How to Create a Monthly Budget While on Food Stamps

Helping you save even more money every month

Woman holding grocery bag and receipt

Burke/Triolo Productions

A food stamps budget can help you manage your government benefits. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, provides financial assistance to individuals and families needing help when buying food. As of October 2019, 36.3 million Americans received benefits through the program, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service. This guide explains what you need to build your monthly budget when receiving food stamps.

Calculate Your Monthly Food Stamps Income

First, understand how much your family needs for food spending. Consider the U.S. government's Thrifty Food Plan, which estimates typical monthly spending amounts for individuals and families.

Here are a few examples of how your monthly budget may compare, based on the Thrifty Food Plan report for August 2019:

  • A single man aged 19 to 50 years old is estimated to need $241.20 per month on the low-cost plan.
  • A single woman aged 51 to 70 years old is estimated to need $254.20 for food on the moderate-cost plan.
  • A family of four with two children aged 6 to 11 is estimated to spend $1289.70 on food monthly on the liberal-cost plan.

Once you have an idea of what you're expected to spend on food based on these plans, you can budget your actual food spending based on what you receive in food stamps.

If you're considering applying for food stamps but haven't yet, or you're waiting to be approved, you can use the estimated average monthly benefit for your situation to help plan the rest of your grocery budget. In 2019, the average estimated monthly individual benefit was $134, while the average for a family of four was $465.

The actual amount of SNAP benefits received is based on whether your gross monthly income, net income, and assets are at or below 130% of the poverty line. For 2019, the poverty line used to calculate SNAP benefits for a family of three was $1,732 per month.

How Your Food Stamps Amount is Calculated

The SNAP benefits may seem limited. That’s because the government allocates this benefit based on the Thrifty Food Plan budget—which assumes you won’t ever eat out, you don’t drink alcohol, and you don’t take dietary supplements. For an adult man, the Thrifty Food Plan contains: 

  • 6.7 lbs of whole fruits 
  • 2.8 lbs of whole-grain bread (about two loaves)
  • 2.6 lbs of poultry 
  • 2.5 lbs of potatoes
  • 1.2 lbs of leafy greens
  • 10.8 lbs of lower-fat or fat-free meat, milk, and yogurt 
  • and just .08 lbs of sugar 

What Can You Buy on Food Stamps?

Although the government recommends the foods above, you can buy many more types of foods with SNAP benefits. There are two things you need to keep in mind here: what you can spend your SNAP benefits on and what you can't, according to the USDA. For example, fruits and dairy are fine, but you can’t buy beer or hot foods. 

Food Stamps and Your Budget

Once you know what you're receiving in food stamps every month, take a look at what you expect to spend on groceries. If you don't know what your current total grocery budget is, review what you've spent on food prior to receiving food stamps. The easiest way to do this may be looking at bank statements, but if you don't have those available, try to estimate as best you can.

Next, compare your total estimated monthly spending on groceries to the amount you receive in food stamps. You may find a gap. If you have a shortfall you'll have to plan for that difference in your budget through trimming expenses and tracking spending. When you review what you're spending on food each month, look for food-related expenses that aren't essential that you can cut out. 

When you have a firm food stamps budget number to work with, use that to plan your meals for the week or month, which can help to reduce impulse buys. For instance, you could plan meals around only what's on sale at the grocery store. 

Additional solutions can help make up the gap. For example, you may have access to local food banks or qualify for government assistance in the form of cash benefits. If you have school-aged children, they may be eligible for free or reduced lunch and breakfast, and free milk, which you can apply for throughout the year. 

The school might offer a backpack food program to sustain families through school-year weekends, or free meals through the summer months. The WIC program provides checks or vouchers for purchasing nutrient-rich foods, and is available to pregnant women, new mothers, and children up to age 5. 

Tips for Stretching Your Food Stamps Budget

There are some things you can do to make your benefits go as far as possible. Keep these tips handy as you prepare for your next grocery shopping trip:

  • Use coupons or grocery apps that pay you cash back or offer promo codes when you shop to stretch your food stamps budget.
  • Join grocery store loyalty programs, which may offer access to special sales or coupons.
  • Look for bulk deals on low-cost staples such as beans, rice, and dry pasta. 
  • Lower meat costs through buying larger value packs, and freeze what isn’t used right away. 
  • Eggs are low-cost, high-protein picks.
  • Check dairy sell-by dates to find milk that won’t expire for a while.
  • Skip soda and bottled water (unless your tap water is unsafe)
  • Take advantage of coupons or price matching if your preferred grocery store offers it.
  • Compare brands to find the lowest unit price, which tells you how much you’re paying per ounce or pound. 
  • Shop with a list and commit to buying only what's on the list.
  • If you shop with paper coupons, create a system for organizing them or stick to using digital coupons instead via a coupon app.
  • Use canned and/or frozen vegetables to avoid food waste associated with unused fresh foods. When buying fresh fruits and vegetables, only buy what's in season.
  • Consider growing your own vegetables or herbs at home.
  • Avoid check-out lanes with candy or snacks to reduce the urge to buy on impulse.