My wife and I agreed that we would live on a SNAP (formerly Food Stamps) budget for one week. According to the USDA, as a couple, we will have $86 budget for one week of food. That amount is equivalent to $2 per meal during the course of the week. (…and to realize that a café latte is equivalent to about two meals). Beyond working within the budget, we want to eat as healthy as possible. We did not go to different stores chasing every deal because what we might have spent in gas may negate any savings, not to forget about the time it takes. And we are a household that has a car, 40% of SNAP households do not have access to their own transportation. I’m glad we did not have to take the bus because we would not have been able to carry all the shopping bags…yet another challenge.
We thought it was important to take this challenge for a number of reasons, especially when we consider the fact that Congress is looking at a House passed bill to cut SNAP by $40 billion and leaving millions without benefits. We wanted to challenge the stereotypical comments of people living “high on the hog” of government benefits. Approximately half of the people who benefit from SNAP are children. The vast majority of the remaining folks are seniors, the disabled and the working poor.
As we drove to the store, there was an immediate feeling of anxiety. Will ground beef be on sale? Can we afford the fresh fruits and vegetables? Will the budget work, how hungry will we be? Are we ready to make the sacrifices necessary? Also, a feeling of being a bit angry that we’re working full time and cannot afford our first choices. We were in the second aisle of sixteen and already had spent $31 with fourteen aisles to go…there’s some math that is not welcome. Forget the ice cream, sun-dried tomatoes and any kind of beverage; we’ll drink tap water. You cannot buy beer, wine or liquor with SNAP, but those are definitely items we’ll forego because we have to be sensitive to the overall household budget. I’ll miss the occasional glass of wine or martini. Forget snacks. As we passed the pharmacy, I had to forego allergy medicine that would have taken a quarter of our weekly budget.
A different shopping experience
We definitely shopped differently. Outside of this SNAP challenge, we typically can go aisle to aisle and not be consumed with prices. We’re wise shoppers but I have to admit we do not pinch every single penny and do appreciate and enjoy quality items and brands. We found ourselves keeping a running tally; it was my job to remember our total aisle by aisle. Before going to the store, we searched for coupons more than ever and looked for buy-one-get-one-free specials. Store brands were frequently chosen over more high profile national brands. And in several cases, we chose off-brands because of the lower price and no doubt sacrificed quality. We had to plan to cut back on certain items such as ground beef and put less meat in the chili. No prepared foods were purchased. My eyes were opened on the broad range of prices on certain items such as tuna fish. $8.49 for four cans of solid white albacore vs. $2.99 for light tuna. We went with the light tuna and it will be spread twice as far as usual through the week. We compromised on coffee choice as well as cereal, bought half price yogurt and will be slicing our tomatoes more thinly to make them stretch through the week. We cut back on the amount of fresh fruits and vegetables; they just didn’t fit in the budget. Canned soup will certainly be at the dinner table a few nights. We even found ourselves stooping over to choose the lower priced items that are at the bottom shelves, there’s a tell-tale sign of someone on a low budget and/or pinching their pennies. There were some decisions that we would not compromise so we had to make up for them in other areas. A couple of examples…no tripe at $.98 a pound and no compromise on bread. We bought a loaf of multi-grain for $2.49 vs. a larger loaf of white bread at two for $2.99. We actually cheered (to the surprise of nearby shoppers) when we found the buy of the week…almond milk on sale!
On top of the anxiety factor, when we were on aisle six of sixteen and had spent $55 of a total budget of $86, we became aware of the stigma attached to not having enough money. As we discussed our choices in the aisles and what we might not be able to afford, my wife became aware that people might over hear and think we are poor. We actually lowered our voices to avoid a misconception. The other factor relating to stigma was our aisle by aisle calculations and making sure we didn’t arrive at the checkout line and not have enough money….what an embarrassment that would be and a situation we did not want to face.
The Checkout Receipt and Reality
We shopped within the budget and managed to save $22.92 through coupon specials, other store specials and buy-one-get-one deals. However, we did not take into account certain items we already had in stock at home such as condiments, butter, olive oil, etc. Taking this challenge as a ”SNAP Shot” look at one week out of context leaves a lot to be considered; what about the other fifty one weeks of the year? Can we have friends over for dinner….forget about it. What can we stretch to next week? How can we enjoy any kind of variety on this budget from week to week? What’s the cumulative impact of consuming high carb/cheap calorie food? What about the convenience factor? What if we don’t have the time to prepare a dinner or lunch, do we go to a fast food restaurant and buy the cheap convenient calories?
Also, think about the other items in the home such as paper goods, saran wrap, foil wrap, soap, shampoo, tooth paste, medicine, etc. They take up even more of household income and are not low budget necessities.
One consolation is that we shopped as a couple. I would imagine that if you were a single working mom with a couple of young kids along in the cart, the distractions could weigh heavily along with their requests for snacks and candy that aren’t in the budget.
The shopping experience by itself was certainly enlightening. I’ll write this week about the meals.