As is the case with anything in life, there are costs, and there are benefits, and determining the proper balance between the two is often an arduous task. And, as is the case with any questionable topic, there are studies and analyses on many topics that painstakingly list those costs and benefits, usually in exceedingly dry terms. Vegetarianism and veganism are no different.

Not to say that being vegetarian or vegan is controversial, but it certainly is a movement in its relative infancy in the U.S.; the first major contributor of the idea was author Frances Moore Lappe with the book “Diet for a Small Planet,” and many long-term health studies on the effects of low- or no-meat diets did not begin until the late 1980s. While the short term effects and myths of vegetarian and veganism have been documented by both meat-eaters and herbivores, one variable that seems constant in the minds of most people when determining their diet is monetary cost. Which diet is cheaper: your standard “some-meat” diet, or going total veggie? Let’s take a look at the economics of the two diets.

First things first: Eating absolute junk that is high in calories and low in nutritional value is the most effective route, economically. Clearly, the health problems created by such a diet for an extended period of time, particularly without some kind of exercise, can be blatantly catastrophic. So while those concerned with health can throw that diet out the window right away, it is the unfortunate truth that many low-income families survive on such a diet. There are ways to save money and still eat healthy, however, and it just requires a little more time and mindfulness.

According to a 2009 Bureau of Labor Statistics report, the average couple spent $575 per month on food, equating to about $6,900 per year. The Agricultural and Resource Economics Review published their analysis of vegetarian food habits in 2009 with some interesting results. Costs of corn and wheat production in the U.S. are significantly lower than the costs of producing meat or milk. While it is important to keep in mind that the nutritional contents of crops and livestock are not identical, the analysis did find that obtaining a calorie of energy from the cheapest meat product is five-times more costly than obtaining a calorie of energy from the most expensive plant-based product. For protein, the numbers are similar; obtaining a gram from the cheapest meat product is 3.26 times more costly than obtaining a gram of protein from the most expensive plant-based product: peanuts. That is quite a wild swing.

Here is where it becomes a delicate balance: Production of fruits and vegetables requires high-quality, productive land, while meat doesn’t. Cattle have the ability to produce meat and milk from materials that are otherwise inedible to humans, like grass and other forages. Hence, more land is required for strictly veggie diets than a diet that includes some consumption of meat, therefore leading to a decreased efficiency of land and nutrient-rich soil use.

So in terms of equilibrium, it is beneficial for some percentage of the population to eat meat. Indeed, meat-eaters are seven times less likely to develop zinc deficiencies than vegetarians, and they naturally maintain correct levels of vitamin B12, but those are two products that are easy to find as supplements. And what about costs on the micro-level, things that actually affect your own wallet?

The study suggests that a one-percent reduction in meat consumption per week would save consumers $.162 cents per week in 1993 dollars; this translates to $.24 cents in today’s dollars, or $2.40 in savings with a 10 percent reduction in meat consumption per week. This small reduction in meat consumption alone equates to a savings of nearly $125 per year, or $250 per couple – how many of you could use an extra $250 per year? It’s like a tax cut for your bottom-line!

However, it’s not that easy (it never is). Although meat is the most valuable food category to consumers, herbivores must be aware of products that are more likely to be contaminated with pesticides and other chemicals. Those products are: peaches, apples, sweet bell peppers, celery, nectarines, strawberries, cherries, pears, grapes (imported), spinach, lettuce, and potatoes. Purchasing those products in organic form will typically cost 40 to 50 percent more on average, which will again come out of those savings from cutting meat consumption by 10 percent. The solution for those looking to save money is to find a delicate balance between cutting meat and other expensive items from your diet (for non-vegetarians) and buying organic fruits and veggies (for vegetarians). Keep an eye on the cost of certain meals by maintaining a journal for several days – it’s much easier to determine how often certain meals should be eaten when a visual aid of the money spent is available!

Who has experience with both diets, and what did you guys find when switching from one diet to another? Did your costs increase or decrease? Leave a comment and let us know!