The gluten-free diet can be expensive but it’s not an option for people with celiac disease. For people with celiac disease or other gluten-related disorders, the gluten-free diet is imperative for good health. Here are some tips for how to save money on a gluten-free diet and how to claim the incremental tax credit as part of the gluten-free diet and celiac disease!
SAVE MONEY ON A GLUTEN-FREE DIET
Budget expert and coupon queen Tina Crane provides her best tips and practices for saving money on a gluten free diet.
I have spent a number of years now being called a Coupon Queen. I stayed on the savings path during my first maternity leave in 2013. I cut our grocery budget by 30-40% even as our family grew from 2 to 4 mouths (my 5- and 7-year-old can out eat any adult I’ve ever met). We were in great standing. Then, in the middle of 2020, my then 4-year-old was diagnosed with celiac disease. And a few months later, I received the same diagnosis. That seemed to destroy my budgeting, spend-thrift ways. Now I was being forced to pay double and triple the prices for foods that I didn’t even really enjoy.
I’ve been through all the emotions. The roller coaster of anger, sadness and happiness that my daughter no longer complains of pain all day. My main focus now is to find foods we enjoy that are safe and affordable. The frustration is real for everyone dealing with a budget on a special diet, whether it be gluten free, dairy free or any combo of restrictions. Of course, I didn’t notice it before, but when the pasta goes on sale and I used to get 30 boxes for $3, the gluten-free options remains regular price – $3.49 PER BOX – even when it’s the same brand.
It’s also ‘easy’ to cut gluten out if you eat only whole foods but that has its challenges as well. It’s still a huge jump in prices from what we were spending on a ‘regular diet’. I can get a bag of 12-15 apples for $12 or I can pay a little less and get a hundred bags of fruit candy for my kids that are still safe, and they love for a snack. It’s a balancing act to get to a place where I can buy the apples and still have the convenience food on hand for treats and emergencies.
So, after my panic subsided, I got down to figuring out how to do this without going into bankruptcy. A lot of my focus now is on how to get regular (naturally gluten free) items for the lowest prices so then I have more flexibility to get the gluten-free items like flour and breads and cookies for the kids. Save on the things you ‘need’ like milk or chicken or veggies – so you can spend more on the ‘wants’ like cookies and fancy cheese (I love fancy cheese). It’s harder to get good deals on the gluten-free items but I’ve still managed to score free items and clearance items a couple of times, its resulted in me saving hundreds in one trip.
I quickly realized that the fundamentals of saving money are the same no matter what the diet. First, you must know your prices. This is absolutely essential. Never just buy it because the tag says ‘sale’ – know what the regular price is, what a good sale price is and what the ‘stock up’ price is. If you aren’t familiar with the prices of items, you are at the mercy of the store’s marketing. Their ‘sale’ sign might fool you because you don’t realize that it was marked up $1 then on sale for 50 cents less. And is still $.2 more expensive than the competitor. I rarely buy anything at regular price – my goal is to always have food I frequently use in my stockpile so I can take from there until I see another sale. That way with a good base, I have much more flexibility with my weekly budget for fresh food and the dreaded gluten-free bread. It can take a while to get a good handle on prices (I’ll never understand toilet paper math, I just buy the brand I like) but once you get a handle on it, things are much easier. Sometimes the numbers are different for me now ($2 and under was always a great price for bread here but I was very excited to get it for $5.99 last week) but it’s the same idea, it’s still about getting things for the best possible price.
To become familiar with prices and their cycles, either gather the weekly flyers to browse or download a flyer app on your phone (I use Flipp and Flyerify). This is also a great way to compare prices before going out and plan a shopping trip.
Note: Also know where the markdowns are located in the stores you frequent. Do they have a section where all the clearance items go? Do they stay on the regular shelf and just get sale stickers? Always watch for clearance items.
I can’t talk about prices without touching on brands. If you are very brand loyal, it’s hard to save money because you have less options. When you’re limited by diet as to how many brands you can buy, it also makes it harder. BUT there are still many options to look at for most foods. Need/want to stick to a particular brand? Check out their website – many will offer promotions like bulk sales, sample boxes, free shipping or maybe even send you a coupon. In the mood to try some new stuff? There are quite a few cheaper brands/store brands that you can try. Currently, my favourite cookies, peanut butter and pasta are a ‘store brand’ and much cheaper than their brand name buddies.
Don’t forget that you can get deals online for food too. I’ve gotten some items on Amazon for half the price I would have paid in the gluten free area of my local grocery store. Don’t see what you need on Amazon? Check your favourite products online for deals directly from the company themselves. The savings might be small but if you are going to buy it anyway, shouldn’t you get the best price?
Now that you know the prices you are working with for what you want/need, start looking for coupons. You can tear pads in stores, sometimes you’ll see them attached to the actual product in store, you can print them off internet coupon and company sites (make sure anything you print has a Canadian address, you can’t use coupons with an American address). Did you know that some companies will even mail you coupons if you write and ask? I have gotten them for gluten free, dairy free and vegan products since I began our new diet.
Another way to get deals is to avail of store loyalty programs. Check out your local grocery store or drug store to see what programs they offer. Some will offer personal points awarded on items you have bought or items similar to what you have bought. It wasn’t long into our GF journey when I noticed I was getting many GF options for personal points offers. But, if that isn’t part of the program, getting points for things like diapers and tampons might then allow you to score some $8 GF bread for free when you redeem the points. Credit cards also offer loyalty programs in the form of cash back offers, loyalty points or travel rewards. Look around for what offers fit your needs best – but keep in mind that you should only use it if you can pay off the balance each month – the interest can be crippling!
There are cash back apps that also can help you save some money along the way. Checkout 51, Caddle and Eclipse are all Canadian and work very similarly. Buy something on one of the offers, take a picture of the receipt and upload it to the app and you will bank the money offered. When you reach $20 you can cash out and they mail you a cheque. There are times that you can find an item on sale, use a coupon and/or use a cash back offer and you can actually make money.
When I cash out, I usually use the cheque they send to add to my stockpile or go on a gluten-free treat rampage – although at $2 a ciabatta bun, it doesn’t take long for my spree to end.
Buying in bulk can be a great way to save money too, on things you use a lot of. Flour, rice, sugar, etc. are great things to bulk buy and always have on hand. Buying bulk meats can also be a great way to cut costs.
It’s not hoarding. It really isn’t. Technically it’s a ‘large accumulated stock of goods, especially one held in reserve for use at a time of shortage or other emergency’. I happen to think that things being on regular price IS an emergency. Having some things always on hand is a great way to save money – because you’re never forced to pay too much because you need it that day and can’t wait for a sale. I buy extra canned tomatoes, beans, rice, sauces, pasta, etc when they go on for a stock-up price. So, I always have the pantry staples I need to make a meal, even if the fresh items are sparse. I’ll never overpay for pasta sauce because I bought it on sale while earning enough points to cover half the cost. So, I still have my full weekly budget to buy veggies, milk and eggs.
If I see an amazing price, I always buy what I know we will eat before it goes bad. Just before Christmas a friend told me that a store was selling off GF stock. I made a run in and the bread and buns my family love are usually $7.99 but were on sale for $1.99. I bought all that I could – I estimated I saved over $200 that trip alone. And had bread for weeks!
Each week I try to use around 10-15% of my budget on something that’s not to eat that week but to beef up my stockpile. It doesn’t happen every week, but it happens enough that when we went into lockdown for months, we had enough to eat, we just needed milk and fruit to keep us going. This year’s focus has been rebuilding and filling the holes we created.
CUT THE WASTE
This means different things to different people and budgets. Spending money on something that you don’t end up using or isn’t essential can be considered wasteful (I’m NOT saying cut out all non-essentials. If you can create and stick to an essential budget, you’ll have some extra money for the non-essentials like a late for a treat – because mental health is also essential.)
Maybe stop buying that kale you’re ‘going to try’ but always end up throwing away. Maybe just make sure that you are storing your produce correctly, so it is still fresh when you go to eat it. Or it might mean stop using an ATM that isn’t your bank – and paying $3 for the privilege. Sure, it doesn’t seem like a lot but I could do that three times a month OR I could get a dozen tins of corn.
There are lots of groups out there that can help. Follow some coupon/saving groups on Facebook – there are Canadian wide ones and also local ones with more location-specific deals. There are also lots of groups that follow Amazon sales – I’m part of a couple who tag me anytime there’s a gluten-free item that goes on sale. I wouldn’t have time to find those deals on my own! On a more personal level, friends now send me pictures of deals when they are out shopping – a clearance on gluten free products can save me hundreds if it’s something my kids like.
Are there any programs in your city/town/province that help with gluten-free food? Because my daughter is under 18, we qualify for a provincial food bank program and I get some flour, crackers and pasta every month for her.
Finally, the dirty word BUDGET. Your budget contains many things you can’t control like mortgage and utilities. But the things we can control are what make or break our finances. Decide how much you can spend for food/household items weekly/biweekly/monthly and STICK TO IT. That’s the hardest part but it’s also the most important part. You may want to use cash only, track it in a book or app – for me, I transfer the spending money into one account every Monday and that’s what I have that week, no more. It keeps me from overspending and keeps me honest because I can see the money come out and the balance drop quickly.
EARN A TAX CREDIT ON GLUTEN-FREE FOOD
People diagnosed with celiac disease know that the cost difference between gluten-free food and their ‘gluten-filled’ counterparts can be considerable. CCA volunteer, Lynda Marie Neilson, offers tips on how you can make your tax claim for the incremental cost of gluten-free food.
For people diagnosed with celiac disease and have a note written by a doctor, nurse or nurse practitioner on their letterhead saying the date of diagnosis, that they are diagnosed with Celiac Disease and require a gluten-free diet for life, these people can claim this type of Medical Expense. This note only needs to be sent to the CRA if you are audited.
The incremental cost is “The difference in average cost of gluten-free products compared to the cost of a similar product with gluten”. It is calculated by subtracting the average cost of similar gluten-free products from the cost of a similar gluten product. For example, if you have purchased 20 packages of GF cookies in a year – add up how much you spent on all the cookies and divide that by 20 to get the average cost of the GF cookies. Now compare that average cost to a similar size package of gluten cookies (you might need to divide the gluten cookie package price in half due to get to a comparable size). Then you subtract the price of the gluten cookies from the average price for the GF cookies and you end up with your incremental cost. The last step is to multiply that incremental cost by the 20 packages purchased during the year and that gives you the total Incremental Cost claim for cookies. If we write this out it will look like this:
20 pkg GF cookies 240 grams $95.50 total or $4.78 each
1 pkg gluten cookies 575 grams $5.95 or 288 grams for $2.98 (note – took half of price to get package size in line with the GF cookies package size) Keep a log where you got this price/date/store.
When looking at your grocery receipts, try and “group” like things together such as cookies, crackers, pizzas, flour, bread, single items (cookie) so they can be compared to a gluten item (relative in size).
When it comes to comparable gluten items – you are looking for the BIGGEST and CHEAPEST possible – sales count! Through the year keep your eyes out for when gluten products go on sale and clip that evidence from a flyer, take a picture or print the information out from a grocery website. Another good way to “gluten” shop is to go onto a grocery store website such as Save on Foods and fill your cart with the gluten foods you need for comparison, print out your cart and then delete it – who wants to order those things? Then use the printout to substantiate where you get your comparison gluten pricing from. Then those BIG and CHEAP items you need to break down in both size and price to be comparable to your GF item category.
Other useful tips:
Only claim items you have receipts for.
Do not “estimate” the cost of a gluten item – you need documentation for your comparable prices when being audited.
Do claim the cost of GF bread/buns/crusts if they are itemized separately on a restaurant bill.
Only claim food for the person in the household diagnosed with CD.
Update your “spreadsheet” monthly or quarterly – keeping current means less work at tax time!
Listen in as Sue Jennett, from A Canadian Celiac Podcast, speaks with Cinde Little, the Everyday Gluten Free Gourmet, about practical tips to stretch your gluten-free food dollar.