(Updated September 2014) It’s May 1st, 2010 and Shane and I just graduated from university a few days earlier. We’re living in a high-rise apartment with our good friend Payam in a less than ideal neighbourhood. We’re just starting our “Muscle May” experiment – a one month challenge Shane presented to Payam and me. The idea was to have all three of us roommates hold one another accountable for 30 days of an extreme diet and exercise change.
At this point I have about $500 left on my nearly maxed out credit card, $38 in my bank account, and no savings. To make matters worse I have no income streams, as Shane and I just started up our design business a few days earlier. We’re looking for our next client, are in the process of applying for a business loan, and rent payments are coming up.
“Wait, so I’m going to need to spend more money on groceries?” I say, weighing in at a soaking wet 130 pounds of pure bone and a large head.
“No, you’re going to need to spend a normal amount on groceries. You’re horribly underfeeding your body right now. We all are.” Shane responded.
“How the heck am I supposed to pay for rent, more food and these supplements you keep talking about … like this nitrous oxide–“
“– it’s nitric oxide. Nitrous oxide is what you put in your car.” Shane cut me off. “And it’s only for 30 days. Plus, some supplements, like protein powder, are actually cheaper than real food.”
Fast forward 30 days and I’m now 30 pounds heavier than I was before. (22 pounds from the nutrition and training + 8 pounds from the creatine.) I feel pretty damn incredible. But it looks like I better figure out a way to pay for this new “normal” amount of groceries. Inside are the top 17 tricks I’ve found for cutting costs over the past 2 and a half years without compromising results.
Make a budget but don’t kill yourself over it
I read that creating a budget will make you more financially aware and improve your buying decisions regardless of whether or not you actually even follow it. A budget will give you a good idea of how much you can afford to spend on food (and supplements if you choose to opt for them). A budget might dictate whether or not you buy organic, buy that prime rib roast, or buy butter.
What you don’t need to do is beat yourself up over the budget. You don’t need to freak out, count pennies or cut coupons. The main goal here is to increase your financial awareness of the costs of certain foods and where you’re spending your money. You can use a great tool like Mint.com to help with budgeting – no need for a pen, paper and an oversized calculator.
Skip going organic
Organic foods are usually quite a bit more expensive so, if you’ve got a tight budget, opting for conventional is just fine. There’s actually a lack of scientific data indicating that organic food is even better for your health at all. That isn’t to say that there aren’t any differences, advantages and disadvantages, as some studies indicate that there are, but rather that you likely wouldn’t notice them – especially in the short term. There’s perhaps a bit more ascorbic acid in organic potatoes and vegetables, and perhaps a bit more vitamin C and nitrate … but we’re talking about very small differences here that aren’t even being reproduced successfully between different studies. (Studies: 1, 2, 3, 4.)
So is going completely conventional going to stop you from improving your health and gaining 20 pounds of muscle? Nope – it won’t even slow you down.
The real organic vs conventional debate comes down to environmental factors, like what pesticides are doing to our earth. That’s a totally different matter, up to our policy makers and our personal choices. On the flip side, there are potential opportunities and advantages that science may present. We’re going to leave this one up to you, your wallet and your values.
Choose cheaper cuts of meat
“Cheap cut” doesn’t mean the meat is worse – it all comes off the same cow of the same health. The muscles that a cow uses the most frequently and the most intensely become tougher, and thus less desirable. It has nothing to do with what’s good for your body. So, for example, eating stew cuts of beef would give your body the exact same building blocks as a tender steak, you’d just need to either cook the meat slower and longer (to make that collagen in the meat nice and tender), pound the heck out of it with a meat tenderizer, or buy ground beef where the muscle/collagen tension is physically ground out. During Muscle May, Shane and I ate a lot of flank, plate, and blade steak. It didn’t taste as good as a sirloin steak since we didn’t know how to cook much back then but it did the trick. Cooking with cheap cuts is a great way to keep costs low, which is why our recipe book includes recipes like stew and chili. I still buy lots of stew cuts today and cook a huge stew once a month.
Now at this point you might be thinking, but Jared, what about grass fed beef – that does come from a different cow! Similar to organic veggies, organic grass fed beef has been hyped left right and centre. Some studies have come out showing its superiority and the health crew have gone wild.
One advantage people talk about is that grass fed beef has a higher omega 3 content – and it does. In order to get a gram of omega 3s from conventional beef you’d need to eat 416g of beef fat, whereas to get that same amount from organic grass fed beef you’d need to eat “just” 114g of fat. To put that in perspective, you’d get twice that amount from a single walnut. So let’s be real here – we aren’t getting significant amounts of omega 3s from our beef. Since the fatty cuts are the expensive ones, and grass fed beef has low fat content to begin with, trying to get your omega 3s from grass fed beef would bankrupt a millionaire. (study)
Another argument in favour of grass fed beef is that it’s richer in antioxidants but, similar to the argument for omega 3s, it’s far more cost effective to get that from cheaper goods (like veggies).
If you’re worried about antibiotics then dodge the fatty cuts (which are more expensive anyway). Almost all the antibiotics and toxins that are in a cow are stored in their fat, so just don’t eat the fat lining the edge, and when you’re buying ground meat go extra-lean.
Go part-time vegetarian (the manly way)
I realized Shane and I were eating pretty much like a vegetarians during some of the harder months in our business. Meat and dairy isn’t cheap (milk, greek yogurt, cheese, etc.). What you can do instead is have a couple peanut butter and jam sandwiches (basic carbs, fats and protein). Although it lacks some key components, like vegetables, I can’t think of a cheaper bulking meal. If you’re short on protein just toss in a whey protein shake.
This presents a muscle-building and health dilemma though, since animal products contain dietary cholesterol, and dietary cholesterol is tied to natural testosterone production. (Our bodies create testosterone out of cholesterol.) Less testosterone means less muscle, more fat, a weaker immune system and less masculinity.
The solution here is chicken eggs. One egg has the same amount of dietary cholesterol as a hearty 8oz steak, and contains a staggering list of muscle building nutrients and high quality healthful fats.
Keep in mind that dietary cholesterol isn’t any kind of villain. It’s trans fats, like those found in fried foods, that will give you cholesterol problems. If you’re a lean healthy ectomorph, a diet rich in hearty and healthy dietary cholesterol is great. (Studies: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5)
So feel free to cut costs by getting the bulk of your calories and protein from dirt cheap dishes like (homemade) refried beans, lentil stew, etc., and then whip up some eggs to keep yourself a masculine muscle-building machine.
Carbs don’t need to be expensive
You’re an ectomorph doing strength-training – 50% or more of your calories should probably be coming from carbs. Potatoes, bread, and rice are some of the cheapest calories out there, and your body can use them to build fearsome amounts of muscle. Potatoes are the healthiest of the trio, and once you start lifting heavy weights there are a lot of vitamins and minerals in them that are great for stimulating muscle growth … and you can buy a 5 or 10 pound bag for only a couple bucks. Sweet potatoes and yams are pretty fantastic, too.
(No, fast food french fries don’t count – but feel free to make them yourself in your oven.)
Supplements can be cheaper than whole foods
This is because some supplements are also made up of macronutrients (protein, carbs, fats) and often have none of that pesky micronutrient stuff that your body needs to feel and work well. Once you start training you may realize that you suddenly need a lot more protein, and a scoop of protein powder is a lot cheaper than a chicken breast. It’s not as rich in vitamins and minerals, but so long as you’re eating a balanced diet made up mostly of whole foods, you’ll be okay. Aside from usually being cheaper, supplements are generally in powder form and downed as a liquid, i.e., they’ll be easier to squeeze into your day without taking too much of your time or appetite away.
Some supplements that replace whole foods:
- Fish oil replaces fats, and is the exception to the lower in nutritional content rule. Fish oil is rich in EPA and DHA which are two of the healthiest omega 3s out there and great for staying lean and building muscle.
- Maltodextrin and dextrose replace carbs. If you buy these at a supplement store they can be expensive (check out the tub of waxi maize next time you’re there) but bought at a grocery or bulk food store they’re the cheapest macronutrients out there.
- Whey, casein, egg albumin, pea and rice protein powders replace whole food protein. Try to get some unprocessed protein in your diet too, but feel free to sub these guys in to save some money.
Keep in mind there are also a ton of supplements that don’t add calories. Many of these are vitamin and mineral supplements of varying effectiveness, but the really expensive ones that muscle-builders often squander their money on are a type of supplement called ergogenics. (If you’re a supplement newbie you’ll probably recognize the king of ergogenics: caffeine. It’s used to power a ton of supplements, from NO2Explode to Superpump.)
These supplements contain a whole slew of pump-up ingredients. They’re sort of like the Redbull of working out, and they won’t make you big – just wired. These supplements are expensive for a few reasons: they’re trendy, require a ton of marketing and promotion, require a ton of research and development, they’re kind of addictive … and supplements in general have a ridiculous profit margin. You can make equally awesome gains with or without ’em, so they should be the first thing you cut when trying to cut costs.
(One exception to the rule is good old creatine monohydrate. It’s classic and effective, the novelty has long since worn off, and it’s actually pretty affordable. You’ll find that the trendy “new and improved” derivatives of creatine variations are expensive though, so stick to monohydrate.)
Drink our home-made sugar/protein drinks surrounding your workout
Speaking of cheap supplements, this is the absolute cheapest way to crush 1000 calories of body-building nutrients. We designed our home-made workout drink for results above all else, and it’s just an added bonus that the ingredients are so affordable.
Just so you know, some of the links below have affiliate links out to Amazon so we’d get a small portion of the sale (around 2-3%) in case you see anything helpful! Thanks, we appreciate it!
Maltodextrin (60% of the drink) is one of the cheapest foods on the earth. You can buy pounds of the stuff with the nickels and dimes accumulating in your change pocket.
Whey protein (30% of the drink) is the cheapest source of protein out there, too. And since you’re putting the drink together yourself, you’re not paying for the marketing and research costs that are normally tacked onto a pre-packaged weight gainer or intra-workout supplement.
This our homemade approach, and it weighs in at something like 1/7th the cost of Optimum Nutrition’s Serious Mass. Why is ours so much cheaper? Because you aren’t paying an arm and a leg for marked up maltodextrin, marketing and (profit) margins. It also doesn’t taste very good.
Go straight to the source (farmers or farmers market)
Speaking of profit margins, supplement and health food stores are known for having the highest. Grocery stores, on the other hand, are known in the business world for having the lowest margins but they do still have them. If you live in a rural area with farmers nearby or if you live in a city with a farmers market, you could save yourself some bucks or up the quality of your food by cutting out the middle man.
Shop online for the best deal
Another way to avoid paying for the costs of maintaining and operating a retail space is to order online. If the cheapest supplements this month are on Amazon.com, grab ’em there. If you found a wicked deal on Bodybuilding.com, go for it. Do a little pre-planning for when you’ll need to order supplements again so you won’t need to go to the mall to get emergency protein that’s $20 dollars more than online. Be careful where you order from though – shipping or duties/taxes could make your planned bargain a loss. If you know you love the supplement, you can buy in bulk to avoid paying for that shipping and handling over and over again, too.
Some good supplements at good prices:
- Maltodextrin – the cheapest carb on the planet, and fantastic in workout shakes.
- Whey protein – isolate (high quality) with a bit of added glutamine.
- NutraSea – fish oil for the buff and healthy beasts out there.
- Creatine Monohydrate – the most effective and the most cost-efficient kind.
If something is on sale, buy a ton of them.
Almost all food has an expiry date … if it doesn’t, it might not be real food. But some expiry dates are for a year or two from now. When your favourite protein powder is on sale for 30% off – buy as much as you can without going over your budget. When my favourite peanut butter goes on sale, I’m buying 12. Shane has his entire freezer full of frozen berries that he bought half off. Here are some items that are worth stocking up on if you see them on sale:
- Peanut or basically any kind of nut butter
- Cans or jars of nearly anything (coconut milk, tuna, beans, jam)
- Supplements with a long shelf life (almost all of them)
Buying from a bulk-store like Costco or Sam’s is another great way of buying in bulk. The USDA did a study and 86% of food is cheaper at a bulk-store, which is awesome, but keep in mind that also means that 14% of food is actually more expensive at big bulk stores. So pay attention (without being neurotic).
The last piece of advice I have for buying in bulk is to keep it to the basics – foods you know you’ll never grow tired of. If the thing you’re buying in bulk has a flavour, don’t buy something that sounds like it could be good like watermelon or banana flavoured because you already know it’s going to taste awful. Stick to the basics and don’t buy food in bulk that isn’t already a staple in your diet.
Swap out the junk food
Eating a nice, big, healthy meal before you shop is the best trick to curb any impulse junk food cravings. Aside from not being good for your mental health, your mood, fat gains, or probably your skin – junk food is expensive. Remember how I said I didn’t have much more money to spend on food? I replaced my daily bag of chips with another chicken breast, I swapped out my eggo waffles for a dozen eggs, and my delicious cans of Dr. Pepper were swapped out for milk. Damn, that Dr. Pepper was a tough one.
Skip the processed food
Even if food is labeled as healthy, the more processed it is the more expensive and junk-foody it is. For example, some people like buying the yogurt with the jam on the bottom. Seemingly healthy … and deceptively more expensive. See, even if you’re paying the same price as normal yogurt, a portion of that expensive and nutritious yogurt has been replaced with cheap and nutritionless sugar. But it’s still the same price as the plain yogurt.
If you want a healthy way to eat flavoured yogurt, buy plain yogurt and add in fresh/frozen berries or a dollop of raw honey. If you want a cheap way to eat yogurt, just buy a cheap jar of jam and mix the flavour in yourself – or get used to the taste of plain yogurt.
Usually the more work that goes into something the more expensive it is, but some foods are processed as a way of cutting costs, making them cheaper than that same food au naturale. It used to upset me that I had to pay more for real peanut butter than for processed peanut butter … until I understood why.
Ground up peanuts (let’s call that “peanut butter”) are more expensive than Skippy, Kraft, Peter Pan, Jif or whatever else because those brands take out the precious peanut oil and replace it with a cheaper and less nutritious oil, like soybean oil. And then they mix in sugar – the cheapest ingredient on earth. Look at the ingredients of Peter Pan – there are like 7 ingredients in there that have nothing to do with peanuts. Your peanut butter should just say ‘peanuts’ or ‘roasted peanuts’ and, perhaps, ‘salt’.
Don’t eat out and learn to be a good cook
Obviously, eating in is much cheaper and 99% of the time healthier too, since you control what’s in it. I would say it’s better to invest in something like the 4 Hour Chef for 25 bucks and learn how to cook well forever than blow money by going out every time you want to eat well. 4 Hour Chef is not your mom’s cookbook with a bunch of hard-to-make recipes. It’s a book full of simple lessons that bring you from a non-cook to a damn-good cook over the period of a couple months. Unlike a recipe book, it focuses on building blocks of knowledge rather than just following steps. The meals are cost efficient and health conscious, too.
I used to hate cooking and now I love it. The biggest switch for me was buying a good knife that I keep sharp, never cooking hungry, and always having meals I cooked in bulk stored in the freezer so I don’t need to cook when I’m not up to it. I blend up a quick shake and then start cooking. If I’m already starving, I won’t bother cooking at that point, since it becomes a test of willpower and mood control. I’d much rather go for a quick peanut butter and jam sandwich and worry about cooking once I’m satisfied. If you’ve got a wife or kids to look after, prepare a quick snack and then start cooking. No reason to make it stressful.
These days I eat out because I love going to great restaurants. I now only go to art restaurants where the food is prepared and served beautifully. I don’t bother with franchises or lacklustre restaurants anymore. With the money you pay to eat there you could buy a higher quality steak from the butcher and BBQ/panfry it yourself for much cheaper. You do know how to cook a steak right? Remember, it doesn’t cost more to be a good cook. It just takes some knowledge (Youtubing) & quality practice.
Learn to cook more dishes with less ingredients
We typically throw out 50% of our food because it has gone bad. Why has it gone bad? Take a look in your fridge … how many ingredients are in there slowly dying? If you improve your skills as a cook, you can keep minimal ingredients yet still have lots of variety using different spice combinations and different cooking techniques (braising, frying, baking, ziploc sous-vide, etc.). Keep dried spices and canned foods on hand for variety, and avoid buying bundles of fresh herbs, like parsley unless you can consistently use them up.
Aside from less food being thrown out, eating the same ingredients more consistently will allow you to track your calories effortlessly while you’re trying to bulk up.
Only buy in-season or frozen foods
Buying foods out of season have a cost. It’s hard to understand what “out of season” means when we always have foreign fresh foods available to us but rest assured you will pay a bit more for out of season fruits and veggies, exotic or not. I eat frozen foods all the time and so long as you don’t nuke ’em, they taste pretty damn good. They’re fresh and healthy, too, since they’re frozen at peak ripeness and top nutritiousness.
Eat your current cupboard
If you’re really broke (and trust me, you’ll know if you reached that point) you’ll begin to realize that the weird stuff in the back of your cupboard actually sounds really, really good. Almost gourmet like. Suddenly eating a can of chickpeas with canned tuna using a spoon sounds like the best idea. Dust off that can and dig in!
Don’t cheap out on the things that matter
This article was written with the intention that your goal is to get beastly and save money. Don’t think you’re doing your fitness goals any favours by skimping on calories or the amount of food you’re eating. Those 200-300 calories every day you’re skimping on could be enough to supercharge your muscle growth.
Don’t cheap out on your gym either. Shane and I train at a gym called 99 Sudbury, which is by no means the cheapest gym in Toronto. We train there because we love it. We think it’s the best strength training gym in Toronto. The members/staff are nice, the training area looks badass, they’ve got all the equipment we need, and most of all it gives us the motivation to get up and get out. All of a sudden training isn’t a chore – it’s as fun as grabbing a beer at the local bar with your friends. If your gym isn’t motivating you (because you need to always need to wait for equipment, it has harsh white walls, you don’t like the crowd, or it isn’t an environment suitable for strength training) maybe it’s time to find one that works better for you. The point of money is for you to spend it on things that make life better, so if spending it increases your enjoyment of life then it’s money well spent.
Lastly, don’t cheap out on your workout program. It’d be a shame to buy more groceries, a gym membership (or home-gym equipment), gear, supplements … and then use a less than ideal program that could leave you with no results, put all your “gains” in the wrong places, or leave your body more injury prone than ever before. Prioritize what you’re willing to invest in and maybe leave the tub of N02XPLODE back on the shelf.
- A good plan
- Calorie rich and relatively nutritious food (or supplements)
- A membership at a rad gym (or home gym)
And there you have it! You may have noticed I didn’t mention coupons – I personally don’t bother with coupons. I find that usually goes beyond being frugal and crosses into cheapskate territory (there is a big difference). Paying attention to sales is enough for me.
We also aren’t saying never buy your buds a round of drinks, go to a show, take your girl out on a date, or pay a premium to support the values that you believe (say, never paying for slave labour). Part of the beastly lifestyle is never letting anything become an unhealthy obsession, compromise your values, or become stressful to the point that it lowers the quality of your life.
So if you want to eat out – be realistic, budget it in and eat out guilt-free. To paraphrase the financial author Robert Kiwosaki it’s not too helpful to advise people to live within their means – that advice will crush anyone’s spirit. It’s all about expanding peoples’ means. These are ways to maintain a high quality of life without wasting money, not how to live like a poor person so you can be buried in a bedazzled gold coffin.
– But I do know the reality that at certain points in our life, most of us will need to pay careful attention to our budgets and make sacrifices in order to accomplish our goals. So I hope this helps a bit man!
P.S. when it comes to gym gear there’s no reason to go crazy. Throw on an old band tee, any old (non-denim) shorts or sweatpants, and stick to cheap flat-soled shoes like Vans or Converse. (With lifting all you need is a flat sole – no need for expensive spiderman shoes.)
P.P.S. if you’ve got any bits of wisdom to share, leave it in the comments below.