Published in: Personal Finance | Sept. 6, 2020
By: Emma Newbery
Here's how to eat for $5 per person per day.
September is Hunger Action Month in the United States. And as the coronavirus crisis continues to hit the wallets of millions of Americans, there's never been a more appropriate time to focus on food costs.
At the start of the COVID-19 emergency, the government moved quickly to get money into the hands of those who needed it in the form of a stimulus check and additional unemployment benefits. Unfortunately, the emergency was not as short-lived as many had hoped and that money is running out, with no agreement on a second stimulus package.
As many grapple with income loss, SNAP benefits -- food stamps -- have become a lifeline. SNAP benefits can be used to buy basic foodstuffs such as meat, dairy, fruits and vegetables, and bread and cereals.
SNAP eligibility depends on how much your household earns and your assets. In most states, the gross monthly income for a family of four must be less than $2,790 to qualify. The amount you receive varies depending on where you live, what you earn, and what other benefits you receive.
The quick answer is "yes" -- because millions of families do, and have done so for years. The amount people receive is calculated using the USDA's estimations of a "thrifty" food plan, and updated each year according to changing food costs and habits.
The more realistic answer is "sort of." The maximum SNAP benefit for a family of four is $646 a month (about $150 a week). That's tight. Most states have been able to give maximum benefits during the coronavirus crisis, but that number gets even tighter when you consider that the number would normally be lowered according to your earnings.
To put that $646 in context, according to The Ascent research on typical American spending, the average consumer unit of 2.5 people spends $660 a month on food -- more than the SNAP allocation for four people.
In fact, the average American spends about $8.70 per person per day on food, whereas a family on SNAP benefits needs to get by on $5.30.
If you are draining your savings account to cover your food bills, you're likely already a whiz at stretching your monthly food budget. But if you're new to SNAP -- or looking for some extra tips -- here are some ways you can feed your family on SNAP benefits.
If you don't already do it, making a weekly meal plan will help you cut down on leftovers, keep your menu varied, and help you use any coupons you've collected. Where possible, plan to cook double (or even triple) and put a meal in the freezer.
Before you set foot in a store, figure out what you are going to eat and what you'll need to buy. Map out each meal of each day and use that to guide your shopping. You can do it on paper, or online if you prefer. Factor in fast meals for days when you know you won't have time to cook and map out when you might use leftovers. If your grocery store doesn't publish its weekly offers online, you might have to build in a little flexibility to take advantage of them when you hit the store.
It may feel daunting to begin with, but give it a go. In the long run, meal planning can reduce waste and save you time and money.
Cutting back on the amount of meat you eat is the easiest way to cut your food budget. It doesn't mean becoming vegetarian, but if you aim to eat meat just once or twice a week, you may find your diet is healthier and you save money. When you do eat meat, look for cheaper cuts that you can use for stews and sauces.
The Double Up Food Bucks program now operates in 28 states. SNAP customers can double the value of the money they spend on fruits and vegetables at participating stores and farmers markets. If there are any participating stores near you, make them your first stop.
If your family consumes a lot of something, you'll save money by buying it in bulk. Storage space permitting, toilet paper, canned goods, cleaning products, and pasta are all good contenders. Pay attention to sell-by dates and avoid anything you're unlikely to use before it goes bad. And don't buy 10 packets of anything you've never tried before -- bulk buying won't save you money if the purchase just sits in the back of a cupboard.
Coupons work even when you pay with your EBT card (the way you use these benefits), though some stores may charge you tax on the coupon value. Even so, they can be a great way to stretch your food budget. Check local newspapers and hunt online for coupons on products you buy regularly. Increase your savings even further by using coupons to pay for products already on sale. Just don't let them tempt you into buying products you weren't going to buy anyway.
You can feed your family on SNAP benefits, but it may take precious time, both in the kitchen and in planning your meals. But given that food spending is the third-biggest part of most people's monthly budgets, eking out some savings at the dinner table could give you more wiggle room in other areas.
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