YOU STILL NEED MONEY
You can't just go to the gym, eat like a normal skinny kid, and expect to turn into Thor. $4 a day doesn't sound like much, but it's all relative. A strong, aesthetic, functional body is not free. You have to properly nourish yourself. This article talks nothing about health and micro nutrients. I've said nothing about vegetables, fruits, or supplements yet. Just talking on a macro nutrition scale you need a bare minimum of $112 a month for food, assuming you are going for 125g protein and 4000 calories a day. Unless you are particularly small, your protein needs aren't going to be much less than that. Your calorie needs might be a bit lower but that will save you what, 50 cents a day? Fair enough, maybe you only need $100 a month right now, but as your protein needs go up as you grow the food bill will also grow soon enough.
Since you're on Homemade Strength I'm going to assume there's a good change you don't have a gym membership. That saves you money. Still your time is wasted if you don't properly feed yourself. there's no point in having a car if you can't afford gas. Weight lifting is not free. Growing big and strong is not free. It's going to cost you money to build the body you want. Of course it costs everyone to simply stay alive but it costs even more if you want to "upgrade" your body into the beast that it can become. Although I'm calling $120 a month the starting point, that doesn't mean it's "good" or ideal. It is simply theoretically possible. You can purchase enough calories and protein to see progress in the gym with that amount of money, depending on where you live, of course.
So if you can't come up with that much money, your first step is to find a way to do that.
Let me clarify that I do not subscribe to this way of eating. I'm currently getting over double the protein that those studies recommend a day. At this moment, I've got about 10 lbs. of whey in the cupboard, over 20 lbs. of chicken wings plus whole chicken in the freezer. There is literally no room to fit anything more in there. Not to mention a 14 lb. turkey in the fridge; and the holidays are over so that's not for the family. Clearly I'm not trying to skimp by on minimal protein. But nevertheless the studies say what they say. I'm just being candid. This article was a theoretical analysis, not necessarily a recommendation, and certainly not a description of my diet.
I'm simply making the point that if you are literally scrapping by, eating on $20 a week, and trying to get swole, it's probably not going to happen. As I said, make it $30 a week and you can play the game. But more is better, and ideally I'd like to recommend more like $75. This is a lot if you're pulling in, say $1600 a month, which isn't uncommon these days. But you better have your priorities in order before you start bitching about this. If you don't have $300 for good food you don't have $5 for a caramel macchiato everyday. And you certainly don't have $500 to early upgrade your iphone 5 to an iphone 6, as if anyone else gives a shit about your phone. Of course, not everyone strapped for cash is making bad choices. But math remains a cruel whore, and unfortunately the price is non-negotiable.
Until next time,