07 March 2016

Eating On $4 A Day SNAP Challenge | The Results

I like challenges, provided they don’t involve any physical exertion or dressing up in a costumes. I’ve done a few challenges over the past couple of years – Blogging from A to Z 2015 (win), NaNoWriMo 2015 (humongous fail) and Around the World in 80 Books (still in progress, but I’m winning so far). The thing I like about these challenges is that, given they involve reading and writing, I can literally do them lying down while snacking on sugary treats.

So, when I read about the Eating on $4 a Day SNAP Challenge, I figured it was right up my alley. After all, it involves eating, which ranks right up there as one of my favorite pastimes.

What's SNAP?

Those of you who aren’t American might be wondering what SNAP is. To be fair, there may be a number of Americans who aren’t familiar with the term either. SNAP stands for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which is a federal aid program designed to help low-income and no-income people in the States. You may know it better as Food Stamps. Millions of people rely on SNAP to help feed their families and, for many of those millions, the SNAP benefits are the only access to food that they have.

Feeding a family on $4 a day per person isn’t easy. To be fair, it’s actually around $4.40 a day at the current level of benefits, but that’s still a huge challenge. I know, because I tried it during February. Spoiler alert – I failed. More about that below.

The SNAP Challenge

The SNAP challenge got attention in 2008 when four members of Congress tried to live for a week on an average SNAP benefit. Since then, many other people have tried the challenge including celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow (she only lasted four days), business executives, politicians, reporters and ordinary folks like me.

Obviously, taking on the SNAP challenge for a week, or even a month, can’t come even remotely close to experiencing what it’s like live on such a tight food budget in the long-term. But, it does help to build an understanding of the struggles that low-income and no-income families face in the States, as well as to highlight the good works that food pantries and other organizations are doing to help address hunger. Plus, it's also a good exercise to undertake if you're trying to cut your own food budget and live a more frugal lifestyle.

The Rules

Like any good challenge, there are rules:

1 – Each person should spend $4.40 a day on food and beverages during the challenge.

2 – Only eat food you purchase for the challenge. If you eat food you already have at home or which is given to you, account for it in your SNAP budget.

3 – If you eat out, include the cost in your SNAP budget.

4 – Keep track of your experience and share with others.

So, How Did I Do?

My monthly SNAP food budget for February was $127.60 ($4.40 a day x 29 days). If you’ve been following our cost updates closely (you can find them here), you’ll know that I’ve been averaging around $230 a month on food. And that excludes eating out (which averages around $50 a month). So, we’re talking about a significant reduction in my normal food budget – more than 50%!


I bought $77.07 of groceries during February at Walmart in Stuart and at the local grocery store in Indiantown. After my grocery shopping, I was $50.53 under budget. So far, so good.

Here's what I got for my $77.07:

  • Fruit & Veg – 5 bananas, 10 apples, 2 cans of peaches, 20 oz of raisins, 3 lbs of onions, 5 potatoes, 2 heads of cabbage and 2 green bell peppers
  • Dairy – 2 gallons of milk, 1 container of sour cream, 16 oz of cheddar cheese, 12 yogurts and 1 tub of cream cheese
  • Protein – 2 lbs of black beans, 1 container of deli meat, 2 ham hocks and 1 dozen eggs
  • Bread & Grains – 2 containers of oatmeal, 2 loaves of bread, 1 package of tortillas and 4 rolls
  • Beverages – 1 bag of coffee
  • Naughty Things – snicker doodle cookies (yum!)


In addition to stocking up at the store, I dug into our food stores, as well as used some stuff I already had in the fridge which needed to be eaten. I estimated the value of these items at $43.65, which left me with $6.83 to spend on food. Close, but doable. Or, so I thought.

Here's what I had in the pantry and fridge:

  • Fruit & Veg – 6 apples, 1 can of sauerkraut, 2 cans of potatoes, 2 cans of tomatoes, 3 cans of corn, 1 can of green chilies and the remnants of a head of cabbage
  • Protein – Kielbasa, 1 jar of peanut butter and a bag of walnuts
  • Bread & Grains – 1 package of tortillas, 6 granola bars and a bag of pretzels
  • Convenience Food – 6 cans of soup and 2 bags of ready-made rice and beans
  • Naughty Things – 1 jar of strawberry jam, brown sugar and 3 packets of hot chocolate


This is where it all fell down. I think if I had just done the challenge for a week, it would have been easy to avoid the temptation to go out for drinks and a meal, but because I did this for an entire month, it was a lot harder. I spent $51.90 eating out during February with friends. A few fast food meals (no judging please), Taco Tuesday at the local pub (a relatively cheap evening out), dinner at another local restaurant and one of those all you can eat Chinese buffets on Valentine’s Day.


Do you remember Rule #2 – account for any food that was given to you. I didn’t do this. But, in the interest of full disclosure, here's the scoop - I was gifted some lemons, cantaloupe, wine and chocolate. Plus, some friends made me lunch one day. I thought it would be kind of weird and rather ungrateful if I asked them to cost up how much they spent on my lunch. So, I didn’t.


Yes, it's true. I didn’t track the spices, oil, condiments etc. that I used. So there. Now, you know how untrustworthy I am.


I still had food left over from grocery shopping, which I’ll finish up during March. Since I didn’t deduct the cost of what I didn’t eat from my overall spend, I guess it all comes out in the wash.


Tune in Wednesday to find out what I ate. What in the world I did with all of that cabbage and those ham hocks? I know, the suspense is killing you. Don't worry, all will be revealed in due course. And then on Friday, I'll let you know what lessons I learned, including the challenges involved in cooking on a boat when you don't have a stove, oven or freezer.

Have you ever done the SNAP Challenge or something similar? How did you find it? And, have you ever cooked ham hocks?

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  1. I can remember being so poor that I ate macaroni and cheese most of the time. I wasn't on food stamps or SNAP, but I was not making a lot of money at the time. There are really cheap things to eat if you know what they are. I wouldn't say it was very healthy though.

    I've already done this kind of thing was I was really poor. It wasn't fun, it was just what it was.

    Have a fabulous day. ☺

    1. Oh yes...mac n'cheese - the staple food when you're on a budget. That and ramen noodles :-)

  2. Wow that is not a lot of $$$!

    1. I know - it's not a lot. Especially in New Zealand where it always seemed like the cost of food was pretty high.

  3. I think you did a great job and I don't think that part of rule #2 should apply! People who live on SNAP would not have to count food that has been given to them or if they were invited to a family's or friend's place for a meal would have to account for it to the agency that hands out the "stamps/money" so why should you. Obviously it won't be the same if people were feeding you every day but one or two meals throughout a month shouldn't count.


    1. Thanks - I'm glad I have "dispensation" from not costing up the food that people gave me :-)

  4. Love your blog and share your passion about food (snacks:-)).. Can indeed imagine that eating on such a frugal budget is not so healthy, I spend around 70 euro on fruits and veggies only every week! (2 kids and 2 adults) so without protein, dairy, snacks and all....

    1. Aww...thanks so much for your kind words. I'm glad you enjoy the blog!

      One of the big issues about living on a SNAP budget is that it can be really hard to afford foods that are good for you. Instead, some folks have to resort to cheaper carbs and things which aren't all that nutritious, but provide a lot of cheap calories for their food dollar.

  5. Great challenge and congrats to you, Ellen for trying this! Too bad that friends always have to ruin it! Just kidding, of course... I agree that you shouldn't count the food that is given to you or the meals you were invited to. Eating out is out of the question, when you want to keep food costs low. I think the saddest thing we learn over and over again, when trying to cut costs for food, is that a healthy diet is expensive, way more expensive than an unhealthy one, which is sad and wrong. And, it explains why fast food chains are so popular. The only way around this, I feel, is having your own vegetable and spice garden, which is hard to do on a boat, of course. We managed to keep basil, mint and spinach on our boat for many years and made sprouts constantly. We also ate what the locals ate, made our own bread, pizza, granola... and managed to have a much lower food expenditure while sailing those eight years than now, on land. The choices and temptations in a Western grocery store are just too great!

    1. I've been thinking of trying sprouting, but then I read stuff about the risk of Ecoli. Not sure how much of a real risk that is. Did you cook the sprouts you used? I've seen other people grown herbs - maybe I should give that a go. I'd love to have a garden - that's one of the things I miss about having a house.

    2. No, we did not cook the sprouts and never had health issues with it. We used them on salads and sandwiches for lunch. We would buy a pack of lentils (very cheap!), which would last for many weeks. We would cover the bottom of a rectangular, largish Tupperware container and soak them overnight. In the morning, we discarded the water and rinsed the lentils. From then on, they don't sit in water anymore and we rinsed them every morning and every evening with fresh water with a sif/tight colander. After about 5-7 days, the container would be filled with yummy and healthy sprouts, which we then kept in the fridge. we would start a new batch almost immediately to never run out. Especially handy in places where there are no greens available, like the atolls and remote islands in the Pacific.

    3. Thank you so much for the lentil tip! When I looked at buying sprouting seeds online I was surprised how relatively expensive they were (especially once you included postage). I like the idea of buying a bag of lentils to try it out. If it doesn't work or I don't like them, then there's always lentil soup that I can make with the rest of them.

  6. I'm surprised that someone with your nom de plume would so readily accept the SNAP challenge assumptions about what amount to "live on" with food stamps.

    The SNAP Challenge is based on an invalid premise. Those who must "live on SNAP benefits" as their only source of money for paid food receive the MAXIMUM benefit, not the average. Those who receive the average (lower) amount receive that because they are presumed to contribute some of their income to food purchases. The max benefit is $194 per month, or $6.47 per day, not $4.44. http://www.cbpp.org/research/a-quick-guide-to-snap-eligibility-and-benefits.

    Further, there are approximately 12 Federal programs and additional state programs for food assistance, food banks and soup kitchens as additional sources of nutrition.

    1. Scott's the cynical one of the two of us, not me :-)

      You raise some good points - thanks for sharing. I think the SNAP challenge is still a good eye opener as to what it's like to live on a limited food budget (whether by choice or circumstance). Some people don't have access to or eligibility for benefits or aid programs (or choose not to opt in) and have to live on a tight food budget, others might have to divert the extra money they have earmarked for food to other needs like medical bills, rent, utilities etc. and as a result have to try to live on something more akin to the average benefit. It's definitely a complicated issue.


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