The first and obvious thing to note is that there is a limit to how cheap you can make things. You have to have SOME amount of money to spend each day on your food. If you don't have enough you're not going to be able to afford everything you need to have a nice diet as a lifter. In other words, if all you can afford is two packs of Ramon each day you're not going to build any muscle. There is no magic here. We can be smart and we can be frugal, but we still need at least about $5 a day. This of course depends on where you live but you'll be hard pressed to get away with much less than that in non-city locals in the States. This is not simply about surviving, it's about building muscle. You don't need 400 grams of protein and 7000 calories a day. You're not Mr. Olympia and you don't need to eat like you are. But you can't just eat 1800 random calories a day and think everything is fine either.
Before we discuss the food items let's quickly run through some money saving tips; obvious as they may be.
- BUY IN BULK. Anything that can be stored long term should be bought in bulk if it turns out that it's cheaper to do so, which it usually is. Meat can be frozen. Dry items like rice keep for a long long time. If you have the money to make the upfront cost this saves you money and time in the long run. I buy rice in 20 lb. bags, as an example.
- BUY WHEN ON SALE. Items that can be stored longer term should be bought only when on sale. I buy family packs of chicken breast only when it's $1.80 or less per lb. Then I buy a lot of it and freeze it. I don't have to buy this for months then. When I'm running low I look out for another sale to stock up again.
- SHOP AROUND. Check out the stores in your area and figure out who has the best prices on the things you buy, especially if you buy a lot of the stuff. I found out that the big chain grocery store where I live, Meijer, is grossly overpriced on eggs. The Aldi has them for as much as $1 less per dozen. Even the local "mom and pop" store has them for 35 cents cheaper per dozen than the Meijer. Needless to say I don't buy eggs at meijer, especially since when I get on an egg kick I eat a dozen a day some times. Alternatively milk is $2.50 to $3.00 at Meijer and Target. Most other places it can be $3.60 a gallon. I'm not saying that you need to go to five different stores every week, but it might be worth an extra stop or two to save some money.
- START A GARDEN. Here's an idea, if you have the space for it, start a garden in the spring. You have to buy some things, like seeds, but for the most part you're talking about as cheap as food can get with gardening. And vegetables can get pretty expensive so growing your own can save a lot of money while allowing you to get a whole slew of micro nutrients you may be lacking due to budget. Of course such things are cheaper in season, which is when you would be growing your own, but still. Choosing stuff you can freeze or pickle or in some way preserve for later use is a good idea because you're going to get a whole bunch of whatever it is you are growing at one time.
- GET A JOB. To those that are young and perhaps still in school, be it high school or college. I would suggest to you that you get a job if you do not already have one. You'll have spending money and then you'll be able to buy better food. This whole muscle building endeavor is better if you can afford to do it the way you want. It's easier and more fun. So if you can find a way to get some more money that would be a good thing to do. You have to make sacrifices in life. It might not be fun to work but it will enhance the rest of your time when you can buy better things.
Now let's get into specific foods, the reason you're probably reading this article. In my experience here are some of the best and cheapest bodybuilding/weightlifting foods if you're on a budget. Obviously prices may vary in your area so you'll have to check this out for yourself.
THINGS YOU SHOULD BUY
This is one of the best. I can get a dozen large eggs for $1.20 at Aldi, and lately they have been 88 cents a dozen. My local mom and pop store has medium eggs for $1. If the label is to be trusted the only difference between the two is 120 calories of fat. In any case, you can't beat this price for what you get. 72 grams of protein and 700 to 800 calories, none from carbs. This is one of the cheapest all around foods. With all that protein and the added calories (assuming it fits into your diet) it's hard to beat eggs. You can also scramble them, hard boil them for easy transport, or blend them into a shake raw. Very versitile.
The best thing about milk is that it's liquid. If this wasn't the case it wouldn't be nearly as good. In terms of content per price it's good but not as good as eggs. A gallon averages $2.75 in my area. If you buy whole milk you get 2400 calories and 125 grams of protein. As a side note, you get quite a bit of lactose (sugar) at something like 190 grams a gallon. Even so, this means that $1 worth of milk is roughly going to give you 42 grams of protein and 800 calories. Good, but like I said, not as good as eggs. But the fact that it's liquid and you can get lower calorie milks make it a useful choice.
Perhaps this is technically a supplement but I want to reference how cheap this is compared to other food so I'm listing it here. I buy my whey protein from TrueNutrtion.com. TN is awesome but you have to keep in mind that they are a bulk supplier. You can buy any amount you want from them but you get discounts for buying a lot. And since you have to pay actual shipping charges it's not lucrative to buy a little at a time. If you want to save maximum amount of money then buying in bulk is the way to go. If you don't want to buy in bulk then TN is not your best option. Body Fortress brand bought from Walmart is a good choice. It currently costs $15 for 2 lbs. which is 25 servings with 25g protein per serving. That comes out to 64 cents per serving. I've had the Body Fortress Vanilla and all I can say is that it makes milk taste like vanilla milkshakes so it's delicious. You can also get the In water it's drinkable but tastes like what it is, vanilla sugar flavored water.
You can also get the Whey Tech Pro 24 from Vitamin Shoppe for $48. It comes out to 63 cents per 25g of protein. I haven't had any of their stuff so I can't comment on that.
TrueNutrtion.com is a reputable company so I trust their quality and I don't mind buying in bulk so that's why I use them.
|The cheapest protein? Depends on how much you buy.|
Before I continue I want to say that protein powder is not essential. Companies obviously want you to buy their products so they advertise it like you can't make any gains without protein powder. The truth is, it's just a food. You do need adequate protein to build muscle. Whether or not it comes from whey powder or any other source doesn't really matter. Whey is an awesome source, and powder is incredibly convenient. But convenient doesn't mean necessary. Some powders are very expensive and if that was the only option I wouldn't use it at all.
When I first wrote this article, TrueNutrition.com had a bulk powder called "Recession whey". It was a whey isolate and concentrate blend, basically comparable to ON Gold Standard but it was half the price. By ordering in bulk (50 lbs. which would last a year at two scoops a day) you could get the price down to 44 cents per scoop (each scoop having 25g protein). That was an awesome deal. That product, however, is no longer available. They have a new product to replace it called "Whey Protein Concentrate - High Grade", and it still is the cheapest source that I know of, as long as you buy enough of it at one time. If you were to buy 50 lbs. of it, it would be 49 cents a scoop (meaning 25g protein per scoop). If you buy 16 lbs. of it, which is the minimum I would ever buy from TN, it will cost about 53 cents per scoop.
They, of course, have more than protein, so you can get all your supplements like creatine there for dirt cheap as well. The whole point of the website, in my view, is to save maximum amount of money by purchasing a whole lot of whatever it is you're buying at one time. If you don't, shipping can screw you. So all around, TN seems to be the cheapest place for any kind of protein powder, and other supplements, as long as you are willing to buy in bulk.
If you do choose to go that route, you can use the coupon code CLS807 at checkout and you'll save 5% on your order. To be honest, anybody can use that code, but when NEW customers use it for their first order it counts towards earning me free protein. That, however, is just a perk. If I didn't use and believe in their stuff I wouldn't be writing about it. So thanks for anyone who does use code CLS807. I appreciate it and it helps me out by lowering my food bill..
That being said, (sorry if you felt like that was a commercial) that is the cheapest source of protein powder of which I know. If you know a cheaper source leave a comment. The cost comes in around 50 to 55 cents per serving, which is 25 grams of protein. This makes it comparable to meat and milk, and that's ultimately the point I want to make. Protein powder doesn't have to be expensive. it doesn't have to be 80 cents a scoop or $1 a scoop or $2 a scoop. Basic protein is only about 50 cents a scoop. And because it is so convenient it definitely has a place in a lifter's diet, even if you're on a budget. Buying milk or chicken, for the purpose of more protein won't save you any money. Of course, whole foods usually have more calories which can be a good thing, two birds one stone and all that.
I wait until the family packs of chicken breast go on sale for $1.70 to $1.80 a lb. then I stock up on them. This puts their price point at 45 cents per serving of 25 grams of protien. Just like the protein powder. Obviously they are a lean source so no extra calories.
The fattiest, and therefore the cheapest, not to mention the extra free calories, they sell in stores is 70/30. Aldi's has this for $2.20 a lb. If you need the extra calories it ends up being comparable to chicken breast. Since the chicken doesn't have as many calories, if you made those up with a cheap source, like white rice, the end result is that the ground beef versus the chicken and rice is basically the same macros for the same price. So if you need the calories, ground beef is an alternative to chicken and rice. And you don't get all the carbs. You can usually get frozen boxed beef patties for pretty cheap as well. It's cheaper than ground beef from the meat counter, which goes on sale for $3 a lb. But the frozen patties are not as good of quality. They have basically been reduced to complete mush and then pressed into patties.
This is the only grain I eat. Or I should say it's the only grain I don't have any reservation about eating in abundance. I don't go in for all that whole grain stuff given that they are chocked full of phytates and anti-nutrients and gluten and such. I'm just not interested in that. White rice is essentially empty calories, but then again this isn't always a bad thing. Post workout for example. I can get a 20 lb. bag of Riceland brand rice for $10 on sale. That comes out to something like 3 cents per 100 calories. You might be able to find even bigger bags for even cheaper per lb. but in the stores I go to 20 lbs. is the biggest.
I mean regular, not sweet potatoes. There's anything wrong with sweet potatoes, they just aren't as cheap. Again a good source of cheap calories for post workout. These end up being something like 9 cents per 100 calories. And they lend themselves to taking copious amounts of butter to pack on even more delicious and cheap calories.
I mean butter, as in cream, not margarine, not vegetable spread, not I can't believe it's not butter. I've found that Aldi is the cheapest place for this. It can get as low as $2 a lb. It ends up being about 7 cents for 100 calories. Butter freezes well so when it's on a big sale buy a lot of it and freeze it to hold you over until the next sale. I should mention that I'm of the mind that butter is good and processed oils are bad. I understand that many people hold a blood feud against saturated fat and would therefore like to persecute me for recommending butter. I have no problem with you if you believe that saturated fat is going to kill you. I personally think the trans fats and ridiculous amount of inflammatory poly unsaturated fat (omega 6) in the hydrogenated and processed oils is going to kill you. We'll just agree to disagree, or not. But yes, I love butter and eat an absurd amount of it. It's a great way to keep your calories up if you're a so called "hardgainer" who doesn't eat enough.
Also, I'm aware of Kerrygold grass fed butter. But that is expensive stuff and this is an article about saving money. Obviously in an ideal world we would eat raw milk and grass fed everything from local farms. And if you have the money to do so, please do it. And if it offends you that not everyone is doing it, send us all the money and, at least I, will gladly use it to buy grass fed meat and dairy.
First, there's nothing wrong with cottage cheese; but I usually don't buy it. The reason is because it's more expensive than milk. Cottage cheese is at least $2.75 for the big tub, which has like 80 grams of protein in it and a total of 660 calories. And this is the full fat stuff. A gallon of milk has 125 grams of protein and up to 2400 calories. So in terms of price per content the cheese isn't a great value. Although it has a lot of sugar, remember that the protein in milk is mostly casein too.
Now if you want the cottage cheese for all the, mostly isolated, casein so you can have it before bed okay. I'm more of the mind that it's not gonna freaking matter if you take whey versus casein. These are minor details that people get obsessed about. As if you're not gonna make gains because your protein digested "too fast" tonight. Do you really think you go all catabolic by not digesting food 24/7? Get real, we'd be extinct if our bodies were that fickle.
So that being said, for $2.75 I could get 6 scoops of protein powder, which is 150 grams of protein, nearly twice what I get with cottage cheese. I'll take double the whey, thank you very much. Just wake up in the middle of the night and have an extra serving of whey if you're that concerned about digesting food at all times. This way you'll get even more total grams of protein. Nothing against cottage cheese. I think it's delicious and whenever I go to a salad bar, my "salad" is little more than cottage cheese, ham, and eggs.
Tuna can be a good source of lean protein too. Depending on the price it may or may not be quite as good as chicken. In my area tuna costs about 70 cents a can when on sale. This means it's more expensive than whey protein or chicken. Tuna would have to be less than 50 cents a can to be comparable. But if you like tuna it's a good source. Just because it's not the cheapest doesn't mean it's not cheap. I don't eat mayonaise, nor do I eat bread or pasta. So I'm at a loss for what to do with canned tuna. I'm not gonna eat it straight out of the can. I'll just buy chicken because it's cheaper anyway. And if I want a quick snack I'll just use whey protein, again cheaper.
I'm not a huge fan of oats. I occasionally go on a binge and eat oats for breakfast for a few week. They aren't technically the best food but nor are they the worst. They don't contain gluten but they are still a grain and have phytates and whatnot. But for what it's worth they are a cheap food source. Though how anyone can tolerate them when prepared with water instead of milk is something I don't know.
Peanut butter really fills me up. And as a guy who has always been lean and never had a problem staying that way, my problem will always be making sure I eat enough. So I typically avoid a lot of peanut butter for this reason. That being said, it is a cheap source of calories and has some nice protein content as well. Natural peanut butter isn't much more money than the regular stuff so I recommend the natural version, just peanuts and salt. At $3.00 a jar, it comes in at about 13 cents for 100 calories. Of course, for every 100 calories you're also getting about 4 or 5 grams of protein as well. Peanut butter doesn't last forever but it will keep for a long time so you can stock up when it's on sale if you eat a lot.
You can also make protein bars by freezing peanut butter mixed with protein powder and honey. The texture is delightful. I simply have to figure out how to put a chocolate coating over it, like a snickers, without using artificial sugars. When I do that I'll be sure to post an article because that would be an amazing high protein, no junk food candy bar right there. I'm finding it difficult to come up with a way to make chocolate without sugar. I'm not even sure if it's possible.
POTASSIUM RICH FOODS
Potassium is an important electrolyte. Because of weird government restrictions, it's also something you cannot supplement effectively. There is a legal limit of 99 mg doses for potassium supplements. The current recommended intake of potassium for a normal person (not an athlete or lifter) is about 3500 mg. You're not going to take that many pills. So you pretty much have to get it from food. Some people will get enough without trying but some of you may not be getting enough. In order to assist you in making an effort to do so, the following are some foods high in potassium:
Potatoes with the skin left on
a typical serving of potatoes is 150 grams. This contains roughly 700 mg of potassium. This is a great source because I've already mentioned that potatoes are really cheap and a good source of carbs. So in addition to that they have a lot of potassium. Eat just two 150 gram potatoes in a day and that's already 1400 mg of potassium.
A single 8 oz. serving has 450 mg of potassium. Not a bad choice to start the day.
A single 8 oz serving has 350 mg of potassium.
The poster boy for potassium. An average banana weighs in the range of 120 grams and has just over 400 mg of potassium.
It depends on the type of bean but a cup of cooked beans has between 600 and 1000 mg of potassium. And of course they have lots of protein and fiber as well. Beans do have anti-nutrients though and I'm not sure if the benefits outweigh the negatives.
Leafy Greens like Spinach
Veggies like this aren't necessarily cost effective but they do have about 500 mg of potassium per 100 grams (raw weight).
I'll just classify it all together since it's similar. Meat typically has about 300 mg of potassium per 4 oz (raw weight). Obviously meat is awesome and this is just one more reason why. If you eat a lot of meat that could go a long way toward your potassium needs. For every lb. of meat you get about 1200 mg of potassium.
So you can see, 1 lb. of meat, a few potatoes, some spinach, a banana and a glass of OJ in the morning, copious amounts of milk for good measure, and you're good to go on potassium. But you could easily fall into a diet that doesn't get enough potassium. If you don't eat that much meat or milk and "can't afford" vegetables you may find yourself low on potassium. As a lifter it's probably better to not be in that situation. These, of course, aren't the only foods that have potassium in it. You can look up your favorite foods online to see if they have any significant amount of potassium. I just wanted to bring the subject up since it's an important nutrient and it's something you can't effectively supplement with a pill. Your multivitamin does not help you here. It probably doesn't even have potassium in it, and if it did it could only legally contain 99 mg anyway.
THINGS YOU SHOULD AVOID
The concept is simple, you should buy food and avoid food like products. Cookies, crackers, canned soups, TV dinners etc. The fact is this stuff isn't as cheap because you pay for the product development and marketing and for the name brand. If you want to eat junk make things at home out of white flour and white sugar. Those are probably the two cheapest sources of calories that you can buy. Flour is something like 4700 calories per dollar and sugar is not far behind at something like over 3000.
Now I'm not recommending that you eat these things at all, just saying if you want junk and want to save money make your own junk out of the raw materials that the junk products are made out of. In other words, if it's cheap junk calories you're after throw some sugar into your protein shake instead of buying Oreos. Make a breading out of egg and flour for your chicken instead of eating Doritos. You can make biscuits as home with nothing more than a bit of baking powder, some flour, margarine, and a little milk. If you want junk calories that's the cheap way to go about it. And yes they are delicious biscuits. You get the point. Heavily marketed products are not as cheap as basic food ingredients. I rarely go down the aisles of the supermarket since most of the "real food" is around the outer edges.
Also, I have to touch on the subject of fast food even though it's obvious. Your overall best bet in terms of economy is the McDouble from McDonalds. Taco Bell has a burrito that is actually cheaper in terms of calories but it has less protein. Still that's something to consider. In any case you are getting something like 400 calories and, if you don't count that which comes from the bun which you shouldn't, 17 grams of protein for a dollar. This is, of course, a horrible value just based on price per content. The only value in it would be the taste and the convenience. Eat fast food if you want to but don't kid yourself about it being the cheapest or healthiest option. If you're on a budget and you're eating out regularly, stop it.
|Though it won't look this pretty, the McDouble is probably your cheapest fast food source of cals and protein.|
I've mentioned protein powder already because that is often a major staple in a lifter's diet. As far as other supplements go I like to keep it basic. If you're on a budget you need to keep it basic. Don't get sucked in by all the hype. Even if most of this stuff works it's not like going without Jack3d or Nox5000SpaceOddessy is going to really stop you from making gains. At best, this highly marketed stuff gives a minor costly advantage. At worst it's just a waste of money. So here are some basic things, and of course basic means cheap.
When I was a teenager I used to think creatine was akin to steroids. I think a lot of uneducated people still do. I'm not sure why people think that. maybe it's because creatine works, or maybe it's because athletes accused of steroid use in the 90s said they took creatine. In any case creatine is nothing like steroids. It's nutrition. It's found in red meat. And it belongs in the same category as your multivitamin and minerals, or perhaps with your macronutrients since it's what your muscles use for energy when doing short duration work (ATP).
That aside, creatine is one of the few supplements that actually works and the science and research is there to prove it, plus the anedotal evidence of nearly every lifter who tries it. It's also dirt cheap, as long as you buy the basic Creatine Monohydrate, which is what all the research is about anyway. You don't need anything fancy. CreaPure is the quality German source of creatine so that's probably worth getting. Whether you get micronized or not is up to you. It might be in all in my head but when I tried a generic brand of creatine I didn't notice anything. But when I tried Optimum Nutrition creatine it did see some gains. They were both micronized and both CreaPure, so who knows. Maybe I'm just crazy. In any case, creatine monohydrate is all you need. You don't need these ethyl esters and whatnot.
If you're on a budget you're not going to be getting copious amounts of fruits and vegetables. As such I recommend a cheap multi-vitamin (prefereably one with some minerals, like zinc, as well if possible). Maybe it works maybe it doesn't but it's super cheap so it's worth it just on the chance that it might help. The trick with this is to wait until the store has a buy one get one free deal, which they have all the time at CVS or Wallgreens or your local grocery store. They usually all have them at the same time. When they do, buy the biggest bottle they have. This way you'll get two of the biggest bottles for the price of one. This will last you like 8 months or more and cost a few cents a day.
NatureMade brand is a decent choice. And when I say "decent" I mean it's better than the generic store brand but still just as cheap. Again buy when on BOGO sale and get the big bottles. Storing these in the fridge is probably a good idea. No need to stock up, they have the BOGO sales all the time so just buy one, and get one free. Again pennies a day, and when I say that I mean less than 5 cents a day. Of course it depends how much you take. Most recommend more than what the bottle calls a serving. But in this regard you have to do what your budget allows.
I personally favor fish oil in a bottle rather than the gel caps since I would rather not swallow that many large pills and instead just chug a 1/8 cup of the oil. The pills seem to be cheaper though. Another thing to keep in mind is the amount of OMEGA 3 fatty acids in each pill/serving. 1000 mg of FISH OIL is not 1000 mg of OMEGA 3s. So if you want 3000 mg of OMEGA 3s each day, just an example, you will have to take more like 12 grams of fish oil. I think that's a common mistake. Just be aware of that, if you are advised or decide to take a certain amount of OMEGA 3s via fish oil.
If your multi doesn't have zinc you might consider supplementing it separately. Even if it does it probably doesn't have a lot (15mg) so you might want to add extra. Again, same deal as above, BOGO all the way. It's free suppliments, why would you ever buy if it's not BOGO?
Here's the thing to consider with magnesium. It's pretty much a vital mineral and as a weightlifter you need even more of it because of the physical stress that goes with lifting weights. You also lose magnesium through your sweat. You use it when you consume sugar. And farmers do not fertilize their soil with magnesium so the soil is very depleted which means the food you eat has very little magnesium in it. It's basically a must use supplement. But here's the catch. Cheap magnesium pills use magnesium oxide. This is garbage and your body only absorbs about 4% of it. You need to find a supplement other than magnesium oxide. There are many. There's magnesium citrate, magnesium malate, chelated magnesium, There are many to choose from and some are better than others. One thing is for sure though, and that is do not use magnesium oxide. You're just wasting your time. So you can't really go the super market BOGO with this one. And if you start taking magnesium and notice you have loose stool then dial back the dosage or switch types. Some types do not have this effect and some do.
If you're trying to replicate what's in ZMA you'll need to supplement at least like 6mg of B6 a day. I don't do this. My intention was never to replicate the ZMA formula. I'd say I get about 2mg from diet and my multi has another 2mg. ZMA has like 11mg in it and the recommended normal daily intake is less than 2mg. Most B6 supplements are 100mg doses which is way beyond ZMA formula. Even if you cut the pills into quarters that's still more than you need. You could go with a B-complex, I suppose, which usually has more like 10mg of B6 as well as other vitamins.
For the most part pre-workout supps are based on caffeine anyway. I just buy the Jet Alert from Walmart and cut the pills in half. That's 100 mg doses then and it lasts over a year. All for less than $4. So that's like 7 cents a week if you lift three times a week. Sometimes I lift four times a week, but the extra session usually isn't enough to warrant a pre-workout jolt.
|Found this when dumping out the shop vac, that damn near pays for my whole supplement stack for the day.|
In other words, do the best you can. And if reality tells you it's not good enough, then find a way to do better.