10 Strategies for Eating Well on Keto When Short of Cash

Roasted Chicken Thighs on a Wooden Board
Money tight? You can still do Keto
and eat well, even on a budget!

Several years ago, I came across a food article on a website called Wallet Pop. It was written by a dad of a college student who attempted to share how a college kid could eat well for only $35 a week.

At $35, you'd only be spending about $5 a day, for all three meals and snacks, so the amount is a bit behind the times, but the tips and strategies to help you eat well when you're short of cash are still relevant today -- even for those doing Keto.

In addition to the tips included in the article, the author posted a sample week's menu which he clearly stated was a no-frills, survival menu only. He also placed a disclaimer right above the menu that said "prices will vary depending upon where you live and shop."

Although, that appears to be a no-brainer, at least to me, most people who read the article, or at least part of it, totally ignored the disclaimer the dad wrote and went into a vicious uproar.

The menu was plain.

And extremely repetitive.

And slim on fruits and vegetables.

I understand that, but to me, this wasn't surprising. If you were a young adult in college with little money and didn't know how to cook, your menu would most likely be quite repetitive and lacking in produce. Dad was just trying to show how a real-life student might actually eat if they didn't have a lot of food dollars to spend.

However, he did explain in the article that your favorite produce could be easily replaced for some of the choices that he had made in his fake shopping trip. This would require you to readjust his budget to fit your own situation.

What was surprising?

Most of the things he said in the article went totally over the readers' heads. They saw $35 a week, the sample menu, and reacted emotionally, totally ignoring everything else!

After reading through 16 pages of comments -- the media thrives on controversy -- I felt disheartened because the greater majority of comments were similar to what happened at Low Carb Friends over the very same article.

A participant at that low-carb forum tried to revamp the dad's menu into something that would work for a low-carb diet and his efforts got the membership in an uproar.

Pinterest Image: Hot, Spicy, Roasted Chicken

What Were the Criticisms?

Most of the criticisms on the news blog, as well as the Low Carb Friends' thread, were about the menus themselves, rather than the principles and strategies put forth in the article that were meant to help you design your own no-frills menu.

In fact, there wasn't a single comment on any of the principles the author shared. NONE of them!

There was only comments showing that the reader wanted to be told exactly what to do. They wanted to know exactly what to eat and when.

Some were happy with the sample menu offered, but unhappy that they couldn't reproduce the dad's costs:

"I can't do it here, for what you can do it there."
"Tell me where you shop so I can go there too."

However, the vast majority of comments feverishly centered around the nutrition of the sample menu. How to do it better, or what was missing -- according to their own belief system.

The advice given in the comments was conflicting, depending on the nutritional dogma that each commenter brought to the table.
  • Some people wanted a menu with fewer processed, refined carbs. 
  • Some wanted a menu without meat. 
  • Some wanted to know where the fruits and veggies were.
  • Others fought among each other as to whether or not fresh fruits and veggies were better for you nutritionally than frozen.
Many kept asking where you could buy a gallon of milk for $1.89 even though several previous commenters had supported the dad's prices, and specifically told the readers where they live, and where they shop to get milk at that price.

I took a quick look at Walmart's price for milk right now, and it was $2.38 today (May 2018). About 50 cents more than the price in the article.

However, I've seen it here for way less than that. When we first arrived in Texas a little over a year ago, and hubby was still drinking milk, he was paying less than $2 a gallon. Like bacon, the cost of milk seems to be seasonal.

What I quickly learned from all of this was that when it comes to news stories, people don't read the comments of others. They read the article, or part of the article, and then automatically react emotionally to what's presented, depending on whether it fits into their current worldview, or not.

The comments at Low Carb Friends were not any better.

Instead of trying to create their own Keto menu for a similar cost, members criticized the poster's prices, and told her that she was crazy because they couldn't buy those Keto foods for what she was able to buy them for.

Like the news readers, they couldn't get past the menu specifics to the principles of cutting costs.

10 Strategies for Cutting Costs on Keto

The purpose in going to all the trouble of revamping the student's menu was to show low-carb dieters that healthier choices do not really cost more than cheap, highly refined carbs do. It was a challenge for the Low-Carb Friends' participant and he played the game beautifully.

However, the menu caused the low-carb community to get lost in the shuffle. They couldn't see past the menu specifics any more than the news' readers could, so I'm not going to create a false menu plan for you today.

Instead, I'm going to give you the 10 principles this particular dad laid out in the original article and talk about how these strategies for eating well on a budget relate to my own Keto lifestyle:

[If you really do want a sample, bare-bones menu, check out our past article on my top 10 ways to eat low-carb on a budget.]

Strategy #1: Self-Discipline

If you really don't have the money to spend, discipline might not be a problem. 

When hubby and I first got together, I was making $8 an hour as a educator for developmentally disabled adults in a group home setting. Hubby wasn't working due to a back injury. We lived on what we could get cheap at a local grocery store, mostly:
  • chicken leg quarters
  • boneless pork shoulder strips
  • ground beef or turkey
And whatever canned goods I had in the pantry.

When hubby had his own business, several years later, and we were in the situation where very little money was coming in, everything we managed to earn went on bills. We still pretty much lived on what I had stockpiled in the house.

I made a few meat purchases, similar to the above, and went with the cheapest vegetables in the produce section like cabbage and broccoli because we didn't have a choice. Some weeks we only had $25 to spend for the two of us, so the student's budget of $35 was more than generous to me. 

If your situation is less extreme, like ours is today, and you do have choices to make when it comes to buying Keto food, it is going to take a strong frame of mind and the desire to save money to do this. It's going to require you to keep your number one aim for saving money uppermost in your mind.

For us, the number one aim in our life right now is buying a house. Hubby wants to buy a small house in the country as soon as our rental lease is up, so we need to save all of the money we can right now to go toward that purchase.

Hubby wants to buy a house toward
the end of this summer

The main reason why staying conscious of your food purchases is so difficult is because stores are designed to get you to spend your money. You walk in the door, and instantly you're bombarded with sales and signs and enticements that cause your discipline to melt.

You suddenly go unconscious and leave the store paying more for groceries than you intended when you first walked through the door.

Regardless of the:
  • weekly and daily sales
  • store-card deals
  • gas points
  • marked-down meats
  • and digital coupons
The store's motive isn't to help you save money. The reason why stores are doing this is to entice you into buying. Don't forget that theirs is a business model. Businesses are in business to make money. Nothing they do is at a loss to them.

Strategy #2: Shop Cheap

The suggestion given in the article was to do most of your shopping in a discount supermarket like Walmart, but Walmart prices are not necessarily cheaper than other stores. You really do need to make the effort to do some price comparisons and check out your own area for deals.

Where we are living right now, we have a Walmart, Target, Tom Thumb, and a couple of Mexican grocery stores near us. However, we prefer to use CostCo and Kroger for the bulk of our Keto purchases. This requires us to drive 30 minutes, so we buy two weeks worth of groceries at a time.

Our budget is about $200 for this bi-weekly trip. Hubby takes advantage of brisket, boneless pork shoulder roasts, or spareribs -- when they are at a good price for smoking.

This isn't a bare bones budget, I admit, but it's a comfortable amount for us. It still requires me to stay mindful of what and how much I'm buying. Part of the cost is going toward slowly restocking the pantry, so we have reserves on hand.

At Costco, we buy meat in bulk and take advantage of cheap low-carb staples like:
  • hamburger
  • boneless ham
  • chicken thighs
  • sharp cheddar or jack cheeses
  • bacon in a 4-pack
  • quarts of heavy cream
  • lettuce in bulk
  • mushrooms
  • sour cream
We don't buy eggs at Costco because they want us to buy 15 dozen eggs at one time, and I have no way to store that many eggs. I used to buy cream cheese there, but for some reason, they stopped selling the Philadelphia brand, which we prefer, so I now watch for sales at Kroger.

At Kroger, we also can get:
  • decent quality cottage cheese
  • Carbmaster yogurt
  • chicken leg quarters in a 10-lb bag
  • breakfast sausage patties (2 carbs per serving)
  • flat iron steak when it's on sale
  • Kroger brand herbs and spices
In between shopping trips to Costco and Kroger, we go to Walmart and the Mexican grocery stores, depending on the sales, because the Mexican stores tend to have super good prices on fresh produce and Walmart has a good price on frozen vegetables.

Cost for the off-week low-carb groceries is about $50, or less.

The other suggestion was to let go of name brands and buy generic and store brands instead. I really don't do this a lot, due to the celiac disease and potential for cross contamination with gluten.

However, I've been having really good luck with Kroger products not being contaminated like Great Value is, so I've been switching more and more from name brands to the Kroger store brand.

Strategy #3: Shop for Staples Every Couple of Weeks

The less time you spend in the grocery store and the fewer trips you make each month or week, the less chance there is for the store to rob you of your funds through impulse purchases. However, this tip also requires that you have a way to store all of that food.

Staples are what you eat consistently on low carb, but when we bring home our two-week grocery haul from Costco and Kroger, our refrigerator and freezer is literally stuffed. If I was trying to feed a family of 4, or more, there is no way I could fit all of the food we buy in the refrigerator for two weeks.

Same for the freezer. We just have a small upright, so shelf space is limited to meats on sale, Carbsmart ice cream, butter, and whatever vegetables I can manage to fit in there. When butter goes on sale, we always buy 4 to 8 pounds at a time.

Block of Real Butter Cut Into Slices
We stock up on butter when it goes on sale
and store it in our small, upright freezer.

I do shop for low-carb dry goods in bulk, such as:
  • green beans
  • tomato products
  • dry marinade mixes
  • almond flour and coconut flour
  • Crystal Light drink mixes
  • tuna and other canned meats
  • green tomatillo salsa
  • black soy beans
  • pecans and cashews
  • olive oil and peanut oil
  • black olives
  • pickled jalapeno peppers
  • mustard, mayo, catsup
  • non-stick cooking spray
But stuffing the refrigerator cuts down on the efficiency of the refrigerator, and I only have so much freezer space available due to space-hogging staples like butter, brisket, and pork ribs. This is why we make a Walmart side trip in between our large grocery haul.

At Walmart, I buy two-weeks worth of small packages of frozen vegetables to take up the slack. The small packages cost a bit more than buying bulk frozen vegetables at Costco, but it gives us more variety on a daily basis.

While some people don't have a problem eating the exact same thing day after day, variety can be just as important as price when it comes to staying on plan. I didn't realize how important this point was until my carbohydrate tolerance fell so low.

You don't want to get bored eating Keto.

Strategy #4: A Survival Diet is a Bare-Bones, Basic Diet

When we first moved to Texas, our budget was $100 a week for the two of us. That comes to $50 each. But when we went Keto, I upped the budget to $125 to make it more comfortable.

Obviously, $125 a week for two is not a survival, bare-bones diet, as the article suggested, but it comfortably covers most of the Keto basics -- without a lot of frills. You won't find many specific low-carb products at our house.

I do use Splenda Zero and a little bit of erythritol now, and I do use Torani sugar-free syrups and enjoy a cup of Carbsmart ice cream now and then, but due to our gluten intolerance, we don't buy Carbquick, low-carb tortillas, Dreamsfield pasta, or other high-cost Keto products.

This helps me keep our overall costs quite low.

Hubby is happy with how we're eating right now, and when doing Keto, you really do need to like the food or you won't be motivated to keep doing it.

Often, circumstances will arise that won't let you eat as healthy as you know you should. While Keto needs to be as as nutritious a diet as you can make it, there are legitimate times when you aren't going to be able to eat what you know to be best.

During those times, a bare-bones budget is fine for a temporary set-back, such as losing your job or getting socked with unforeseen medical expenses, (our flu and pneumonia adventure cost me almost $5,000 by the time the bills stopped coming in), but if you try to eat that way for the rest of your life, you'll eventually hit the wall.

There have been many times throughout this Keto journey when I wasn't able to eat very many vegetables. During those challenging times, instead of moving to a bare-bones diet, I chose to eat at the upper end of my carbohydrate tolerance level instead, and included a few starchy carbs in my meals.

Obviously, at a higher carb level, the goal wasn't weight loss, but I did have to keep a close eye on my fat intake and calories to keep within my maintenance budget, so I wouldn't gain weight. For me, this was less stressful than settling for boring, repetitive meals.

However, if I were going to do it that way, I would go out of my way to make sure the foods I chose to eat were all foods that I thoroughly enjoyed, like baked chicken, burgers, bacon, and eggs, or broccoli, spinach, and green beans. Turning to foods you don't like on Keto will be the kiss of death.

Strategy #5: Cruise the Aisles of the Grocery Stores in Your Area

Make the effort and spend some time checking out all of the stores in your own area. 

That is the only way to learn what's doable for you.

Check out what types of low-carb foods are available, and what the actual prices for those foods are. See if you can come up with alternatives to what you've been currently buying.

Make it a game.

See how much you can shave from your current weekly budget by making a few changes to your routine buying habits.

In our area, whole chickens are quite pricey. Gone are the days when we could get them for less than a cut-up chicken costs. It's actually cheaper to buy a Rotisserie, already-roasted, chicken from Costco for $5 than it is to pay $6 or $7 each for an uncooked one.

Rotisserie Chicken Cooked and Uncarved
It is cheaper to buy a Rotisserie chicken from Costco
than to buy an uncooked whole chicken and roast it ourselves.

Recently, I discovered that a 10-lb bag of chicken leg quarters at Kroger is only $6.90, so we stopped buying the chicken thighs at Costco for 99 cents a pound. The leg quarters will feed the two of us for five or six meals, where a whole chicken will only feed us two.

A 6-meal package of chicken thighs at Costco used to cost us 10 to 12 dollars, so the quarters at 69 cents a pound are a much better buy.

Ground beef is also expensive here, but we can get it for $3.00 a pound at Costco, in bulk. I simply buy 20 dollars worth at a time. It comes in super thick, 8-ounce, unfrozen patties, which makes it easy to repack and freeze for later use.

In Utah, we used to take advantage of Smith's marked-down meat section, but we haven't been as lucky here in Texas. However, this area of Texas has far more weekly sales than Utah did, so it all works out long-term. We've just had to make a few adjustments to our spending habits.

For example, butter and pork spareribs goes on sale for most major holidays here, as well as beef brisket, where in Utah, butter only went on sale during Thanksgiving and Christmas, and brisket was always a hefty 5 or 6 dollars a pound. NEVER less. Even spareribs were something we reserved for birthdays and holidays in Utah.

But not here.

Here, we can get brisket and pork ribs for less than $2 a pound all the time! We just have to keep an eye on the sales.

Strategy #6: Go for Weekly Variety Rather than Daily

Let's face it. Despite what I said above about the need for variety on Keto, overweight people are generally pretty spoiled. Most of us are used to eating whatever we want to eat, whenever we want to eat it.

And that includes daily variety.

When you're following a super tight budget, daily variety isn't always possible. Unless you have enough money in the budget to stretch out your food dollars over a month, or more, if you buy a 10-lb bag of chicken leg quarters, you might have to eat chicken 3 or 4 times that week -- instead of just once.

The next week, you can buy a large package of pork chops or hamburger and eat that for the week, instead of the chicken.

If you can shop less often, like bi-weekly or even monthly, variety will be easier to create, but if you can't do it that way, you'll just have to suck it up and do a little magic with herbs and spices to make the meat taste different from day to day.

If you can't afford to buy seven different types of meats, you can't afford it. Buy what you can and meet the challenge head on.

For example, ham can be sauteed in a pan with butter or it can be tossed into an Alfredo ham-and-vegetable casserole for a totally different flavor. Chicken can be baked in the oven or tossed into soup. Hamburger can be turned into Italian meatballs or a Mexican taco salad.

Just because you can't afford to buy a variety of meat doesn't mean you have to eat the exact same thing day after day.

Strategy #7: Cook with Leftovers in Mind

In the sample menu the original article offered, there was three main dishes planned that were alternated throughout the week. I often cook this way. With only two of us to cook for most of the time, I still use a lot of main dishes that are meant to serve 4 to 6.

We then eat the leftovers scattered throughout the week.

Many people on Keto choose two or three recipes and then alternate between them for lunch and dinner. The next week, they choose two or three different recipes and run with those for the week.

Others will make one recipe at a time, and then eat it for every meal until it's gone before cooking another. Some will choose to cook and freeze, for later, while others do not.

How you handle the lack of variety depends on how your funds coming in are structured and what your personal tastes and lifestyle require. However, busy lives are no excuse. Cook with leftovers in mind or look for dishes that are simple and easy to fix.

Our pan-sauteed chicken breast in garlic butter recipe can be on the table in less than 30 minutes.

Strategy #8: Save Your Leftover Cash for Special Purchases

You don't have to spend your full budgeted amount each and every week. You can save what you have leftover and add it to next week's purchases to make it possible to buy something special.

I did this a lot when I was raising my kids.

If your budget is $35 and you only spend $31, then save the $4, and add it to next week's budget, so you can afford to buy something you can't ordinarily afford to buy every single week.

We really, really like salmon, which is sold in large 2-lb packages at Walmart for $14. The salmon is scored into 4 servings, so that comes to $7.00 per meal, about what a flat-iron steak costs here in Texas.

These prices are much higher than I would normally spend on meat because I try to keep our dinner meat purchases down to a reasonable 15 to 20 dollars a week. This comes out to about 2 to 3 dollars for dinner.

However, if I save the little bit I don't spend this week, and I put it together with my meat budget for next week, I can then afford to buy something that is more expensive. Salmon or steak will take an extra $4, so I just shave the prior budget by that $4 to fit it in.

This is a better method than trying to make up for the overspend the following week and works for buying other more expensive low-carb foods, as well.

Strategy #9: List What You Love to Eat and Arrange by Cost

Make a list of Keto foods and recipes that you absolutely love to eat, and then arrange each item in the order of what it costs.

I did this when I was working as a kitchen specialist at the Boys' Home. I divided the list into low-cost meals, medium-cost meals, and higher-cost meals. It was the only way I managed to feed the 24 people I was responsible for on a $335 a week budget.

When I knew what each dish cost to make, I could base most of the week's menu on lower cost dishes, and then tuck in a few medium and one higher cost meal to balance out the low ones, and still stay within the budget.

This is still how I handle our meat purchases today.

While our dinner meat is budgeted at 2 to 3 dollars per meal, that's an average.

Chicken leg quarters will only cost a dollar per meal, which gives me an extra dollar to dollar-fifty that I can spend on a higher priced meat item. This gives me the option of spending up to 4 dollars for every chicken dinner I make during the same week, without having to shave the budget the week before.

Strategy #10: Think Volume Instead of What You Want to Eat

When money is tight and you are stuck with a bare-bones menu, what fills your tummy and keeps you satisfied for several hours is going to matter more than what you might want to eat right now.

Go back to the basics.

Think meat, eggs, cheese, vegetables, and healthy fats.

Sugar-free gelatin with real whipped cream or a handful of spicy almonds is nice, and brings something special to the Keto lifestyle, but they don't go very far when you're hungry and need a real-life snack to tide you over to the next meal.

You're better off reaching for something far more filling, like:
  • deviled eggs
  • tuna with mayonnaise
  • celery with peanut butter and cream cheese
  • ham rolls stuffed with a dill pickle
  • cheddar cheese sticks
  • Carbsmart yogurt
  • leftovers from dinner
Even a lettuce salad will make a nice, filling snack. Keto food doesn't have to be fancy. It just has to keep you comfortable and satisfied.

These Strategies for Eating Well on a Budget are Just Guidelines

The principles I've been talking about are meant to be guidelines only.

They are not hard-and-fast rules.

So don't make them into a religion. When it comes to incorporating suggestions for eating well on a budget, simply take what you can use and toss the rest out of your mind.

Grocery costs differ vastly by geographical area. The help above needs to be tailored and rearranged to fit your tastes and lifestyle.

This is one of the reasons why I chose to share my experience with these strategies, so you can get a better idea of how to implement them, twist them to fit your situation, or even ignore some of them.

Flexibility is the secret to making Keto work on a budget.


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