When you qualify for SNAP or a food stamp program in your area it can feel like winning the lottery. No more having to stand in the aisle at the grocery store and debate on whether you can afford an extra vegetable to add to your homemade soup. No more giving up your creamer and using milk because you need to get snacks for the kids. Suddenly you have a set amount of funds each month to use for groceries, and only for groceries. No need to feel guilty for purchasing food instead of paying the electric bill with your cash.
It’s understandable that the first month of receiving the benefits that you will need to stock the pantry. Your EBT card is likely filled with more money for one month of groceries than you’ve been able to spend on food for the past 6 months. It’s terribly freeing to purchase seasonings and staples that you have skipped over for years due to the cost. But once you’ve spent that first month’s amount of benefits you may find that while you have a lot of basic items you may have skipped over some of the necessary items. That means it’s time to budget your grocery assistance to last all month and make sure that you will have what you need to feed your family well balanced and healthy meals as well as some snacks and splurges.
Sit down with a calendar or day planner and write down each meal you will need to prepare for the month. As you write a meal create a shopping list which includes the ingredients you will need to make it happen. For example:
Breakfast: Eggs, Bacon, Toast, Juice
Lunch: Sandwiches, veggie strips and ranch dip, milk
Dinner: Grilled chicken breasts, white rice, green beans, biscuits, juice
Snacks: Raisins, fruit, crackers
This one day gives you several items that will be transferred to your shopping list. Keep in mind that some of the items you may already have or when you purchase them they will last for much longer than the one day you have planned. After all you will want to season your chicken breasts and will want butter for your biscuits. The kids may like different types of sandwiches so you may need ham and cheese as well as peanut butter and jelly.
After you’ve planned out the whole month of meals go through your fridge, freezer and cabinets to see what you have enough of to last through the month and remove it from the list.
If there are any birthdays or holidays in the month you will want to plan ahead for cake and ice cream or holiday meals. Adding these items to your monthly menu and shopping list will help you avoid running out of food stamp money and having to purchase additional food items with your scarce amount of cash.
Your next step once you have your shopping list created is to find the best prices and manage the funds in every way you can think of. If one store offers double coupons and another has a great special on items you need it is worth the time to check out various sale papers and check online for coupons, savings programs and specials. Also check to see if there is a store such as Aldi’s in your area. Purchasing items that are not name brands will save you a lot of money and the food is usually just as good if not better.
One of my favorite foods is Strawberry Frosted Mini Wheats. The brand name box of this cereal costs around $4, but at Aldi’s I get Millville brand for $1.69 and it is actually better than the brand name. Keep in mind that the funds on your food stamp EBT card are there for you to feed your family for the entire month. It is understandable that the first month may not quite make it to the end of the month; in fact you may spend it all on the first day you go shopping due to the excitement and the need to stock up on different items. But as time goes by you will work out a system and be able to plan your meals, purchase what you need and have enough in the pantry to carry over to the next month.
Keeping the cabinets stocked with canned foods and non perishable items makes it easier to purchase meats, breads, fruits and vegetables each month and eventually even have some money left over on your card at the end of each month.
You will also come to understand that buying a pound of elbow macaroni ends up being much cheaper than the boxes of macaroni and cheese with orange powdered flavoring. It’s also healthier to make the real thing. The same can be said for many items that you may use. Flour, butter and milk are much cheaper than canned or frozen biscuits. You can learn to make a variety of items with the staples in your pantry that will help you save money. Stocking up on a variety of seasonings makes it easy for you to make your own chili mix, taco seasoning and ranch dressing. Those large containers of seasonings may last for several months while the individual packets of these items will be gone with one meal. Purchasing items in bulk whenever possible will save you money while eliminating those items from your list for several months.
Just like when folks win the lottery and go on a spending spree you will probably feel like you’ve won the lottery the first time you hit the grocery store with a loaded EBT card. After the first shopping trip you will find that budgeting and managing your grocery assistance to last throughout the month is actually quite easy and makes planning your family meals an organized and efficient process. You can even hang the calendar on your refrigerator so you don’t have to answer that dreaded “What’s for dinner?” question every single day.
It’s also important to make sure that while you utilize the benefits you should be working toward being able to afford groceries without assistance and not become complacent and dependent upon the EBT card. Many folks experienced panic and hunger when the EBT program was affected by the government shutdown a few months ago. Stock your pantry and be prepared in case something happens with the program that reduces your benefits or your income increases to where you no longer qualify.