How To Stay Healthy On A Budget

How To Stay Healthy On A Budget

Personal trainers, fresh vegetables, and gym memberships all cost money. Not everyone can afford such luxuries. It’s one reason why being poor is too expensive — a crappy diet and sedentary lifestyle costs more down the line. Don’t worry: While fitness comes at a price, it’s not one you have to pay out of your wallet.

You Have Money, Time, and Energy: Choose What to Spend

Make no mistake, fitness and good nutrition cost money. You have to be able to cover your essentials (like rent, bills, and so on) before you can even think about prioritising your health and well being. Beyond money though, you have three “currencies” to spend when it comes to your health (or anything, really.) Money, time, and effort.

Gyms, paid fitness apps, protein powder, personal trainers, workout clothes, and exercise equipment all cost money. Fruits and vegetables, lean meats, and unpackaged, less-prepared foods cost more than their over-processed, fast food counterparts. Soft drink, by the litre, costs less than bottled water, food deserts make finding produce difficult, and boneless skinless chicken breast costs much more than 80/20 mince beef. Part of it is supply and demand, and part of it is cost-to-produce, but “healthy” foods almost always come with a higher price tag partially because food producers know we’ll pay, and that sucks.

If you don’t have the money for a gym membership, or just looking at “organic” produce makes your wallet ache, you’ll need to spend time and effort finding places to work out for free, or hunting for deals so you can buy and cook good food.

The real problem is that time and energy are usually in as short a supply as money. Maybe you work two or three jobs to make ends meet. Who has the time necessary to scour sale flyers or work out when you need to sleep, be at work, study for school, or raise a kid? Effort, or willpower, is in short supply as well, so you may not even have that to spend either. We can’t manufacture any of these three for you, but we can give you some tips on managing that time and effort — it’s probably the two things you have the most control over. It might sound like a catch-22, but remember: Just because you can’t do everything doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do anything. Set your priorities, carve out what time and energy (and yes, money) you can, and spend them where you get the most bang for your buck. Your health is worth it, and it’s the foundation on which everything else rests.

Seek Out Free or Affordable Fitness

Skip the pricey gym membership. You’ll have to do your own homework, and you may need to exercise more to get the results you want, but there’s a lot you can do without dropping a ton of cash. Here are a few examples:

  • Join a local YMCA or YWCA. The Y is still around, and offers fitness centres all over the country. Memberships are affordable (much more than other gyms, at least) and many offer financial assistance if you’re struggling to make ends meet. Most memberships include gym and pool access (if there is one) and even fitness classes. Your mileage may vary depending on what’s available at your local Y, but if you’re looking for a low-pressure environment with the equipment you need to get a good workout, it’s worth a look.
  • Check out your local community college or community centre. Universities often offer fitness classes to students, but community colleges usually open the door to the neighbourhood. Their classes are often free, or available for a small, flat fee. Fitness classes have benefits and drawbacks, but they’re certainly better than nothing, especially if they’re just what you need to get motivated. From sunrise Tai Chi classes to yoga in the park in the evening, sometimes all you need to do is bring your own equipment and you’re more than welcome. Check out your local council’s web site, community centre bulletin board, or head to your local community college’s site.
  • Do equipment-free bodyweight exercises. You don’t need equipment to get a good workout. All you need is your body. Some hand-weights can help if you’re willing to buy them, but even a towel will do. Best of all, these are exercises you can do anywhere, at any time, even if you’re busy or only have a few minutes in the morning or when you get home from work. This table is packed with bodyweight exercises, and here’s a 20-minute workout plan so you can get started quickly. Of course, you should set your expectations appropriately, but some activity is better than none, and bodyweight workouts can be really effective.
  • Get outdoors. Perhaps the only thing left that’s really free, the great outdoors gives you space (both physically and mentally) and peace and quiet for a good workout. Maybe you’re getting into running, and want to take it outdoors. Maybe you just want a little room to stretch. Head to your local park, whether it’s a block or two of green space, or a national park where you can get a good hike or bike ride. If you’d rather stick closer to home, check out your local primary or high school and see if they have a field you can jog around or exercise in. In my hometown, a lot of the schools leave their running tracks open to the public after hours for the neighbourhood to use freely.

Finding a place to work out, or the people to work out with, doesn’t have to be expensive. There are plenty of cheap or free options available, but you will have to spend time and your energy to look into and participate in them. That may be demanding, but it’s better than spending money on a gym and the time and energy going.

Buy Affordable, Healthy Food

The flip side to fitness is nutrition, and while “healthy” and “affordable” often conflict, you don’t have to resort to eating crap just to get by on a budget. It’s possible to save money on groceries and make awesome, healthy food. It just takes planning. Here are two shortcuts to help:

  • Join a CSA, find a local farmer’s market or visit a co-op. Formerly a purely urban luxury, CSAs, farmer’s markets and co-ops have exploded in popularity, and have done a lot to make affordable produce and fresh foods available even in food deserts and communities not well served by grocers. A good CSA makes it easy to get fresh produce when you need it and skip deliveries when you don’t, and encourages you to plan ahead for what’s seasonal. Food co-ops are similar, but operate more like stores. Your local farmer’s market is another great option, and good ones pack great food at prices that can beat grocery stores. Many deeply discount their produce at the end of the day. Shop around though: many haven’t gotten the message and still cater to the upscale crowd.
  • Scour those sale flyers and plan your meals. Being on a tight budget doesn’t mean you can’t plan your meals. In fact, some of our best, tech-friendly meal planning tips take the hassle and stress out of figuring out what’s for dinner, and still make sure to shop around what’s on sale at your local supermarket. This is one area where a little time planning will save you a ton of time when it comes down to cooking, and a ton of money when you cruise the aisles at the supermarket, or the stalls at the farmer’s market. Going in with a plan means you won’t be tempted to buy something just because it’s on sale, or try to figure out what to make for dinner while you’re in the store surrounded by options.

The bottom line here is to put some time and energy into finding good, healthy ingredients to cook, whether you’re cooking for a family or you’re setting a table for one. Getting a good workout is one thing, but diet is just as (if not more) important, even if you hate grocery shopping. Luckily, you don’t even really have to stretch your budget to improve your diet. You will, however, need to adjust your expectations. If you’re on a budget, you can’t just buy supplements or protein powder or coconut oil or whatever else the health “gurus” say you absolutely have to have these days. You can, however, go back to basics and eat good, whole, fresh foods that are good and good for you.

Dedicate Yourself to Cooking

Cooking regularly is one of the best things you can do for your health, hands down. You’re less likely to make unhealthy, gross food or swing by the drive-through if you commit yourself to planning and cooking, and if you have good ingredients to start with.

First, set your expectations: If you’re just learning to cook, don’t expect to turn out restaurant-style dishes. You goal should be to expand your horizons, make something you and your family enjoy, and do it with good, healthy ingredients. Don’t try to replace your favourite dinner spots or restaurant dishes just yet. As you turn home cooking into a habit you’ll start playing with flavours and trying new things. Before long, you’ll ditch takeout and fast food entirely and love the food you cook. If you start with good ingredients and the goal of making something healthy and delicious, you’re already more than halfway there. Even if you never really love cooking, you can make good, healthy food.

Cooking takes time, too. Still, if you plan your meals, you can do a lot in advance. Low-effort cooking is everything, especially for those after-work, weeknight meals. You don’t even need a ton of equipment: a slow cooker is an incredibly versatile cooking tool, one that can be used for almost any recipe, or anything you can dream of. Use yours early, use it often. Brines and marinades infuse big flavours without you lifting a finger. Your oven can bake or roast almost anything to perfection at 350C,) all you have to do is keep an eye on it and set a timer while you do something else (like a quick workout!)

Keep it simple and easy, and let the flavours of your ingredients shine through. As long as you focus on the basics and don’t make more work for yourself, you’ll be in and out of the kitchen in minutes every day, complete with a healthy meal for the evening and the groundwork for tomorrow’s meal already prepared, if not already in the crock pot. Then, when you do feel like doing something elaborate, you’ll have the effort to do it.

The moral of the story here is that health and fitness require three things, in varying quantities: money, time, and effort. So yes, money can definitely buy you better health and fitness. If you have money and time and energy, well, you’re set. But for most of us, all three are in short supply. Even so, there’s still so much you can do — more than you might know — and that’s nothing to scoff at, and certainly no reason to give up on being the best you that you can possibly be.


  • When learning to cook, try to think of alternatives that do similar things, and try using them next time.

    The example I give is good old bolognaise. Traditionally, you serve it with pasta (first tip, use different pastas), but pasta is just a carbohydrate, so what other carb’s can you use instead? Try serving on mashed potato for example (or rice), and it becomes a different dish in style, taste, and presentation – mash works great at soaking up the sauce by the way. If potato works, would sweet potato or pumpkin work?

    Or serve bolognaise on lettuce leaves for something akin to sang choy bow, or on corn chips for a nacho’s like meal. 3 different cultures, all close enough to use that same base central to the lot.

    Point being, think of how you can mix things up next time, through replacing one thing with another thats similar.

  • The YMCA leisure centres around here are much more expensive than gyms, that must be US based advice. Check around, I have a casual gym nearby that is $2 a session and numerous other options at under $400 for a year (including classes) or $5 casual. Even with a concession card $5 will only cover access to the pool at the YMCA, no gym or classes, they cost a lot more.

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