A Confession:

I have an unhealthy obsession with furniture. Not just any furniture but a desk. A beautiful wood desk that belonged to my grandmother.

I should back up.

On the MSN Message Boards today poster berkgal33 mentioned seeing an elderly neighbor searching for recycling in order to earn money for groceries. I found myself very grateful for the frugal living example my grandparents set for me.  I write this at my grandmother’s desk. A beautiful solid wood desk that my grandma used to pay bills, plan vacations and take care of her family.

This desk represents my grandma’s independence as a working woman providing for her family while my grandfather was away on trucking runs. It represents the place where she paid the bills, sent money to savings and wrote birthday cards to us grandkids.

My grandparents drove sensible cars, they had to be sensible to haul four kids from Oklahoma to California and back during the summer. They took sensible vacations, usually home to visit the family, bunking with cousins and aunts, staying in small motels along the way. A “true vacation” was camping in a tiny camper trailer and later a motorhome. There were no boat rentals and jet skis, just a tin fishing boat and lots of fish.  My grandparents have lived in this town for over 45 years, bought this house over 30 years ago.  They didn’t trade up but made this house what it is today through a process of slow renovations paid in cash when they could afford it.

I have pictures of my mom in this backyard, pregnant with me. I have pictures of myself crawling in the kitchen, learning to walk in the driveway and recovering from chickenpox swimming in the bathtub. Entertainment for us grandkids consisted of PBS, thift store stuffed animals, a sprinkler and dominos. With the park just blocks away we had full access to the swings, slides and plenty of room to run.

My grandparents have never been on an international vacation or travelled the world though they certainly had the savings to do so on occasion. They were content to see their family as much as possible, raise children and grandchildren with modest means and provide us with scholarships to school, old cars to drive and enough love to fill a lifetime.

Last year when my grandmother returned from their lunch at the senior citizen’s center she told me with great excitement about the cruise advertised for retired folks. As much as I love that my grandparents have the savings for their care for the rest of their lives and will never have to scrounge for plastic bottles to recycle to get by, I truly wish they had taken a vacation together, maybe even a cruise, to celebrate their accomplishments. But mostly I wish that Alzheimer’s Disease had not taken grandma’s prime of life away and made such a trip an impossibility.

Food Stamp Budget – Research

How much would a single person living in California get in food stamps? Who is eligible for this government assistance and how does the process work? My next task was to find out the ground rules.

First, I logged onto my computer and googled “Food Stamps” “eligibility” and “California”. Although I used my home computer and internet for this research it’s worth pointing out that the public library offers free internet to users.

This is the California website on Food Stamps: http://www.dss.cahwnet.gov/foodstamps/PG841.htm

Eligibility Test #1
The gross income allowed for eligibility is 130% of the Federal Poverty Level which begs the question, what is the Federal Poverty Level? The FPL is calculated based on family size and the eligible income for a family of one is $10,400/year.

So for a single person the gross income limit would be $13,520/year (10,400 * 1.3)

For the sake of this experiment I will assume a yearly income of $13,500

Test #2
The state then deducts and grants allowances for a variety of expenses and the resulting amount cannot exceed 100% of the Federal Poverty Level.

Examples
Take a deduction of 20% for earned income–all wages, salaries, and striker’s benefits.
$13,500 * 20% = $2,700 this would presumably cover taxes, health care premiums, tool repayments, etc
Adjusted income: $10,800

There is a standard deduction of $134 for households with 1 – 3 members.
$10,800 – $167 = $10,666 to cover basic living necessities although $134 for the year translates to less than $12 a month.
Adjusted income: $10,666

One last example, if utilities are assessed separate from rent/mortgage allowance of up to $274.
$10,666 – $274 = $10,392
Adjusted income: $10,392 which is just $8 under the Federal Poverty Level

Other Rules:
Resource limitations state that the applicant cannot own more than $2,000 in resources that can be sold for financial assistance (excepting families where one or more members has a disability or is 60 years of age or older).

Able-bodied applicants between 18 and 49 without dependents must work 20 hours per week or do workfare or else are limited to 3 months of food stamps in a 36 month period (3 years).

For this exercise I’ll assume minimum wage earnings in California ($8.00/hr).
To be eligible for the gross income a yearly income of $13,500 or $1,125 a month is the highest allowable salary. Broken down weekly it’s $259.62 and at $8/hour that’s 32.46 hours per week

Minimum working hours per week is 20, but the initial calculations were done on the $13,500 so I’ll stick with an average 32 hours a week which translates to four 8 hour shifts or seven 5-hour shifts.

Unless I want to use the government assistance calculator and plug in a dozen or more variables it’s hard to know how much a single person on this salary would get in food stamps.

But according to http://www.ehsd.org/adult/adult009.html the maximum is $152 for one person per month.

So that will be the budget: $152 for the month of June without using any food from my pantry.

Now most of the literature points to the average as closer to $1 per meal or $3 a day translating to $90 a month. I’m confident that once I get enough pantry stock $90 will be achievable.

Challenge- Can I live on Food Stamp prices for a month?

Inspired and annoyed by CNN’s reporting on the food crisis and middle class crunch, I’ve decided to spend the next month attempting to eat on a Food Stamp Budget.

According to this CNN article a single mother gets between $135 and $160 per month. It turns out this is a timely issue according to this article the food price increases are here for another two years. When mentioning this project on another forum I got a lot of initial scoffing that it’s pretty easy for me since I can just go back to eating whatever I want the next month.

Here’s my current situation, the short version,  I work for a temp agency and have no paid vacation, no sick leave and no medical insurance. COBRA is over $700 a month and I was recently in a car accident. I have consumer debt in the form of a car loan and a student loan that I want to repay asap. I do not have credit card debt. I was recently in an accident (hit by an 18-wheeler) and my out of pocket costs will exceed $1,000. This is, in addition to being an academic exercise, a part of larger cutbacks in my budget. I also live in California which is an expensive state and depend on myself for income, no family charity or government assistance.

Ground Rules:

#1 I will pretend the food stamps arrive June 1st

Pretty self explanatory; according to the website the first issuance of food stamps can take as little as three days. That’s a significant amount of time if you have no food but rather quick considering the government bureaucracy.

#2 I will assume the cupboards are bare

One of the biggest arguments I hear when people claim it’s impossible to live on food stamps is that the folks who don’t need them often have large stockpiles in their pantry. For a family that has lost their house or has been living paycheck to paycheck it’s hard to amass extras. I will attempt, during this month, to plan for overages when it’s feasible and begin building the pantry.

#3 I will assume there is no such thing as a free lunch

I have a few outings this month, nothing elaborate so far just a baby shower and hosting a dinner for my WIR. To simplify this process I will either “charge” my food stamp budget when I am given a meal or forgo it completely. At work I usually start the day with a cup of coffee and my pricey but yummy creamer. So I’ll price up the creamer cost per serving and charge that to my budget every day.

#4 I will only shop at venues that accept food stamps

This will likely be the hardest rule to follow since I frequent a farmer’s co-op which provides stellar fruits, vegetables, rice, spices and beans at lower prices than the grocery store. To make up for losing this resource I’ll shop the grocery and outlet stores for off brands and larger packages.

#5 I will only purchase items that can be obtained with food stamps

This one will be right along the rules of food stamping. No household items like toilet paper or soap, no food that can be consumed in store (think deli sandwiches and the Chinese takeout counter).

#6 I will only eat from my food stamp budget food

Okay, maybe this one will be the hardest to follow. It’s simple enough for most people to draw up a menu that can be afforded on a budget, it’s another thing entirely to follow it. It really won’t give me much credit to spend all my budgeted money on the good food and eat out at every opportunity. Besides, I’m looking to lose a little weight too.

#7 If possible I will not skip meals to make budget

I have extensive experience with fasting and adapt rather quickly to a low calorie diet but it would be unfair to switch to that mode for the sake of this experiment. Also, assuming that a person on food stamps is working 20 hours a week and maybe even providing for a family, getting good nutrition to fuel your body is pretty important, hence the following goal to avoid empty calories.

The Goals:


#1 Healthy, well balanced meals

I won’t be tracking the calories, fat, carbs, vitamins, water, minerals and servings of wheat, protein and vegetables I consume on this project. The easy reason is I don’t do this in the first place. The real reason is it’s going to be tough enough to shop and eat on this budget and ignore the food in my pantry. Generally I’ll shoot for a serving of vegetable, grains, protein and fruit or dairy one meal a day.

#2 No more than 4 shopping trips during the month

I count a shopping trip as a single day where I can go to more than one store. True, I have a vehicle and several stores at my disposal but I’m not willing to take public transit or walk for the sake of this experiment. Maybe one day I’ll be able to ditch the car but one step at a time.

#3 Stay within the food stamp budget

I want to find out if it can be done. I may come out of this month hungry and advocating for a raise in the food stamp allowance. I also want to know if you can start a perpetual pantry and make healthy choices on this budget.

#4 Use public resources for recipes and ideas

Because this is a plan I would love to make adoptable I want to utilize the internet and public library for frugal recipes and finding good deals. Other resources I utilize (like the Sunday newspaper) I will list and tally the costs.

#5 KISS- Keep it Simple Stupid

It’s tempting to rail on and on that those in low income situations don’t have a large enough freezer, the car to get to the store, plastic food containers, nice pots and pans, etc. Those are certainly issues to be addressed but a little overwhelming for this project to consider all at once. Maybe as a continuation I’ll post ideas for supplying a kitchen.