Bodybuilding on a Budget – Cheap but Effective Diet to Build Muscle

Bodybuilding on a budget. It sounds complicated, but with a little ingenuity and a lot of planning and dedication, it’s totally possible to make your gains and keep your bank account in decent shape.

Most bodybuilding enthusiasts are already juggling full-time careers, families, and other social responsibilities, which means the time you have available in the kitchen is slim – not to mention the resources you have to spend on food.

Bodybuilding on a budget - keeping those food costs down

If you’re like most gym enthusiasts, you might think that it’s hard to eat healthy without spending a lot of money. The truth is that it’s completely possible to eat cheap meals and stick to your food budget.

Far too often, people let the fear that they’re going to need to spend crazy amounts of money on food prevents them from chasing their bodybuilding goals. The truth is there are plenty of ways to build a body on a budget – find out how.

Is this even possible?

Lots of us wrongly believe that we need a lot of expensive protein powders and endless supplements to make our gains. But that’s not true! With the right approach to your training and a clear eye on adding in nutrient-dense foods, you can absolutely make gains and stick to your food budget.

Get Fit on a Budget

Here’s a familiar scenario: You’re spending hours in the gym each week and are following a program that’s been useful for your mates. But you’re not seeing any changes in your own body, no matter how much time you put in. After a lift, you head out for a sandwich and maybe grab a pint, and never once consider how what you’re eating is affecting your results.

Muscles might be created in the gym, but they’re seen in the kitchen. What that means is that unless your diet is attuned to your personal fitness goals, you’re never going to see any of the results you want. Often exploring proper eating can feel like a super complicated process, in part because there are so many products geared toward fitness enthusiasts.

You might think that you need to shell out tons of money to get the body you want. After all, everywhere you look, fitness enthusiasts and celebrities are pushing for you to buy their products. But one of the biggest misconceptions about getting fit is that you’re going to need a lot of money to do it. No matter your goals – either leaning out or bulking up, you can do it on a budget, and you can do it well. How? Let’s take a look at what a proper diet looks like and then talk about how to make it happen.

Eating, explained

Here’s the thing: the faster you stop thinking about food in terms of some diet-fad of the week, and the more quickly you begin thinking of food in terms of macros, the closer you’ll be to your goals. The intent of any fitness plan is to either get stronger (and bigger muscles) or get leaner (with stronger muscles). That means that your good should be organized in a way that you’re either in a caloric surplus, maintenance, or a slight deficit. But what does that mean?

Your body is designed to run on a specific number of calories, an amount that’s generally determined by your age, current weight, height, and gender. Collectively, this is called your basal metabolic rate (BMR).

BMR tells you how much your body needs just to exist. There are countless BMR calculators all over the internet, but most use the same formulas to give you a rough estimate of the number of calories required to stay alive.

BMR includes everything from breathing to processing nutrients and cell production. Contrary to what a lot of people think, it’s not at all the same thing as resting metabolic rate (RMR). RMR is the number of calories your body burns while it’s at rest (i.e., sleeping). The Harris-Benedict formula is one of the most popular ways to estimate your BMR.

  • Women: BMR = 655 + (9.6 × weight in kg) + (1.8 × height in cm) – (4.7 × age in years)
  • Men: BMR = 66 + (13.7 × weight in kg) + (5 × height in cm) – (6.8 × age in years)

Knowing your BMR is the baseline bit of information you need to create a comprehensive approach to getting fit.

If your goal is to maintain your current weight, you might consume the same number of calories as you burn. Gaining means you need to eat more, and losing weight means, you guessed it, you need to eat fewer calories than you burn. Keep in mind that as the number on the scale changes, so too will your BMR.

Now that you understand the value of your BMR, you have a clearer vision of how to craft a diet to meet your goals. Before we get into some specific ways to meet your nutritional goals, let’s break down what macros are and why you really should be tracking them.


In the current fitness culture, the least favorite macro is carbs. They’re disparaged in all kinds of diets from keto to Atkins, and they’re getting a terrible rep. A few years back, everyone said that fats were terrible and should be avoided at all costs. Even worse, there are always ongoing debates about how much protein is really needed for a person to achieve the goals.

Lately, everyone is talking about counting macros as if it’s some high-tech science. Don’t let the hype fool you. Counting macros just means keeping track of the calories and types of food you each to achieve specific goals.

  • Carbs – sugars, starches, and fiber. Most carbs are broken down into glucose. Your body either uses glucose immediately or stores it for future use. Carbs can be found in grains, starchy vegetables, beans, fruits, and dairy.
  • Fats – essential for the body. Fats are needed for hormone production and nutrient absorption. Oils, butter, fatty fish, and nuts all provide good sources of fats.
  • Protein – vital for building muscle, tissues, hormones, enzymes, and immunity. Meat, eggs, poultry, and lentils are good sources of protein.

In the current era of fitness, lots of products are being presented as “healthy” under the guise that they will help you achieve your goals. But have you ever taken a look at the ingredients and split on a protein bar? Or a meal-replacement shake? Usually the calorie to macro ratio is terrible, and the ingredients are nothing you need to be eating on a daily basis. Added sugar is usually the very first ingredient on their takeaway products, which means that even if you think you’re fueling your body in the right way, the truth is, you’re not.

Instead of relying on pre-packaged, factory created foods, think about whole foods instead.

Inexpensive Carbs

  • Amaranth & quinoa – Just like oats, these ancient grains should be your go-to for easily digestible carbs. It’s very inexpensive and gluten-free. The nutty taste of amaranth makes it easy to add to both savoury and sweet recipes. Even better, you’re going to be getting good amounts of nutrients like iron, magnesium, and folate – all essential when you’re trying to make serious gains.
  • Beans – Tasty and very inexpensive. Add beans into breakfast burritos, mash them into sauces, simmer them into chillies or even add them into desserts. The beauty of beans is that there are several varieties, all of which are very inexpensive and all that have their own flavours. Lentils are delicious in curries and dal recipes or try making your own bean burgers for a big boost of carbs.
  • Oats – What’s an inexpensive bodybuilding meal plan without oats? Unprocessed oats can usually be sourced in bulk and are very inexpensive. As a carb source, they provide plenty of sustained energy to fuel even the longest conditioning training sessions. Even better is that oats have more protein than most other grains, so you’re getting a double dose of everything you need to achieve your goals.

Cheap Sources of Protein

You already know that protein is a super important macro – no matter what your training goals. There are plenty of reasons to add more protein into your diet, from increasing muscle mass to aiding in weight loss efforts. The truth is that there are plenty of inexpensive protein sources that are easy to source and even easier to add to meal prep plans.

  • Chicken breast – Quite possibly the holy grail of all bodybuilders everywhere, this protein source is accessible, inexpensive, and easy to integrate into all kinds of meals. It’s not ideal for breakfast, but you can easily get ground chicken in place of breasts to help achieve the same goals.
  • Cottage cheese – Reach for this any time you want some dairy and some protein all in one. Just like full-fat yogurts, cottage cheese has a decent macro split and gives you plenty of protein – almost 25g per cup. That’s not a bad return for just 200 calories. Cottage cheese is great on its own or try adding it into meals for richer sauces.
  • Eggs – Super nutrient-dense and very affordable. Eggs are full of minerals, vitamins, and healthy fats. One egg contains 6 grams of protein for about 50 calories. That’s a pretty great macro split. Eggs aren’t just for breakfast, either. Try hard-boiled eggs as a mid-morning snack, or slice some up onto a salad. You can even incorporate eggs into a stir-fry for a delicious and inexpensive protein boost.
  • Tinned fish – A very inexpensive way to add more protein and heart-healthy fats. Tinned tuna might have a bad rep, but it shouldn’t. Each tin usually has about 20g of high-quality protein, and it’s super transportable, so there’s no reason not to add it into your diet. Just as important are the omega-3 fatty acids found in tuna, which can help fight inflammation. That’s great news for anyone who spends a lot of time in the gym. Be mindful not to overdo it, since tinned tuna might contain high levels of mercury.

Cheap Meal Ideas & Forming a Meal Plan

Choosing food in terms of macros instead of meals means you’re laser-focused on what you need to fuel your body. In turn, this might help you choose better foods that fit your goals instead of trying to fit all of your macros into a specific meal.

Limit your eating out. Not only will this help you save money, but you’re never totally sure of all the ingredients that a restaurant kitchen uses. Instead, focus on learning how to prepare simple whole-food based meals in your own kitchen. That’s not to say you can’t ever go out for a treat, but consider your goals and consider your budget. It’s probably more beneficial for both your waistline and your bank account to stay in and learn how to create meals in your own kitchen.

With that in mind, the next most obvious solution is to lean into the trend of meal prepping. It’s been around a lot longer than current fitness celebrities will have you think. The reason? It works. Spend a few hours twice a week preparing all of your meals, and all of a sudden, the guesswork about macro splits and caloric intake vanishes from your life. Your food becomes fuel to train and fuel to live, which is precisely what you want it to be.

Meal plans are going to vary depending on your individual goals. The most important thing you can do is get your split set and then craft your food around those plans. For some, that might mean switching it up every week. If you don’t get bored easily, you could always choose to eat the same meals every day for a month. This will help take the guesswork from meal prep, and will also help you keep to a budget.

Bulking on a Budget

The very nature of bulking means that you’re going to need to eat a lot of calories to achieve your goals. The most cost-effective strategies to help you do that are to find clever ways to spend less and get more.

  • Avoid name brands – When you’re budget conscious and trying to bulk, there is no real reason to stick to name brands. Most often, name brands and store brands have exactly the same ingredients. Instead, reach for the generic brand and save more! Usually, you’ll be able to get more product for less price because off-brands are always keen on encouraging sales.
  • Buy in bulk – Bulk shopping might feel strange at the start, but it’s going to save you in the long run. If you’re prepping for the bulking season and know you’re going to be eating the same foods over and over, there’s no reason not to buy large quantities of what you’ll need in your cupboard. Dry goods, oils, spices, and even supplements purchased in bulk can help save plenty of money in the long run.
  • Freezers are your friends – Here’s a news flash: frozen vegetables and fruits have the exact same nutrient composition as their fresh counterparts. With the current advances in food preservation, there’s no reason not to buy frozen veg to have on hand for later. You’re going to get the same mineral and vitamin content without the worry that the produce will go bad.
  • Stock up during sales – Keep an eye out for big sales and stock up whenever you see your staple goods at a discounted price.
  • Toss in the spices – Especially if you have a strict eating regimen ahead, you should have plenty of spices on hand, so your meals don’t all taste the same.


No matter your fitness goals, remember whole fresh foods are always more nutrient-dense than packaged, factory created items. Controversies aside, your macros aren’t likely to follow any of these fitness trends. Instead, they should be adjusted to suit your goals. The best advice that you can follow is to eat simple and eat clean. It might not be the most glamorous approach to meal prepping, but it’s effective, it’s efficient, and it’s been shown to work. No matter if you’re on a cut, you’re training to bulk, or you’re just looking to eat a lot of food without spending a lot of money, there are plenty of ways to achieve your fitness goals this year.

Consuming quality foods – either frozen or fresh – making shopping for meals simple and easy. There’s no reason Tesco needs to have all of your money. Instead, reach for eggs, oats, cottage cheese, and you’ll be well on your way to achieving the goals of your dreams.

Science has shown that more protein helps you build more muscle. Endurance athletes need carbs for energy, and everyone can use a little bit of fat in their diets. So there’s no need to rush out and buy some labelled fitness products in an attempt to use it as a prop for your fitness goals.

Take some time to get to know the kitchen and how to prepare basic meals. These skills will serve you now in your quest for fitness and later on as well. The truth is that you don’t need meal replacement bars, four different flavours of protein, or a home-delivery meal plan. You’ve already dedicated yourself to the gym; now, you just need to round that out with some focus in the kitchen.

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Team MT

Team MT is the editorial team of MuscleTalk. With over 20 years experience we write quality, evidence based, articles. In addition to creating original content, we also edit and fact-check any articles we feature by external writers.

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