In her Ash Wednesday sermon, my pastor mentioned someone’s suggestion to fast for Lent by eating only what you can purchase with the amount of money allocated by the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (“food stamps”) to needy families–approximately $4 per person per day. The suggestion had been to do this for just one week, not for the full 40 days of Lent, implying that just one week would be enough to show you how very meager that amount is and how difficult it is to be adequately fed while spending so little.
Hmmm. Well, three years ago I read this blog about a couple who ate on a food-stamp budget for Lent. I remembered that they found it was not as difficult as expected. Even at the outset, the author explained “What we’re going to do, and why it’s not so humble.” Their budget was $6 per person per day, and she already knew that wasn’t much less than their normal grocery spending. They ate pretty well. BUT! They were aware that they were coming into this experiment from a privileged position (jobs that allow them time and energy to cook from scratch, easy access to a variety of stores, a full range of kitchen appliances, a pantry already stocked with basics like spices, knowledge of cooking and budgeting) and that the exceptions they were allowing themselves (occasional restaurant meals, wine not included in food budget) would make it easier.
Of course, upon hearing this fast idea again, my data manager’s brain immediately began crunching numbers to estimate how much money per person per day my own family has been spending on groceries. When I read the above blog, I had just begun tracking our grocery spending for a full year, and since concluding that experiment I hadn’t thought to compare it to a food-stamp budget. Now I will: In 2010, my family of 3 people spent a total of $3,850.85 on groceries, which works out to $3.52 per person per day. The current maximum SNAP benefit in our state for a family of 3 is $526 per month, which works out to $5.76 per person per day. Food prices have gone up since 2010, but not that much.
Gee, those needy families are just rolling in benefits, huh? Well, no, wait a minute!
In order to get that maximum benefit, a family has to have very little other money. Even though I’m the sole breadwinner in my family at the moment, we still exceed the maximum income to receive any SNAP benefits, and our savings far exceed the asset limit. Financial security makes it possible for us to purchase large amounts of food when it’s offered at a low price. I can say, “My family spent an average of $74.05 per week on groceries,” but that is very different from, “Each week I left the house with $74.05 on my SNAP debit card, and that was the most I could possibly spend on groceries.” I can tell you for certain that I spend more than that on a lot of my grocery-shopping trips, that some Saturdays I hit 3 or 4 different stores and spend $300 in a single day. We eat from that food for weeks at a time, and in other weeks we’ll spend only $15 or so on a few perishable ingredients. I don’t even remotely stick to a weekly grocery budget. I qualify for credit cards, and when the bill comes, if I can’t pay it from my checking account, I can write a check on my money market account and “pay it back” after my next paycheck. SNAP recipients don’t have so much leeway.
Furthermore, many people use government benefits immediately after a crisis in their lives, which might include a sudden move caused by a natural disaster or leaving an abusive relationship. Not only does such a move cost money, but it means you’re starting with an empty pantry. All those ingredients, essential to cooking from scratch, that a family buys only once a year or so (like salt, cinnamon, vanilla extract, baking powder…) they need to buy all at once or do without. Starting with a stocked pantry makes it easier to work with a limited budget.
But the biggest difference between my family’s actual spending on groceries for home cooking and the true cost of feeding a family is that we eat some of our meals in restaurants. How about an estimate of our restaurant spending in 2010? I wrote, “…in a typical week, the 3 of us eat one meal in a restaurant, and Daniel and I each go out to lunch twice. Until June, Nicholas was attending a preschool that provided lunch.” The school lunch was pretty crappy and cut-rate, so let’s say it would have cost $1 per day to purchase the same food; he got 5 lunches per week for about 20 weeks, so that’s $100. One family meal in a restaurant is about $35 including tip, so one of those per week is $1,820 a year–but I noted that we ate out more often than normal in October because of the dust and disruption from our bathroom renovation, so better add another, oh, 15 meals=$525. If Daniel and I spent an average of $7 per lunch, twice a week, each, that’s $1,456 for the year. $100+$1,820+$525+$1,456=$3,901 spent in restaurants over the course of 2010. That more than doubles the cost of feeding us for a year! Wow.
Now, I’m sure that if we gave up eating in restaurants, we would be able to prepare meals at home that would cost less than the same number of calories purchased in restaurants, because we’d be paying only for the food and its packaging and production costs, not the wages of cooks and servers and dishwashers. Still, eating only from our groceries probably would bring our grocery costs up pretty close to the $6,312 maximum annual SNAP benefit for our family size.
You know what would really be a strict Lenten discipline for my family, one that would make us suffer and thus reflect on the ease of our normal lives? Giving up restaurants for Lent. We’re not doing that this year! We really enjoy the convenience of restaurants when we’re away from home and the luxury of being able to obtain a wider variety of cuisine than we know how to cook for ourselves, while we just sit and relax and wait for it to be served. Maybe someday we’ll fast from restaurants and see what we learn. But we feel that our restaurant indulgences are within reasonable limits (both in the number of meals we eat out and in the amount we spend per meal), and we are supporting our economy by helping to keep cooks and servers and dishwashers employed and paid, so overall I don’t see eating in restaurants as a sin, just a privilege that must be acknowledged when we talk about how little we spend on groceries.
My Thrifty Tips article lists some of the ways we save money on groceries and other things–including links to recipes for using food you’d otherwise throw away!–and my menu posts give examples of what we cook with our cheap groceries.
Visit the Hearth & Soul Hop for more articles about eating! Visit Works-for-Me Wednesday to learn what the Welch family is eating now and what’s working for over 170 other writers! Visit Waste Not Want Not Wednesday for other tips on affordable, non-wasteful living!
UPDATE: After a frugal Lent, you could celebrate Easter with this feast for 8+ people for only $30–Alea’s response to a supermarket’s challenge to make Easter dinner for under $50!
6 thoughts on “Could you feed your family on a food-stamp budget?”
I think we’re probably about the same as you, but I recognize that those who need assistance probably don’t have a garden and may not be in a position to buy in bulk.
Having a garden certainly can save a lot of money! But it requires a little land (with safe soil) and time to care for the garden. We don’t have much of a food garden (we have chives and mint, and once we grew tomatoes in a pot) because we are lacking both of those things. You’re right that many people receiving public assistance live in rental housing where they’re not allowed to dig up the lawn to make a garden, or they live in an apartment with no yard, or their soil is contaminated, or they are poor despite working at a job that either physically exhausts them or keeps them away from home most of the daylight hours.
What a wonderful article. We are trying to build up our emergency fund and have been very careful with grocery spending. Still, food costs so much in my area, that I don’t know if I will ever get it down to your impressive numbers. I am determined to start a garden this year though. With no experience and deer in the yard, I’m hoping it yields a bit of success.
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Hi ‘Becca, even though I only lived on a SNAP budget for a week for my dietetic internship, I found not going out to eat at all, or even buying a cup of coffee at Starbucks, to be really hard! It was hard to be social and hard to sacrifice the convenience. It gave me just a small taste of what those surviving on a very low income must be going through, and I found it deeply humbling.
That said, I’m impressed with your family’s normal food budget! Even though we’ve trimmed down our food budget, we definitely spend more than you all do. Baby steps, though, right? 🙂
Yes, we would have a hard time giving up all restaurant visits, too! I do *usually* manage to resist take-out coffee unless I have my reusable travel mug–it’s better for the environment, but it also saves money at a lot of places because they’ll give you a discount for bringing your own cup.
I think anyone who enjoyed this article would be interested in your experience, too: Eating Healthy & Vegan for $3.80 a Day.