Could Your Family Survive on SNAP Benefits?

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Last week, one of my “real life” friends invited me to participate in a Facebook challenge that was designed to raise money for a good cause.

For a hot minute, I was super annoyed.  After all, I’m still reeling from the horrors of the Ice Bucket Challenge.  With millions of people lacking access to safe water around the globe each year, it absolutely blew my mind to watch everyone I know waste gallons of water in the name of charity.  Only in America, folks. #FacePalm

Regardless, this challenge was different.  Nothing would go to waste and the cause is something I actually believe in.  The details:

A family of 4 with a $1000 monthly income gets less than $11 per day for SNAP benefits (food stamps). A family of two with a monthly income of $500 gets about $6.50 per day.

Here’s the Challenge (and a learning experience for your family)

  • Go to store and buy everything you will eat or drink for two days with $22 (family of four) or $13 (Family of two)
  • Post picture of what you bought and donate $11 to Love INC of Greater Hancock County

OR you can donate $100 to LoveINC of Greater Hancock County

Is $22 Enough for Two Days of Food?

Let’s face it- $22 is not a ton of money for food.  In a regular ol’ 30-day month, that amounts to around $330 for groceries for a family of four.  But, is it enough for food for two days?  Let’s see what I bought to find out:

foodAs you can see, I actually brought home a pretty big haul for $20.55.  The details:

  • Thin Spaghetti: $1.00
  • Spaghetti Sauce: $1.00
  • Refried Beans: FREE with coupon
  • Jiffy Corn Bread: $.40
  • Tomatoes: $1.49
  • Shredded Carrots: $1.99
  • Lettuce: $.99
  • Yogurts: $1.60
  • Bananas: $1.29
  • Mac-n-Cheese (2): $1.49 (used coupon)
  • Bread: $.99
  • Milk: $2.99
  • Cheese: $1.99
  • Eggs: $1.99
  • Tuna (2): $1.34

Total: $20.55

Making Smart Grocery Purchases

I get the feeling that this exercise was designed to show people how little food stamps can buy, but it actually had the opposite effect on me.  Sure, $22 is not a lot of money for food for two days, but it can go pretty far if you make the right decisions.  And to be honest, the groceries above are pretty much what we eat on a regular basis.

A banana and yogurt for breakfast is pretty common in our house, as is a salad with refried beans for dinner.  We eat grilled cheese all-the-freaking-time- usually with soup or a salad on the side.  And scrambled eggs?  My kids will eat eggs and toast for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. 

As many of you know, we typically spend $500-$600 per month on groceries, but that’s only because I have a few splurges that wouldn’t work if I were on SNAP.  Things like alcohol, pricey snacks, and specialty foods tend to make it into my cart- even when I have the best intentions.

But, could I feed my family of four on SNAP benefits?  You bet!  Here’s how:

  • I would only buy produce that is on sale- Grocery stores almost always have produce on sale, and I typically only buy what is in my budget and avoid the rest.  So if avocadoes and tomatoes are on sale, we have guacamole.  If raspberries are on sale, we have them for breakfast.
  • I would stock up on staples- Rice and beans are inexpensive kitchen staples that can be used in a plethora or dishes, or eaten alone.  If my grocery budget were severely limited, I would try to plan most meals around those items.
  • I would create meal plans- One way we save on our grocery budget is creating meals that use ingredients we already have.
  • I would make sure we eat leftovers- Throwing food away is akin to throwing money away.  No bueno!  If we were short on funds, I would turn all of our leftovers into meals.
  • I would continue to be a vegetarian- Avoiding meat means plenty of money for fresh produce instead.

Is It Always This Easy?

Of course, it’s easy for me to get by on a SNAP food budget.  I have a car and can drive myself to the store without using public transportation.  I also live near several stores that offer beautiful, fresh produce and awesome prices to boot.

Unfortunately, that isn’t the case for everyone.

According to research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, some of the poorest Americans around the country live in “food deserts.”

“Food deserts are areas that lack access to affordable fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lowfat milk, and other foods that make up the full range of a healthy diet.”

-Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Food deserts are found all over the country- in both urban and rural areas.  Even worse, people living in those areas don’t always have access to a grocery store within walking distance or reliable transportation that can take them there.  Imagine having to take a two-hour bus ride to the grocery store just for the privilege of having fresh food for your family.  With that in mind, it’s easy to see why some families end up eating convenience foods from the corner shop instead.

Could You Survive on SNAP Benefits?

It is possible to get by on a SNAP food budget?  Of course it is- but only if you have access to transportation and stores that offer fresh produce at prices you can afford.

And for the record, I did go ahead and donate $100 to Love, Inc. anyway (Love In the Name of Christ).  If you want to as well, you can do so here.

Do you think it would be easy or hard to survive on $11 in groceries each day?  Could your family do it?

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73 Comments

  1. I couldn’t survive om that with our food costs here so high. SNAP is meant as a supplement to purchasing food and not.as the primary source. People should have skin in the game when it comes to purchasing their own food.

    I deal with a lot of retail stores, on food stamp days their best cut beef and seafood often sell out first.

    1. I agree that it is meant to be supplemental and not as the main food source.

  2. Hey, Holly, I was really surprised that thin spaghetti were only $1.00 and spaghetti sauce was only $1.00! Our spaghetti sauce here is really expensive!

    1. It was on sale, but both items are on sale frequently. I actually get a lot of spaghetti free with coupons.

  3. If it’s true that SNAP is meant to be supplemental, then it should be enough. My husband and l will usually make 2 meals from a box of spaghetti and sauce from scratch. Our indulgence is seafood to top it, which we would cut out if needed. Dinner is usually Caprese salad or bean soup etc.. It however must be very tough if you have a load of kids and a minimum pay job, no car etc..etc..nice that you donated to a good cause.

    1. I agree that it is supposed to be supplemental. I actually think $22 is a very reasonable amount of money for 2 days of food, especially when used with items people purchase themselves.

  4. Our prices are probably at least 30% higher than yours across the board, so it’d be do-able to get 2 days worth of food for us for $13, but there wouldn’t be a heck of a lot of variation to it since to get the best prices you really need to be buying in bigger (at least family sized) quantities.

    1. Yes, it would definitely get boring. I like to mix things up and eat different things all the time.

  5. You make a great point about food deserts–it’s a real issue in many parts of the country. I remind myself how fortunate I am to be able to drive to Costco (and pay for the membership) and have multiple nice grocery stores in my neighborhood that I can easily walk or bike to. Not everyone is so fortunate.

    We do almost exactly what you outlined–no meat, tons of rice-n-beans, meal planning, and eating every scrap of leftovers. We’ve had some unusual dinner combos in the name of using up food that’s going bad, but we don’t mind. It is so rare for us to throw out even a single piece of fruit (I did have to toss a solitary grape last week).

    1. Yes, definitely. I can pick between 3 or 4 stores easily- a few of them I could even walk to if I needed to. It makes a difference.

  6. I think spreading out the higher amount of money over many days would make it easier. It’s hard to shop for just two days, because some things you buy you expect to last longer than two days. For us it’s the meat that impacts our grocery budget but I don’t think I can get my husband to go vegetarian although personally, I would prefer it and my daughter is vegan already.

    1. Yeah, I agree- cheap things like peanut butter and jelly only cost a few dollars but can last for weeks. It would probably get easier over time.

  7. Back then, I challenge myself to spend $50 for five days for Food. It was really tough to fit that five-day lifestyle. After nailing it, I was satisfied because of the saving I had and the satisfaction I felt. I would have one again soon to get those benefits again.

  8. In Australia everything costs a fortune, so there is no way you could do it, but it doesn’t mean you cant still make big savings.

    Also for me personally – I’ve only recently discovered that I have a food intolerance, so we are now having to buy a lot of more expensive foods (mainly fresh produce) and have seen our weekly grocery bill climb by about 15%

    1. Yeah, that makes a difference too. We buy a lot of produce but don’t buy meat so it evens out.

    1. Oh, I’m sure there are plenty of other things- pots and pans, a spatula, cutlery is needed even to make a salad. It’s easy to take a kitchen full of tools for granted.

      On the other hand, there are ways to buy things inexpensively. One of my nicest pots was purchased from a thrift store for $3!

      1. $3 is not nothing for many people. (And the refrigerator and the stove are big things– you don’t get them when you’re living in your car or most temporary hotels or homeless shelters etc.)

        1. Oh, I don’t disagree with you. I’m just saying that everything does not have to cost a fortune. Of course, if you don’t have a refrigerator or stove then it doesn’t really matter if you have a pot or a pan or a spatula.

    2. KayinMass says:

      I think she “misses” your points every time…

  9. Oo I loved this post! I don’t know if I could live off $13 a day the way I eat now, but if I had to, I know I would be able to do it. Even right now, I try to shop around sales, but like you my grocery bill gets high with delicious beer, snacks etc.

    1. Yep, I hear ya! Mine too =) Those “extras” tend to be worth it to us because they keep us eating at home instead of eating out. I don’t mind paying more for healthy and delicious food (within reason).

  10. I’m jealous of your tomatoes! It looks like you’ve bought the same type of cherry tomatoes that I recently bought, only here they cost me $3.99! And that was the cheapest brand :-(. Might go check out a different grocery store to see if they are cheaper- but I think the problem is the part of the country I live in, not the store.

    1. They were on sale for $.99! They are usually more like $2.49. Kroger is really good about putting random produce and food on sale. The other day, I bought 5 giant bags of cashews for $.99 each! My husband will eat those all day long and they are usually very expensive.

  11. $7/day isn’t insanity to me. We budget about $75 per week for 2 adults, which is closer to $10/day, but we’d just have to be a bit smarter about the options and I think we could get it down there. It’s also important to note you won’t get very far with the cost of meat. It should be a garnish if you’re using it, not the main dish.

  12. Good point about the food deserts/ transportation issues. An interesting challenge would be to try to live off of SNAP funds for a month without using a personal car for transportation – only walk/bike/bus/accept rides from others.

  13. $11/day? That’s going to be tough on our family of six. It would definitely take more meal planning than I’m currently doing. At that limitation one could afford very little meat…it’s price has really climbed.

  14. You bring up a great point about access. I think we could make do, though have a somewhat monotonous choice of foods, but we can easily go out and get what we need. Unfortunately, not everyone has that ability or option. We’re around $500ish per month for our family of five so it would require cutting out some things but I think it most definitely could be done.

  15. I could probably do anything if I absolutely had to, but would I like it? Not even close. Foods like pasta and rice, which are cheap, make me gain weight really quickly. Im also not a vegetarian so I eat a lot of lean protein (although eggs are a big part of that sometimes too). I think what can be bad is eating low cost/high processed foods long term can have a very negative affect on your health, and would cost you more in health care costs in the long run. Now I do agree that sometimes great choices may not be being taken by people on that income, but I do think lower income areas also are food deserts, meaning they don’t have access to certain fresh fruits and veggies. I think that’s a huge problem.

    1. I get fat on carbs too so I would hate it! Beans are the only exception. I would be 500 pounds if I ate pasta every day.

  16. We’re pretty good at getting cheap groceries but you make an excellent point. Many poor areas are in “food deserts” and lack the choices that we have since we can drive to grocery stores that offer fresh produce and better prices.

    1. Yep! Totally. People with transportation have a lot more choices altogether.

  17. I could definitely survive on SNAP benefits. It is an exercise of creativity and smarts, but it is totally doable. I challenge myself every time I go grocery shopping to spend less. My monthly budget is $400 a month or 4 people, and I frequently come in less than that and could push myself to go further if I didn’t get the snacks and things for my son.

    1. We could probably do better than our $500-$600 per month budget, but I’m pretty happy where it is. I love produce!

  18. I could certainly survive on this amount of money. I do think it would be easier if I was a vegetarian though. As you pointed out, meat gets expensive.

  19. Yes, it’s doable, but you can’t be picky. We’d have to compromise and do regular milk instead of organic, corn oil instead of olive oil, green bell peppers instead of red, etc. I do agree that food deserts are a huge problem, but I think a bigger problem is lack of education in regards to budgeting, nutrition, and shopping and preparing foods from ingredients instead of processed, pre-made. That’s kind of what the food banks and emergency assistance organizations here see. People spend all their money at once on things like frozen lasagna and then are broke by the 15th.

    1. Yep, that sucks. Some basic cooking and nutrition classes would probably go a long way.

  20. As you said, it’s definitely doable. I lived on less than $50/week in groceries when I was paying off debt and I was pretty well fed. Sure I didn’t have steaks and expensive fish to dine on but my choices and meals were still relatively healthy. DH and I usually eat about $350/month in groceries but could definitely cut back if need be. As for desserts, I keep none at home because I still don’t have full control over my love of all things sweet!

    1. Me neither! I only buy sweets I don’t like for the kids =)

  21. THANK YOU, Holly, for writing this, and I completely agree. We feed our family of six for between $400-$600 a month. No, we don’t buy pop, or prepacked snacks: we drink water, sometimes milk and we make cookies from scratch for about a buck. It can be done.

    1. Yes, it can certainly be done. Making things from scratch helps!

  22. PS: when we were kids and on welfare, we had no car, so we’d walk the mile to the spendy grocery store and walk the groceries back in a little wagon. In the wintertime we’d splurge and take a cab home.

  23. We’re feeding 4 adults (one young male!) and one pre-schooler on about $350/mth – including meat. It takes time and buying in bulk (which I know is not the easiest on SNAP), but it is done. We also have easy access to Wal-Mart and Costco. If I was shopping at the local grocery store, it’d be a whole lot more expensive.

    1. Yep, I’m sure it would be-especially a corner convenience store.

  24. I left a comment and my stupid computer ate it. Sigh. Here’s my two cents. There are two additional components to being able to use SNAP benefits well: knowing how to cook and the ability to recognize fresh food items and their importance in a healthy daily diet.

    Because I know how to cook, I am able to craft meals that are not only healthy for me but inexpensive as well. I have read a number of studies and watched a number of documentaries where people (especially children) who have grown up in food deserts surrounded by convenience food are unable to identify food in its natural state. How are you supposed to craft a meal when you don’t know what it is?

    Also, we are a nation of convenience eaters. If you’re tired, disorganized because you’re tired and broke you eat cheap and fast food.

    I think it’s time for a natural food revolution where the Government not only provides SNAP benefits but is engaged in growing fresh food in poor and middle class neighborhoods to supplement the benefit ( I wrote a post about this awhile ago)

    I love this post and it touches on a challenge that I will be doing in October. Food insecurity is real and I wish people would stop going off on poor people for wanting to eat good food.

    1. I hate it when my comments get eaten!

      Yes, I agree that education is so important. Learning to cook even basic meals can make a huge difference. I am lucky that my parents taught me some basic cooking skills.

    2. Yes. I would like to see a country where every abandoned empty lot could be turned into a community garden! I also love the idea of food forests where public areas are planted with fruit trees. The harvests are accessible to the general public.

      I participated in a SNAP challenge last year. It was easy for me because I got in my car and drove over to an Aldi in the next town!

      Many SNAP recipients actually work…some two or three jobs. A minimum wage that was truly a living wage would be something.

  25. Interesting challenge! I think it’s doable for us, but I also have half the appetite of a normal person. Your haul looks like what I would get, though our prices are a little more expensive. I try to shop at Kroger when I’m visiting my parents as it’s an awesome store; unfortunately there aren’t any nearby. It’s crazy how much we take for granted sometimes.

  26. I could do it but am grateful that I don’t have to. In part, because I don’t eat many carbs and bread, pasta, rice and potatoes are cheap. 🙂 As you mentioned, I think one of the toughest realities is that many people on SNAP benefits don’t always have access to fresh produce at great prices. Convenience stores carry little fresh produce and what they do is often incredibly expensive and frankly, not the freshest. I think we need to get back to some basics and teach our kids how to cook and meal plan. So many kids today have no idea how to cook and shop for food.

  27. IT would be very rough for us to live off $6.50 a day, but mostly because we eat a lot of produce and meat, and very little pasta and pre-packaged foods. It sucks that it costs more to eat better.

  28. My average grocery bill is right around $20, and that lasts my family of two way longer than 2 days. Having worked for WIC in the past, I’ve learned that you can do a whole lot with very little money, especially if you’re willing to try meatless options. Meat’s a budget killer for those in need. Beans are the solution.

  29. You know what’s really sad? I think that lunch in our work cafeteria quickly gets to the $7-$11 range. That’s one meal, lunch. It’s also why I haven’t ate there yet! I think Victoria and I could get by on $13 for two days. I like to think we are pretty savvy shoppers. We are “close” to being vegetarians but not quite there yet. It’s interesting how much you can save by cutting meat out. We have good public transit here but yes it is easy to get to and from places if you have a car.

  30. I’m gonna give you a counter-point with data. I’ll first state that the US has household food shortage issues mainly due to their budget decisions. We need to look at the root cause of the issue. Food cost as a percentage of household income has dropped drastically from about 40% in 1900 to well under 10% today. (BTW, clothing costs have dropped significantly as well) The average US household throws away 25% of it’s food each day. Overall, 40% of food is wasted from all sources. Transportaion costs, health costs, and education costs have all increased over this same time frame taking over the food budget. Shop for food on sale, freeze items to make them last longer, eat your leftovers, and juice old produce to name a few actionable changes. Don’t drink alcohol, smoke, or engage in recreational drug use. Drop unnecessary household expenses like cable, internet, mobile phones, and general consumerism activities. I’m tired of pleas for food donations. Pleople in the US that go hungry do so by CHOICE of the household leadership. Because of these improper choices, I predict that this definition of US food hunger will NEVER go away. There, I spoke about the elephant in the room with facts. Throwing money at problems rarely solves them and is an incredible waste of financial resources. 🙂

  31. We’ve been diagnosed with a bunch of food sensitivities in the last while, that make our grocery budgets increase. Theoretically, we could probably survive on less, but for some of them, we simply choose to buy our way out (ie: no cow dairy, so we eat goat cheese instead).
    I think that two days on SNAP benefits is doable… it’s the month-long aspect that’s difficult. It also completely depends upon where you live (and I don’t know enough about SNAP to know if it is adjusted regionally or not, we dont’ have an equivalent program in Canada). The range of pricing from the grocery infographic that I did was pretty nuts.

  32. I think we know that I could get by on that, especially as I’m getting by on less right now. lol The trick is to try and eat healthy on that amount; carbs are so cheap and filling and easy to make. 🙁 But it really needs to be stressed that this is a darned messier problem than whether someone in the middle class can survive on that amount. I’d love to start the challenge to live on that amount without using a car or stove, while working two jobs! lol P.S. The Ice Bucket Challenge bothered me so much for the same reason as you… 🙁

  33. SNAP is meant to only be a supplement. However, with the raise in food prices for many families it isn’t enough of one. Personally I think the food benefits should be more restrictive in what can be purchased. Like the way they restrict the WIC benefits. That way the families are required to spend so much on fruits and veggies, so much on meat, etc.

  34. Sure it’s possible to buy cheap, stick to staples and cook your own food, in much the same way our grandparents and great-grandparents used to do during the war years. But I think we’ve lost a lot of the cooking skills they had then and we’ve become dependent on processed foods and readymade meals. I think getting back to basics would be better for us, both financially and for our health.

  35. When I was paying off my student loan debt I budgeted $37.50 a week (for Eric and I). While we weren’t eating luxurious meals we were well fed and eating well (mostly homemade meals because processed food is expensive and bad for you). Sure it was more work to cook and prep, but it was totally do-able.

    That being said, I work in supportive housing and many of my clients really struggle with the “food deserts” you’re talking about. Fresh produce is easy to find NYC, but it’s often super expensive if you don’t know where to buy it (or how to prepare it). Add that to the fact that many of my clients have physical and mental disabilities and you’ve got a real problem. Processed foods are already prepared, taste better (if you don’t know how to cook), don’t go bad as fast, and are much more convenient then cooking (if you even have a home to cook them in). Traveling to a grocery store, hauling home heavy bags on the train, and hoping you prepare everything correctly (have the pots and pans, don’t burn the item you’re making, and have the ability to store the food after it’s cooked) is stressful.

  36. Where are you that milk is only $2.99?! I eat like a bird, could totally do it, alone. I don’t know about my husband though. He does like his beans but he has an addiction to energy drinks that would probably make it impossible.

  37. As a single person that would amount to $82.50/month for food. ($330 figure given by you for a family of 4 for a month/4.) My current budget for food for myself (and I feed my dad and brother lunch 5x/week) is between $100-120/month. Yes, I could make it financially on Snap benefits. With my $100-120 budget I typically end up buying at least a few junk foods and snacks that I could do without if I had to.

  38. I somehow missed this article earlier this week. I’ve thought about this recently – groceries are so frickin’ expensive here, there’s pretty much no way I could do it. The only bread that’s ever for sale for a dollar is well past it’s prime – it molds within a few days, even if you don’t mind the stale texture. Maybe if I front loaded the meal plan to eat it before it went moldy?

    I went to our “farmer’s market” earlier this year and noticed they took food stamps there, but there wasn’t any produce for sale! You could buy jams or salsa and they might have had some eggs, but this vegan never checked. We aren’t in a food desert – just a food tundra.

  39. I could do it — many weeks, I already do. But I wouldn’t want to do it long term. You set yourself up for a really boring diet (rice, beans, pasta, pretty much no meat ever) and that, for me, gets frustrating and makes me more likely to unproductively splurge if I do it too long.

    The other problem is of course the cooking skills, which a lot of people just don’t have. Tons more education needed in that way. And it also takes time, which some poor households don’t have — this isn’t true of all of them, as some have un or underemployed members. But I think of, for example, single mothers who are working long stressful hours. I can see how you would go to the easy option (stick a frozen pizza in the oven) pretty quickly under those circumstances, rather than cook.

  40. Oh you got a great haul. Nice! We have higher prices for almost everything in Canada but I am sure we could eat for 2 days on $22. Though it would lack a lot of nutrition.

  41. Tara @ Streets Ahead Living says:

    I wish I could eat beans, bread, and pasta, but I’m super carb sensitive so I can’t. I can do cheese, yogurt, and dairy, on top of meat and fresh veggies. Some people can eat higher carb foods, like my husband, who can eat 1/2 a lb of pasta in one sitting and still be stick thin. I can’t unfortunately, but I’m trying to get better about not relying on convenience foods (like low-sugar protein bars/powders) and cooking more in bulk to save more on dinners.

    This post has inspired me to make a hamburger soup with the kale, celery, and onions I have. Let’s hope it works!

  42. Interesting challenge… my wife and I regularly spend less than that on food. For two people you are talking $190 a month, the last time we were over that was in March. Good deal on the free refried beans, I haven’t seen any deals that good! If I did I would certainly be grabbing some. Looks like Kroger maybe? No Krogers by me to shop at.

  43. Where in the world did you find milk for that price. Here it is almost $4.00 a gallon.

    1. Central Indiana! Sometimes I get half gallons on sale for 99 cents!

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