Is Being Healthy Taking a Bite Out of Your Budget?

Staying fit and healthy saves you serious cash in the long run, but that doesn't mean you have to spend a lot to get there. Some tips for making good health affordable

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Years ago when I was a broke college student subsisting on ramen noodles and off-brand cereal, I used to fantasize that someday, when I had a good job, I would be able to afford to eat incredibly healthily. I planned to buy fresh vegetables every week, belong to a fabulous gym, employ a personal trainer and get regular massages.

But today I still get sticker shock when I go to the grocery store. That’s why I was so skeptical when a USDA study released a few months ago asserted that healthy foods are actually cheaper than the heavily processed stuff. These findings are based on the fact that the old method prioritized price per calorie, giving low-cost junk food an edge over fresh veggies. But, the report said, “When measured on the basis of edible weight or average portion size, grains, vegetables, fruit, and dairy foods are less expensive than most protein foods and foods high in saturated fat, added sugars, and/or sodium.” Translation: now there’s really no excuse not to eat healthier.

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However, it’s one thing to understand that grains and legumes are a cheaper source of protein than free-range chicken; it’s quite another to try to get my meat-loving husband to have rice and beans for dinner every night. Similarly, gym memberships and personal trainers can be a big monthly expense, but they might be worth it if the only thing you’d do at home with your treadmill or dumbbells is occasionally wipe the dust off of them.

Getting into shape — and staying that way — can save you some serious cash in the long run. Lifestyle changes can help stave off diabetes as well as joint replacement and other big medical expenses. So, with those motivators in mind, here are few tips to help minimize the cash you spend on the road to being active and healthy:

Prioritize your monthly budget. Sitting down and writing a budget that accounts for fixed and discretionary expenses is an important step for anyone who wants to be in control of their finances. Yet it can be difficult to decide what discretionary expenses are appropriate — especially if there isn’t much left over after paying the bills. It should be a conscious process: you need to figure out what is most important to you and then make some tradeoffs.

For example, my friend Tracy hired a personal trainer, which strained her budget. She dropped the service, but became unmotivated to exercise on her own. I suggested she continue to work with the trainer while cutting down on eating out and also wait to go shopping until after she dropped to her desired pant size — both of which helped motivate her towards her weight-loss goal. If you can’t have it all at once, invest in what makes you feel best.

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Plan ahead and eat in. My mother worked outside the home when I was growing up and always planned a week’s worth of meals so we could do all the grocery shopping at once. We also do this in my household now, and this kind of planning not only saves me time, but also cuts down on us throwing out unused food. Thinking ahead makes it easier to budget in pricier selections, like fresh fish or more expensive cuts of meat, and also makes it less tempting to eat out, which can come with a high price tag — and calorie count.

Comparison shop. If you like working out at a gym but want to save money, shop around. If the gym memberships in your area are too pricey, explore options at your workplace, local schools or community centers, which often offer free or low-cost activities. Browse the Internet to see if there are group sports activities, like hiking, biking or running that you may join for free or a nominal cost.

And if you think you’d use them, consider at-home strength training or yoga DVDs.

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So remember: if you find yourself struggling to slim down and stay motivated from beach season to beach season, it doesn’t have to be expensive to make healthy choices, as long as you’re willing to put in a little time and effort. By prioritizing, planning ahead and making smart choices, you can maintain your physical and financial well-being.

De Baca is vice president of wealth strategies at Ameriprise Financial.