Whole30 Changed How I Eat, but You Won’t Believe What it Did for My Wallet

A young woman holds a freshly prepared lunch that's Whole 30 compliant.
Desiree Stennett tried doing the Whole30 diet on a budget by shopping at a combination of grocery stores. Sharon Steinmann/The Penny Hoarder

When I started Whole30, I only had one motivation: to eventually write this post.

Yes, I wanted to eat healthier. Yes, I was excited about losing a little weight. Yes, I wondered what it would feel like to have more energy throughout the day.

But what I wanted more than anything was the glory.

I wanted to be able to tell you how prepared I was and how I succeeded when so many others were derailed by cheese and bread and sugar-laden packaged foods.

Well… I didn’t.

For starters, my Whole30 became a “Whole28” when I decided to quit two days early during a work event. And even when I thought I was being meticulous about reading ingredients, I messed up. Who knew canned tuna contains soy?

When I was 11 days in, I started over after stress-eating a family-sized bag of salt-and-vinegar chips when I couldn’t reach my mom in South Florida for 12 hours during Hurricane Irma.

I had a public meltdown over what turned out to be compliant teriyaki sauce.

And I read the Bacon Manifesto, then ate two packages of bacon that were technically compliant but arguably not the healthiest choice and maybe not really in the spirit of Whole30.

And in the middle of all that, I spent $496.43 on groceries, and food and drinks from restaurants. That may seem like a hefty food bill for a single person to those who are a bit more frugal, but it’s about $285 less than I spent the month before I started.

If you’re considering giving Whole30 a try, here’s what I think you need to know.

Is Whole30 Really a Quack Diet?

Mangos, sweet potatoes, eggs, avocados, bananas, tomatoes and berries are foods that are all Whole 30 compliant.
Stennett bought these food items for her Whole 30 diet while on a budget. Sharon Steinmann/The Penny Hoarder

The long list of Whole30 rules can seem intimidating.

No dairy. No legumes. No wheat. No grains. No sugar or sugar substitutes. No carrageenan, MSG or sulfites. No alcohol. No cheating… (No happiness?)

And that’s not all. The Whole30 creators also say you can’t create “healthy” versions of  forbidden foods. That means the two-ingredient pancakes and cauliflower pizza crusts made from compliant ingredients are also out. Even emotional cheating is outlawed here. The idea is that if you spend the month eating cauliflower crusts and banana pancakes, your junk food craving will come back full force when Day 31 hits.

The long list of foods you can’t eat — especially the grains, legumes and dairy products — have led critics to say the diet is too restrictive. U.S. News and World Report’s Best Diets ranked it in last place behind 37 other diets, including Weight Watchers, Jenny Craig and SlimFast.

The only positive critique experts — including nutritionists, specialists in diabetes and heart disease, and others — had for the diet was that it could lead to short-term weight loss, according to the report. At least one expert called it “a quack diet,” while another said it “is the antithesis of a long-term healthy dietary pattern.”

While weight loss is almost guaranteed, Whole30 doesn’t market itself as a get-thin-quick scheme. Instead, it promises to help clear out the processed food in favor of more fruits, vegetables, meat, poultry, fish and healthy fats.

Personally, it made me stop and think about what’s in my food and if I really want that in my body. So far, the healthier choices are still lasting. This “quack diet” helped me drop 13 pounds, sleep more soundly and clear even the slightest blemishes from my skin.

I Saved $285. You Could Save Even More Doing Whole30 on a Budget

A young woman prepares a freshly prepared lunch that's Whole 30 compliant.
Stennett saved $285 in one month while on the Whole30 diet. Sharon Steinmann/The Penny Hoarder

Whole30 and healthy eating in general has a reputation of being expensive. A list of “staple” products compiled by Whole30 co-creator Melissa Hartwig includes a $22.60 six-pack of canned tuna and a $13.99 jar of approved mayo that will surely make the most expensive tuna lettuce wrap you’ve ever tasted.  

Still, when I considered how much I spend eating at restaurants and drinking wine with friends, I was sure I would save money.

I’m not proud to admit that I spent $782.06 on groceries, restaurant meals, alcohol and coffee in August. Yes, in a single month. Yes, just for me.

I mean, I work for The Penny Hoarder. I have personally compiled tips for how you can eat healthy when your food budget is next to nothing. But my entire social life is built around eating and drinking with friends, so I had to make some drastic changes, and the $496.43 I spent by the end of it all is proof I was successful.

Another Penny Hoarder staffer who’s been on Whole30 for about four months also mentioned that her first month was her most expensive. She and her husband spent $1,302 during their first month, but now their food budget is about $750 a month.

Here are some ideas for how you can save if you want to do Whole30 on a budget.

1. Shop Around

I got most of my fruits and vegetables from Trader Joe’s. At TJ’s, I could find lower prices than Publix, Fresh Market or Whole Foods without sacrificing quality or shopping experience like I would at Aldi or Save-A-Lot.

I also prefered the Publix meat selection but still needed a few items that I could only get at Whole Foods. Some weekends, I dedicated several hours to grocery shopping and hit all three stores for different items in the name of savings.

2. Chop Your Own Vegetables

Even though I saved by buying Trader Joe’s produce, I splurged a little in places you can save even more. For example, I bought packages of riced cauliflower and precut sweet potato ribbons, butternut squash cubes, and watermelon and pineapple spears.

Not only was the prepared stuff usually more expensive per pound than buying the fruits and veggies whole and chopping them myself, everything seemed to expire much faster.

Every single time I bought the sweet potato ribbons, I ended up throwing out the last bit that got slimy before I could finish it. The same thing happened with nearly every bag of riced cauliflower and butternut squash I purchased. Dollars wasted.

3. Prepare Your Own Meat

Chicken and mixed vegetables are freshly prepared as part of the Whole 30 diet.
One of Stennett’s Whole30-approved lunches includes a chicken breast and mixed vegetables. Sharon Steinmann/The Penny Hoarder

When it came to meat, I often chose cheaper and tastier chicken thighs over breasts but still opted for the more expensive skinless, boneless options instead of dealing with the inconvenience of removing the skin and deboning the chicken myself.

If you’re up for it, try choosing options that need a bit more work. The less work the grocery store does for you, the less the meat costs per pound.

Whole30 guidelines also recommend organic, grass-fed meat and sustainable, wild-caught fish. If those options aren’t in your budget, buy what you can afford.

4. Don’t Go Overboard With the Whole30 Substitutions

With so much on the don’t-eat-that list, it’s only natural that you’ll want to try some of the compliant substitutes. To save you a little time and money here are some quick recommendations:

  • The compliant bacon is pretty tasty, but it’s not cheap. But neither is noncompliant bacon.
  • If you’re looking for sausage, get Brat Hans Sun-Dried Tomato & Basil chicken sausage. Every other brand I tried wasn’t as tasty and was a waste of money in comparison.
  • Coconut Aminos is sweeter than regular soy sauce. For some that might be OK, but I didn’t love it as a soy sauce replacement.
  • The Coconut Aminos teriyaki sauce and garlic sauce from Coconut Secret are both about $10 a bottle, but they are insanely delicious. To me, it’s a worthy splurge.
  • If you’re not going to buy an immersion blender and make your own compliant mayo, just skip it altogether.

Whole30 Really Did Change My Habits

I’ll admit it: When I was finally finished with Whole30, I had one week of an off-plan free-for-all. Then, with a cloudy brain and zero energy, I planned to immediately jump into a second Whole30 attempt.

After taking a break, that was harder than I expected.

Eventually, I settled on a lifestyle of shooting for about 75% compliant ingredients and 25% everything else. I wasn’t really expecting a lifestyle change, but it seems to be what I got so far.

Some days are more successful than others. But even when the 75-25 split gets flip-flopped, I still read my ingredients, and I make an effort to eat smaller portions of the bad stuff.

I’m also more aware of where my energy levels are, how often I get headaches and how my skin is looking. So on the days when getting out of bed in the morning feels impossible, I’m feeling achy or my skin isn’t looking as flawless as I’d like, I know fixing my food could really be the solution to all of that.

Desiree Stennett is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder. She complained about Whole30 from beginning to end but would consider doing it again.