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How to Go Vegan When You're Young and Broke

A tight budget doesn't mean surviving solely on potatoes!

Photo via Shutterstock.

It's no secret that tons of millennials are going vegan. Between wanting to prevent animal cruelty, saving the environment, and cutting down on cancer risks, there are undeniable benefits to adopting a plant-based lifestyle. But loading up on fresh produce and specialty items can be inconvenient at best and expensive at worst, preventing those of us who are short on money and patience from figuring it out.

We asked some successful vegans for their honest advice on how to go vegan when you're young and broke.

WHERE TO SHOP

Farmer's markets are a favorite vegan spot. Finding and navigating a local market can be unrealistic for new vegans, though, especially if you're bad at haggling. Luckily, there are more convenient options: AJ Davis-Varela, 41, runs Cheap Vegan Chick, a site that provides tips on vegan coupon-ing, DIY personal care products, and affordable green living.

"One of the tricks to saving money on vegan food is shopping at multiple stores," Davis-Varela explains; she typically hits up chains like Winco, Costco, Trader Joe's, and Vallarta for her vegan needs. "I also grow some of my own fruits and vegetables and supplement that at the farmer's market and commissary on our local base, and I buy non-perishables from Vitacost.com and Amazon."

Devyn Howard, 24, an LA-based blogger who shares pictures of her beautiful vegan recipes on Instagram, also has a surprising tip about Whole Foods. "This is going to sound crazy, but the produce at Whole Foods is cheaper than anywhere else," she says. "The price of non-organic produce at Von's and the price of organic produce at Whole Foods is the same—as long as you're purchasing normal fruits and vegetables, and not the weird specialty items."

So it pays to do competitive pricing research on the stores near you—and the art of coupon-ing is something every broke person should embrace, regardless of dietary preference. Before you start your strategic store-hopping, though, you need to know what the hell you're buying.

WHAT TO BUY

Brittany Haskins, 28, is the owner and chef behind Broke Hungry Vegan, a vegan-catering service based out of Southern California. She's a believer in buying vegan pasta, which is cheap and easy—especially if you make your own noodles. Haskins is also a fan of potatoes: "My mom always says, 'If you're ever broke, you can do anything with potatoes—bake 'em, mash 'em, you can fry 'em,'" she says.

Haskins cautions against relying too much on potatoes, though, since they can be an unhealthy trap that many new vegans fall into; you need to balance them out with "a shit ton of produce," healthy grains, and legumes, which "can be found [in the bulk section] for a fraction of what they cost [elsewhere]."

Davis-Varela continues, "Stocking your pantry with these basics allows you to have items on hand to try new recipes and prepare quick, inexpensive meals that you can supplement with fresh or frozen produce. Frozen fruits and vegetables are often much less expensive, and you don't have to worry about food waste from spoiled produce."

HOW TO COOK

If figuring out what to do with bags of bulk food doesn't sound like a quick and easy meal, fear not: A vegan diet is realistic for even the laziest among us. All you need is a simple kitchen appliance and a willingness to experiment.

"One of the best purchases I've ever made was a pressure cooker—essential for anyone on a plant-based diet," Davis-Varela says. "Dry beans normally have to be soaked overnight and cooked before they're ready to eat, but it takes 14 minutes to cook them with no soaking in a pressure cooker. I also use it to make soups and other quick, healthy meals that last a few days."

Indeed, a pressure cooker can reduce your total cooking time by up to 70 percent; plus, it saves energy and helps food retain more nutrients and flavor. Most of the pressure cookers online are priced between $50 and $200, but Bed Bath & Beyond sells one for $19.99, an alluring price point for young, broke, aspiring vegans.

If you're still skeptical about cooking: When Haskin first went vegan at 17, she was totally clueless about what to cook and didn't even know that she liked it until got into the kitchen and figured it out. After years of messing around and making random meals, she got pretty good at it; soon enough, her pre-made vegan lunches drew attention and praise from patrons at the bar where she worked.

She brought in so many requested dishes for them that, eventually, she started charging for the meals, which inspired her to start her company. If going vegan can turn someone who didn't even like cooking into a professional caterer, it can at least inspire you and me to make edible non-potato food.

HOW TO STILL HAVE FUN

Going vegan isn't a death sentence to your social life. You can make tiny recipe tweaks at most bars and restaurants to create meals that fit into your diet. "You don't have to go to a fancy restaurant to find something that you can eat," says Howard. "Every place has rice and vegetables—you just have to know the different sauces or oils they're cooked in."

PETA offers a detailed list of the vegan foods available at 68 chain restaurants, one of which is worth noting: Taco Bell. The chain's cinnamon twists, chips and guacamole, pico de gallo, cilantro rice, black and refried beans, and Mexican rice are all vegan. Also, you can make any Taco Bell meal vegan by ordering it "fresco style," or asking for it without meat, cheese, or sour cream.

Nadine Sykora, 28, is a Canadian-based travel blogger who shares her travels at Hey Nadine; she insists that veganism is a lifestyle she maintains across the world—with a bit of patience and effort. "Customize!," she tells me. "When eating out, you've got to be creative when ordering and making your own dishes. You can search out vegan places, but the cheaper food comes from the cheaper shops, so learn how to tell the chefs and cooks what to make for you. Don't rely on them to know what to make."

HOW TO START

All of the vegans I spoke with reiterated one important point: Going vegan is a process. It took them years to fully transition, and buying a bunch of substitute meats and cheeses wasn't enough (too expensive, too). Going vegan takes time because it requires a complete overhaul of the way you think about food.

"This isn't about perfection—it's about progress," Davis-Varela advises. "If you decide to go vegan, don't throw out everything in your fridge and spend your paycheck trying to replace it. It's more affordable to replace the non-vegan stuff in your kitchen with vegan options as you run out of things."

After cutting out meat, eggs, and dairy over time, weight loss, an increase in energy, and an overall feeling of wellness were common themes in what people described as the best decision of their lives. They learned to love cooking and were able to eat abundantly on a budget, and now that I know their tricks, I'll be joining them—slowly.

Follow Jay Stephens on Twitter.