Saving Money with Beans
Helps Stretch Family Budget

By Lynda Zimmerman, MS, RD, LD and Tammy Roberts, MS, RD, LD

The Consumer Price Index (CPI) for grocery store prices increased 6.4% between October, 2010 and October, 2011 (1). The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) predicts 2012 food price inflation will taper from 2011 levels but remain slightly above the average of 3-4% seen in the past two decades. Macroeconomic factors such as weather conditions, fuel prices, and the value of the U.S. dollar will influence food prices. (2)

With CPI for other consumer goods expected to increase as well, it is increasingly important—and challenging—for consumers to be prudent in grocery store purchases. Adding beans as the protein source for family meals can be a first line of defense in keeping the food budget in check.

Important for Today’s Low-cost Meals

During the recession of 2007-09, families helped make ends meet by choosing less expensive food at the grocery store and eating out less often.(3) Consumers today have the advantage of many web sites and books with tips on being thriftier. Google “frugal meals” or “depression era cooking” and hundreds of thousands of hits appear.

The use of dry beans continues to be a common cost-saving tactic, for good reason. Despite the ups and downs of food prices and inflation, dry beans still rank as one of the most economical sources of protein. (4, 5) It is hard to beat the value of an ounce equivalent (1/4 cup) of beans: 6 cents for cooked dry beans and 18 cents for canned beans. (6) A family of four who makes just one weekly meal using dry beans can save $2.40 a week or $124.80 a year.

The advantages and disadvantages of canned vs. dry beans are often debated. When comparing purchase price alone, a cup of canned beans costs about twice that of a cup of cooked dry beans. Some people believe the preparation time required before using dry beans is worthwhile because they have more flavor and firmer consistency. Dry beans also are low in sodium; however, using no-salt-added canned beans or rinsing can significantly reduce the sodium content. Dry beans can be soaked and cooked ahead of time and refrigerated or frozen so they are ready for quick meals, although this does require advanced planning. Consequently, some busy families feel canned beans are most practical. Energy costs for cooking the beans also may weigh in the equation, but it really comes down to personal choice. Canned or dried beans are a good staple to purchase when on sale, further stretching the food dollar, and they have a shelf life of 2-3 years for best quality and vitamin retention. (7)
The Continuing Survey of Food Intakes by Individuals (CSFII) measures foods actually eaten by individuals in the U.S. In the most recent CSFII, low-income Americans consumed more dry beans than those in higher income brackets. Additionally, the survey showed that the type of dry beans typically eaten varied by income level: families with the lowest incomes consumed more pinto beans (33%) and limas (30%), while those with the highest incomes consumed more black beans (57%) and garbanzos (74%). (8) The preference for different dry beans appears to be influenced by more than cost, as the average retail prices in 2011 per pound were lowest for pinto beans ($0.81), followed by black beans ($1.07), and limas ($1.33). (6)

Historically an Essential Foodstuff

Dry beans have been a staple food of humans for over 10,000 years. From the black bean to the Great Northern, nearly every populace on earth cultivated its own bean species which was paired with a grain that literally allowed the growth of civilization. Beans have been and continue to be extremely popular with different cultures throughout the world. (9)
In Beans: A History, author Ken Albala explains the significance of beans for people in many parts of the world, especially when animal protein sources were not viable:
“Beans are indeed a cheap and economically efficient way to meet nutritional requirements, and for this reason, regions with a high population density or sparse grazing land came to depend on beans. In many places, China and India in particular, beans retain a central role in the diet to this day.” (9)
Beans have provided U.S. families an affordable source of nourishment, whether enduring national economic downturns, regional disasters, or individual hard times. Dating back to April 27, 1919, a New York Times newspaper column encouraged readers to “cut the high cost of eating” by trying featured bean recipes: baked beans and a bean loaf. (10)
During the Great Depression, families survived on what they were able to grow and raise, hunt, barter, or purchase with what little money they had. For many families, meals consisted largely of bread, beans, rice, potatoes, or pasta. Adults who grew up during the depression often remember eating a lot of beans: (11)

  • “I lived through the Great Depression and can remember eating beans for breakfast, lunch, and dinner when I was four years old but at least we had something to eat.” – Marty Bryan, age 82
  • “Grandma would make an Italian dish called ‘minestra’ – made with the cut up left over bread, beans, ham hocks and dandelion greens.” – Mary Rose DeMaria, age 83
  • “After working in the mill all day my dad came home to a supper of baked beans on toast – one Campbell’s regular size can divided among the three of us.” – Mildred Redman Dieter, age 81
  • “Food was…plain and filling. White navy bean soup was a favorite.” – Margaret Smith, age 94
  • “We had a lot of beans and cornbread too. Grandma used to make huge kettles of vegetable or bean soup.” – Dolores L. Younger, age 79
  • “We would have potatoes for one meal and beans for another.” – Earl Gorsuch, age 88

Putting Knowledge into Practice

Cost is one important factor that influences food purchases and using beans for family meals can add up to significant savings. Dietitians have the opportunity to help individuals stretch limited food dollars by encouraging meal preparers to try bean recipes that fit with their tastes, special dietary needs, culture, and lifestyle.

About the Authors

Tammy Roberts, MS, RD, LD and Lynda Zimmerman, MS, RD, LD are registered dietitians and nutrition and health education specialists with University of Missouri Extension.  They help Missourians lead healthier lives by teaching a variety of classes, from home food preservation to stretching food dollars to diabetes management, and by providing news stories for local newspapers and other media.


  1. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Division of Consumer Prices and Price Indexes. (2011, November 16). Consumer Price Index Summary. Retrieved from
  2. USDA Food CPI and Expenditures: Analysis and Forecasts of the CPI for Food. (2011, November 25). Food CPI and Expenditures: Analysis and Forecasts of the CPI for Food. Retrieved from
  3. Kumcu, A. & Kaufman, P. (2011, September). Food spending adjustments during recessionary times. Amber Waves: The Economics of Food, Farming, Natural Resources, and Rural America. USDA Economic Research Service. Retrieved from
  4. Drewnowski, A. (2010, April 1). The Nutrient Rich Foods Index helps to identify healthy, affordable foods. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 91(4), 1099S. Retrieved from
  5. Iowa State University Extension. (2008, December 2). Meat, Poultry, Beans & Nuts. Spend Smart. Eat Smart (PM 2066bx). Retrieved from
  6. Stewart, H., Hyman, J., Buzby, J. C., Frazão, E. & Carlson, A. (February, 2011). How Much Do Fruits and Vegetables Cost? USDA Economic Research Service. Economic Information Bulletin 71. Retrieved from
  7. Utah State University Cooperative Extension. (2011). Food Storage. Dry Beans. Retrieved from
  8. Lucier, G., Lin, B-H, Allshouse, J, & Kantor, L. S. (April 2000). Factors Affecting Dry Bean Consumption in the United States (S&O/VGS-280). USDA Economic Research Service. P. 8. Retrieved from
  9. Albala, K. (2007). Introduction. In Beans: A History (2). Oxford, U.K.: Berg Publishers.
  10. No author. (1919, April 27). Bean prices falling: “Poor man’s meat” now almost within the reach of all. New York Times. Retrieved from
  11. Ohio Department of Aging. (2009, March-April). Great depression story project: Food, cooking and eating. Retrieved from