Key Takeaways

Although the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) raised its annual SNAP cost of living adjustment in 2023, the minimum monthly program benefit remained nearly steady over last year, at $23 for most one- or two-person households.1 That’s up from about $15 or $16 just over a year ago. (In Alaska, the new amount ranges from $28–$44; in Hawaii, it’s $43).

Given the ongoing impacts of inflation on food prices, this modest increase may feel like a slap in the face to low-income older adults already struggling to make ends meet. But it’s not intentional, said Brandy Bauer, NCOA’s Director of Health Coverage & Benefits.

“It’s because the basis for calculating SNAP benefits contains some flaws,” she explained. “Those flaws can be fixed, and NCOA is advocating tirelessly to make sure that happens. Unfortunately, in the meantime, our nation’s most vulnerable seniors are left to wonder how—or if—they can pay for the food they need to stay healthy.”

If you’re an older adult living on a fixed income who qualifies for the minimum SNAP monthly benefit, $23 may not sound like much. But every dollar in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) assistance can help you afford healthier food. And even modest improvements in diet and nutrition can lead to a variety of positive health benefits.

Facebook user Suzanne Leary offers a healthy perspective. "You need to look at the bright side of the coin. I have a telephone that I don't pay one penny for because I qualify for SNAP benefits. I also have an Amazon Prime account for which I pay no shipping charges on anything I send to my family for a discounted price of only $6 a month," Leary said.

So my $20 a month actually saves me over $700 a year. So in addition to these savings, I get enough to buy bread, milk and eggs every month," she continued.

“We can and need to do much better in the United States to support older adults with the basic costs of living,” Bauer said. “It’s a simple fact that $23 a month in SNAP food assistance isn’t enough. Still, there are ways to maximize those benefits.”

How much can you make to qualify for food stamps (SNAP)?

The federal government sets the SNAP income limits each year. Generally speaking, if you’re an adult over 60 and/or live with a disability, you will be eligible for assistance in 2023 if your household income is less than or equal to the federal poverty line, and your assets amount to $4,250 or less.

What will $23 in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) assistance buy?

Keeping in mind that prices will vary widely depending on where you live and where you shop, here are some ideas for stretching your minimum monthly SNAP benefits*:

$23 Basket A - Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner

Food Item Cost
(1) dozen, fresh eggs $4.25
(1) 16 oz. bag of ground coffee $6.47
(1) 16 oz. loaf of (white) bread $1.87
(3) 5 oz. cans of tuna (canned, chunk light) $2.33
(1) 16 oz. box of pasta (elbow macaroni) $1.43
(1) pound of fresh tomatoes $2.23
(1) pound of 100% ground chuck beef $4.76
TOTAL $23.34

$23 Basket B - Protein Pack

Food Item Cost
(1) pound of 100% ground beef $4.80
(1) pound of pork chops $4.31
(5) pounds of chicken (whole, fresh) $9.15
(2) dozen, fresh eggs $4.25
TOTAL $22.51

$23 Basket C - Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Variety

Food Item Cost
(2) pounds of bananas $1.26
(2) pounds of navel oranges $2.97
(1) pint of strawberries $3.86
(1) 5 pound bag of white potatoes $4.74
(1) pound of fresh tomatoes $2.23
(2) pounds of romaine lettuce $7.14
TOTAL $22.20

$23 Basket 5 - Basic Staples

Food Item Cost
(1) 5 pound bag of white, all-purpose flour $2.61
(1) 5 pound bag of white sugar $4.22
(2) 16 oz. boxes of dried pasta $2.87
(1) 5 pound bag of dried beans $8.50
(1) 5 pound bag of white rice $4.86
TOTAL $23.06

*Unless otherwise noted, all prices are based on national averages as reported by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Mid-Atlantic Information Office for December 2022.2

Of course, these sample baskets merely scratch the surface of what you can buy with SNAP, even though food costs have risen across the country. By using some of the ideas below, you may discover that $23 wields even more purchasing power for even more grocery items than you might have thought.

What other strategies can I use to shop on a budget?

  • “Save up” your SNAP. There’s no rule that says you have to spend your monthly benefits all at once. Those are yours, and last for as long as your defined SNAP benefits period does. As long as you use your EBT card on a regular basis, you can roll any unused dollars from one month to the next. In fact, many SNAP recipients do just that, which leaves more flexibility for taking advantage of sale prices and bulk purchasing.
  • Buy in bulk when you can. Items like dried beans, rice, pasta, spices, and flour generally cost less than their canned, boxed, or other pre-packaged counterparts.
  • Check the per-unit price. Each shelf label should include this information, which can be useful to your decision-making. For example, “Family Size” quantities of the same item—such as cereal—can often cost less per ounce than if you bought a smaller box. You’ll pay more up front, but you’ll also have more cereal to eat. This is a particularly good strategy for non-perishable groceries.
  • Shop at discount grocers if you have some nearby. Sometimes known as “surplus stores,” “bent-and-dent stores,” or “closeout grocery stores,” these retailers can offer significant savings if you’re willing to take a gamble on inventory, which can vary week-to-week. Use the USDA’s SNAP Retailer Locater to find a participating discount store near you.
  • Use store apps. If you have a smart phone, check whether your regular grocery store offers an app. In addition to other conveniences, many of these apps offer discounts and promotions based on your shopping habits. This can help you save more money on items you regularly purchase—without having to scour the weekly circulars. Coupons specific to you will load directly into the app, and you can apply them during checkout. Some stores will even offer “freebies” to entice you to return.
  • Shop online. Did you know that can use your SNAP Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) card to buy groceries online in certain places? As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the USDA launched a SNAP online purchasing pilot in 48 U.S. states. If you live in one of them, you can use your SNAP benefits for this purpose (you can’t use SNAP to pay for delivery, however). Online shopping could help you quickly compare prices and find discounts on everything from fresh fruits and vegetables to pantry staples—both from your local store and large national retailers.

Sometimes SNAP benefits are lower than they should be. This is because when you apply for SNAP, your income determines the amount of SNAP benefits you get. There are certain “deductions” that are considered and can increase the amount of SNAP benefits you get.

For example, there's a deduction that could apply if you pay a lot for housing (including your rent or mortgage, as well as utilities). If you're over 60 or have a disability, you may also be able to deduct out-of-pocket medical costs.

If you think you may not be getting all the benefits you deserve, contact your local Benefits Enrollment Center, or BEC, or call your local SNAP hotline.

Also, Bauer urged, be sure to see if you qualify for other federal and state benefits programs that can improve your financial stability.

“In 2022 alone, older adults left more than one billion dollars on the table that they are absolutely entitled to,” she said. Use NCOA’s Benefits CheckUp to check your eligibility for programs that can help you pay for housing, utilities, prescription drugs, health care, and more.

Sources

1. U.S. Department of Agriculture. “SNAP – Fiscal Year 2023 Cost-of-Living Adjustments”. Found on the internet at https://fns-prod.azureedge.us/sites/default/files/resource-files/snap-fy-2023-cola-adjustments.pdf#page=4

2. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Average Retail Food and Energy Prices, U.S. and Midwest Region”. Found on the internet at https://www.bls.gov/regions/mid-atlantic/data/averageretailfoodandenergyprices_usandmidwest_table.htm