Could You Live on a Food Stamp Budget?

Kelli BrownAfter learning about the Mazon Food Stamp Budget SNAP challenge, reader Kelli Brown decided to try to live as if her family got food stamps. She finished the week with money to spare. Read her guest post to find out how.

During the week of July 8-14, I volunteered my family for a little challenge. We did our best to live off of a food stamp budget for one week, including all meals, drinks, and snacks. We made it with room to spare, but learned a lot in the process.

Some background: The SNAP Challenge is organized by Mazon. The goal is to eat for a week on a budget of $31.50 per person. As a family of five, that gave us roughly $155 dollars (or NIS 600 at the time).
I won’t get into where every shekel went, but in general:

  • $40 (NIS 150) went toward produce, which buys a whole lot of food at the shuk’s prices
  • $40 went toward staples like canola oil, eggs, milk (we go through A LOT of milk), flour, sugar, rice, beans, pasta and a few other baking odds and ends
  • $40 or so went toward meat & chicken and other items needed for that week’s meal plan
  • Another $18 (NIS 70) went toward a meal out and a coffee out with a friend

We came in at $138, leaving us $17  to spare. Let me explain why.

  • We live in Israel: Foods and drinks, especially things that are healthier and unprocessed, are typically less expensive here. Many of the fruits and veggies are at their prime. We loaded up on the fresh stuff.
  • I have a flexible schedule: I don’t work from 8-5, plus a commute each way. As a small business owner, I have the luxury of visiting the local shuk once or twice a week to stock up on bulk grains, fruits, veggies, baked goods and even candy at much lower prices than the grocery store. I would also add that this means we’re less likely to eat meals out – we’re rarely in a crunch where there isn’t anything ready for dinner, and it saves us a lot of money.
  • Three members of our family are age 3 and under: Hands down, this makes the biggest difference. Our kids are almost 4, 2 and six months. My littlest one is still breastfeeding and just starting solid foods (though I was actually surprised at how much of the budget went to fruits and veggies for him).
    This buys us a huge margin and I would argue it is the main reason we had room to spare in our budget. Even having to buy formula on this budget would have made it much harder. If I had a home with three teenage boys, I wouldn’t have made it through a couple of days on this meager allowance. It’s ridiculous that the US Food Stamp program doesn’t allocate based on age, gender, etc.

What we ate:

I follow a strict dinner plan that repeats every four weeks. This week featured:

  • Sunday and Tuesday: Meatloaf with mashed potatoes and peas
  • Monday and Wednesday: Homemade cheese pizza and walnut pesto pasta
  • Thursday: Grilled cheese sandwiches and salad
  • Friday and Saturday: Roast chicken and potatoes with veggies and rice
  • Breakfasts: Cold cereal and fruit with milk
  • Lunches: Black beans and rice with sautéed veggies and cilantro-corn salsa.

What I learned:

  • Food costs more when you have less: When you can’t buy in bulk to save because you’re pinching every penny, when you can’t stock up on sales and when you have to always buy the smaller (often costlier) version of each product, you end of spending more per capita for each item consumed. It really is a vicious cycle. Although larger isn’t always cheaper, I was stunned at how much more a few items cost me when I tried to buy a small quantity within my budget.
  • It’s depressing: Even though we didn’t deviate from our planned menu, planning meals based on what we can afford weighed heavily on my heart. Telling my daughter we couldn’t make a couple things killed me … and I was only faking it for a week. I have a huge amount of respect for anyone who can still run a happy home under these circumstances.
  • You get used to saying no: Living like this long term would mean many things would rarely if ever fit into the budget. I can’t imagine taking a family out to eat within the bounds of this allowance. While I understand that’s a want and not a necessity, I also think that plans occasionally fall through and it’s nice to have a backup plan or to be able to celebrate once in a while.

While it was a rather boring experiment overall, it’s something we might try again next year. Let me know if you have any questions!

Bio: Kelli Brown is a happily married mother to three. She enjoys all sorts of craftiness, baking things from scratch and finding interesting uses for everyday items, as her Pinterest boards show ( During the rare times when the Israeli school system is in session, she’s the CEO and Lead Consultant at Pixel/Point Press.


  1. Malynnda says

    Good job, Kelli. I think you can adjust the Thrifty budget to include different age groups, though:

  2. Thank you for this… sometimes people are very judgemental and don’t realize how hard it is to cope with this… I was laid off and unemployed for almost 4 months. With the aid of food stamps for our family of five, B’H, we were able to have ALMOST everything we needed. It is definately a humbling experience and puts things into perspective. I am thankful Hashem allowed me the experience, because I don’t take that aspect of ourlives, being able to afford food, for granted anymore…

  3. Where do you get the cold cereal? We’re a bit extravagant, buying the whole-grain imports which are generally 20 nis a box – but since everyone in the family is satisfied with one bowl, the box generally lasts 2 days and I’m happier feeding them that versus the local choices of corn flakes or certainly sugary stuff.

    Still, I’d love to introduce a nutritious and mostly easy alternate for one or two breakfasts each the week. And if it’s less expensive – even better.

  4. I think that the food stamp budget is adjusted according to the ages of the people in the family so you would get more if your kids were teenagers. I have a teenage boy, a tween girl, and an 8 yr old boy and I’d love to hear from people who have kids of these ages how they keep their food budgets in check. My teenage boy eats huge amounts and is hungry 2 hours later.

    Also — not only do you get used to saying no, but they get used to asking less. A win imho.

    Last comment — I really appreciate Kelly’s acknowledgement that the fact she doesn’t have an 8 to 5 job affects her food budget. I have one of those, AND I’m a single parent and it definitely affects my food budget. Sometimes I’m doing my weekly shopping at 6 am at the nearest grocery store that is open. While we never eat out, sometimes I just have to buy convenience foods like expensive Morningstar or cold cuts or my kids eat pretzels and chips for dinner (snacking because they are starving and dinner isn’t done until 7:30 or 8).

    This was an interesting article.

    • tdr–I agree, working from home makes a big difference. Are you ever able to cook on Sundays to help make the rest of the week easier?

  5. I’m figuring that the reason they don’t have food stamps in Israel is that more than half the population would be eligible!

    Kelli, I’m totally impressed that you do all that you do, as a mother and a professional, and still have time to go to the shuk twice a week, as well as to the supermarket.

    Thanks for this article. It was interesting to see “how the other half eats”

  6. Several years ago, a survey was published in the newspapers with average salaries in Israeli cities. I was astounded to read that in the Chareidi city of Modi’in Ilit the average salary for a family was if I remember correctly, 4,000 shekel. I asked a colleague of mine who lived there how people managed on that. She said, “Look, I have no idea if that number is correct, but I can tell you this: I see how Americans fill up their shopping carts to the brim with all kinds of things that I think are unnecessary: cereals, frozen shnitzels, roasts,nuts and garnishes and puddings and a ridiculous amount of snacks”. She went on to tell me that she buys very simply: every other day, she sends her kids out to the makolet and they buy a rye bread, cucumbers and tomatoes and gvina levana (white cheese)–that’s breakfast. She said she buys lots of basic, not fancy, fruits and veggies, chicken, rice some treats. She didn’t feel her kids were missing anything, if anything she felt they were healthier.

    That stayed with me, but I still continued to shop like an “American”, until I realized that now I live in Israel, on an Israeli salary and I have to find a way to trim my food budget. It hasn’t been easy, my girls are teenagers and used to a certain way of life. But the amount of waste I had in my life was crazy and I have shaved about a thousand shekel a month of my budget (still not living like my friend, but feel much better). Here are some things I’ve learned (some from this website):

    1. I NEVER throw food away (okay, very rarely, I do, if it’s spoiled–but my food rarely spoils bec. I stick it in the freezer before it gets a chance). I recycle food. Nobody likes the re-heated leftover chicken from Shabbat, but if I chop it up with onions, peppers, carrots, some spices and serve that with rice, all of a sudden it’s delish.

    2. I plan–and it takes maybe 5 minutes. What will we eat for Shabbat? During the week? I buy accordingly. I don’t need to have 12 cans of mushrooms in my pantry, which is a typical, Israeli small one. I do stock up on sale items, Thank G-d I am able to, but also in moderation.

    3. Guests on Shabbat: much simpler, healthier meals. When I think of what I used to do in the states–how much it cost, and how much went to the garbage. You don’t need to have three mains and 5 sides and 4 salads. I’m a really good cook and I think my food is better showcased when there is less on the table. And nobody goes hungry.

    4. Or–potluck meals with friends on Shabbat.

    5. Or–in the summer, seudat shlishit. Expectations are less: Some tuna, egg salad, pasta, pita, a salad, watermelon and you’re done.

    6. (Still on guests): When someone offers to make something, I no longer refuse the help–I ask them what they want to bring and that’s one less thing I have to worry about.

    There must be more, but I’m getting tired. I don’t really get the chance to go the shuk–is it really that much savings? I know you sometimes go with Kate, maybe one of these days I could with you guys and you can show me the ropes.

    Great post, Kelli.

  7. I am not meatless but eating vegetarian is quite cheap and could be a good way to live on a budget.

  8. Another Israeli Mom says

    We recently started using the envelope system. We take out 500 sheckels a week at the beginning of the month and take cash to the grocery store, any change is returned to the envelope. We\’ve done it three months so far and it works great! It really cuts down impulse buys. It also makes me think about groceries outside the grocery store at the health food store, at the butcher etc. We are a family of five (2,4,6 yr old kids).

  9. I do live on food stamps. I am a single mom of two boys ages 14 and 9. Both have food allergies (my youngest artificial food dyes and my oldest soy, corn, gluten, and dairy.)
    I get about $300 a month and I usually can not get by on that alone.
    I work from home running an in home daycare 5 days a week and I clean houses the 6th day.
    I involve the daycare kids in cooking so I can cook from scratch as much as possible.
    I also have to cook much from scratch because of the food allergies. But I do not always find it cheaper to cook from scratch. It is certaintly healthier.
    I struggle each month, and usually end up eating the cheap garbage myself so my boys can eat the better stuff. And produce is a rare treat (I have tried gardening every year with very little success.)
    Being that I have a teen and 9 year old they are always hungry.

    $300 a month is $10 a day or $2 for breakfast, $3 for lunch, $4 for dinner, and $1 a day for snacks.

    An example of this:
    scrambled eggs (2 each, total 6) $1.00 (at $2 a dozen)
    apple slices $.50 (1 apple sliced, half for each boy, I go without)
    toast $.50 (homemade gluten free bread)

    homemade rice and beans $1.00
    raw broccli $1.00

    baked potatoes $1.50 (includes sour cream and chedder)
    grilled zucchini (free from friends garden)
    spinach salad with crutons $2.50 (spinach, tomato, cucumber, croutons, and dressing ingridients)

    homemade gluten free peach muffins $2.00 (total cost of batch was about $8 with gluten free flour and peaches used, but that will last 4 days)

    I spent less on lunch, but more on snacks. This also assumes I have staples like sugar, and spices already in house.

    My oldest will also probably be hungry again before bed and snack on some cereal (putting us over budget in todays meals.)

    Thank goodness for family and friends who supplement with leftovers, meals, and produce from thier gardens.

    • Becky, thank you for sharing. It sounds like you have a big challenge and I hope your situation will improve. Thank God for caring neighbors.