Being Healthy Can Cost You — But It Doesn’t Have To

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Updated on Friday, March 20, 2020

With the price of gym memberships, specialty foods and medical care, a healthy lifestyle can seem unachievable when you’re on a budget.

However, making the investment in your health can pay off in ways that go beyond feeling well. Studies show that healthy people earn significantly higher wages and accumulate more wealth than unhealthy people. And the good news is that being healthy doesn’t have to strain your finances.

In this article, we break down the costs of being healthy and how you can save money on food, fitness and medical expenses.

The cost of healthy living

Costs can be a barrier to managing our health. American families consistently point to the cost of healthcare as one of their biggest financial problems in polls conducted by Gallup.

“I hear from patients all the time that they feel pressure to go broke trying to stay healthy,” said Libby Pellegrini, a certified physician assistant and medical expert for RxSaver, a site that helps people find ways to save money on prescription drugs.

Here’s what you should know about the price of health-related expenses, like maintaining a nutritious diet, getting in shape and obtaining medical services.

Food

A diet rich in nutritious foods, like vegetables, fruits, lean meats and nuts, can reduce your risk of heart disease and other conditions — potentially saving money on health care costs in the long run.

However, stocking your pantry with good-for-you ingredients can be pricey. A 2013 meta-analysis published in the journal BMJ Open found that the healthiest diet costs around $1.50 per day more than the least nutritious diet. That means making the switch to a healthy diet could cost nearly $550 per year more for just one person, and push into the thousands for an entire family.

A 2012 study from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which analyzed 4,439 foods, also found that healthy food can be more expensive on a per-calorie basis than “moderation foods,” such as those with added sugar and high quantities of saturated fat. Vegetables and fruits in particular cost a lot per calorie. While study authors acknowledge that healthy food can actually be cheaper than junk food by other measurements, like average portion price, the cost per calorie may play a role in some people’s dietary choices.

Fitness

Exercising regularly not only reduces your risk of serious health conditions, it can also help you avoid costly medical expenses. The American Heart Association reported in 2016 that people who exercised regularly spent around $2,500 less per year on health care costs than inactive people. But what does it cost to get in shape?

Gym memberships cost an average of $58 per month across the country. In some cities, the monthly expense of joining a health club can top $100. Expenses on fitness can add up even higher when you consider other costs of staying in shape. A survey of 1,350 Americans between the ages of 18 and 65 found that people spend a monthly average of $55.95 on supplements, $34.34 on gym apparel and accessories, and $13.83 on personal training services and workout plans.

While exercise can eat up a substantial portion of your budget, it doesn’t have to. In the section below, we’ll offer some tips on how you can get in shape for free.

Medical

Health care costs are a hot-button issue for people in the U.S., and for good reason — the country spends around double on health per person than other wealthy countries. Spending on health care across the nation climbed to $11,172 per person in 2018, an increase of 4.6% from the previous year.

While a portion of those costs may be covered by third parties, like private health insurance and Medicare, Americans often need to cover the rest out of pocket. On average, 8.1% of an American household’s monthly expenses went to health care in 2018, totaling $4,968 per year. Medical bills can take a financial toll on families and even drive some people to bankruptcy.

9 ways to stay healthy on a budget

If cost feels like an insurmountable barrier to getting and staying healthy, take a second look.

“You will spend far less money making small investments in your health today than you will spend mitigating the undesired outcomes of poor health tomorrow, but being health conscious doesn’t have to break the bank,” Pellegrini said.

Plus, there are some ways to reduce and even eliminate some of the upfront costs of staying healthy. Here are some tips.

Food

Buy canned or frozen produce, unless it’s in season
The cost of some fresh fruits and vegetables can vary significantly throughout the year. Strawberries, for example, generally cost the least from May through August, when there’s a large supply of them on the market, and the prices increase sharply later in the year. You might be able to save money on healthy groceries by avoiding fresh produce when it’s not in season, said Jessi Holden, a registered dietitian nutritionist at Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital in Grand Rapids, Mich.

“Canned and frozen produce is an excellent way to maintain a healthy diet and a healthy budget,” Holden said.

Embrace generic brands
Before you toss brand-name products into your shopping cart, scan the shelves to see if there’s a generic equivalent, Holden said. Stocking your pantry with less expensive alternatives to popular health foods may help you save money.

“Most of the time, [generic brands are] cheaper, and when you compare nutrition labels, they’re almost identical,” Holden said. “If you compare what you’d spend on name brands to what you could spend on generic, you’ll find your budget for food expands and your ability to purchase more things like produce increases.”

Try meal planning
When you don’t have a plan for dinner, it’s all too easy to rely on take-out. You may end up blowing both your budget and your intent to eat healthy.

“Meal planning helps us utilize the food we have on hand and the food that we’ve purchased for the week or month,” Holden said. “I always encourage people who want to meal plan to start by checking their pantry, fridge and freezer and plan at least one meal using ingredients they have on hand.”

Fitness

Walk as much as possible
Walking regularly can help ease you into fitness — and it costs nothing.

“Park a few blocks farther from the office to add a natural brisk walk into your morning and evening routine. Take a phone call while you walk around the hallway,” Pellegrini said.

You can also check out this 12-week walking schedule from the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute.

Work out with free online videos
YouTube is filled with workout videos that can help you work up a sweat without the expense of a gym or a personal trainer.

“Want to do a 20-minute yoga video on the beach in Nicaragua? There’s a free YouTube video that has you covered,” Pellegrini said. “Want someone to yell at you while you do squats, pushups and burpees in your living room? Same.”

Strength train at home
No barbells? No problem. Heavy items around your home can double as weights, allowing you to strength train at no cost. Consider using bottles filled with sand or water and canned goods during your home workout.

Medical

Switch to generic prescription drugs
If you’re paying a lot for a brand-name medication, ask your doctor if there’s a generic version that could work for your needs.

“Sometimes there may be a slightly different formulation that will be at a radically different price point,” Pellegrini said. “There may also be a way to combine two medications to achieve the same desired effect.”

Open an FSA or HSA
Flexible spending accounts (FSAs) and health savings accounts (HSAs) give you the ability to cover certain medical costs with pretax money. Like a checking account, FSAs and HSAs often include a debit card that you can use for eligible expenses, such as doctor’s co-pays, eyeglasses and acupuncture.

“Before you hit the store to load up on necessities, take a quick look around an FSA store website [such as FSAStore.com] to see if any items on your list are reimbursement eligible,” Pellegrini said. “You may be surprised by how much is covered, from contact lens cleaning solution to sunscreen.”

Make preventative care appointments
Seeing your doctor for a preventative care appointment could help you catch potential health issues before they turn into something worse, Pellegrini said.

“A prime example of this that we see all the time is the corporate executive with a high-profile job who comes in for routine preventative blood work and discovers that she has prediabetes,” she said. “With a few modifications, we can easily reverse her prediabetes, virtually eliminating the possibility that she will ever become a diabetic. This will help save on future health expenses in a huge way.”

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