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From Food Stamps to Freelance: Tips to Building Up Your Pantry

Updated on April 6, 2018

As anyone who's had to rely on government assistance before knows, it can feel like you have to choose between balancing income, receiving benefits, or losing them altogether. While the system would ideally adapt to changes in your income slowly and accordingly (and it tries), the truth is that making even just an extra hundred bucks can slash your benefits by quite a bit.
But at some point, you eventually have to choose: Do you want to keep making 'just enough' to qualify for benefits and have a little fun, or do you want to take charge of your finances and your future?

For us, it was a question that we considered for a little while. We have 3 small children, and making the change from receiving nearly $600 a month for food to taking it all on our own wasn't an easy choice.
On one hand, we have guaranteed security. On the other, we have feast-or-famine.

Cosmically, we didn't get to answer the question for ourselves.

After only a couple of weeks of trying to decide what path to take, our benefits were cut due to an error in paperwork. It couldn't have come at a worse time: In November, when we had 2 birthdays and Thanksgiving to think about. By the beginning of December, we were broke and "in need" of food stamps to help out with food - especially Christmas dinner.
It was scary to think that we might not be able to have a big Christmas or even a nice dinner.
However, my husband and I were surprised to find that rather than being in a panic or upset, we were relieved. The decision had been made for us. However, it was up to us to make it work.
It wasn't easy, but with a little up-n-up hustling, a lot of motivation, and a drive for success, we managed to not only buy enough food for our family but have a great Christmas, as well.
I've come up with a tip list for those of you who are about to (or afraid of) making the leap from food stamps to freelance!

Prepare, prepare, prepare.

Even though we hadn't made a formal decision yet, my husband and I had been preparing for a little while. This included coming up with meal plans that would keep the 5 of us well-fed without using our full monthly benefit.

  • While you're still receiving benefits, find cheap ways to keep your family fed. This may mean going from fresh veggies to canned or frozen, adding more pasta or rice to meals, or learning to stretch meats out among several meals.
  • Stockpile foods that your family loves, as well as staples. For us, flour, rice, oil, lard, salt, and various spices are staples. But dried fruits, nuts, cheddar bunnies, and mac-n-cheese are things that our family loves. Keeping a decent amount of each nonperishable item in our pantry really helped with the transition.
  • You'll also want to find alternatives to the items you love. For example, our family found that we could easily use condensed milk rather than fresh milk. We could also use powered cheese rather than fresh cheese. Not only are these things much cheaper than their fresh alternatives, they keep for a lot longer. This can help with both alleviating costs as well as stockpiling.

Do the math and plan accordingly.

Another thing that we had to consider was how much more of a financial burden paying for our own food would be. Even though I was working at a grocery store at the time and received a discount on most products, we were still spending $200 - $300 each month on food out of our own pocket. This meant that each month, our family of 5 was spending $800 - $900 on food alone.
It was a little intimidating to consider shelling out nearly a thousand bucks each month on food. Until we actually stepped back and took an honest look both at our finances and our wastefulness.
Because we knew that we could rely on food stamps to show up at the beginning of the month, we usually did the bulk of our shopping at the beginning of the month. This meant that a lot of our produce was already on the way out before we'd even had a chance to eat it. Of course, that meant that we would have to go right back out and buy it again when we were ready to use those ingredients. Which leads me to one of my points.

  • By shopping weekly, you can ultimately save more money. Not only do you guarantee that your perishables are fresher (and thus that you won't have to throw them out), you can keep an accurate estimation of what you have and what you actually need.
  • Keeping a chart on the fridge is another good way to keep track of what you actually need or any cravings you might have. It means that you don't accidentally buy too much of one thing or go without something else.
  • Stick to a meal plan. It might suck and get boring, but we've found that there are a lot of ways to have the 'same' thing and keep it fresh. For example, we know that on Mondays we have chicken. But it can be roasted chicken, grilled chicken, chicken curry, fried chicken, and so on. This is both a great way to keep food costs low, as well as a fun way to experiment with new recipes.

Learn where to shop.

Where we're from and where we live, there are pretty much two places to shop. There's a Walmart, and a local grocery chain store. They are right across the street from one another, and the prices are pretty similar. They run similar deals, both offer coupon and carryout services, and are praised for their cheapness. However, we've found that their "cheap prices" are for a good reason. Here's why we decided to go to more "expensive" stores for our groceries:

  • For starters, upscale doesn't mean expensive, at least not when it comes to groceries. As we found out when we started shopping in more affluent neighborhoods, the prices weren't just comparable to our local stores, they were often cheaper. In many cases, these were the same stores we had locally, only in better neighborhoods. They ran the same deals, took the same coupons, and offered the same services. But usually with better prices and a bigger selection.
  • Meats and produce have a 'cycle'. At least, that's what we found out as we explored more stores. It turns out that a common business practice is to send the best performing and most affluent stores the freshest meats and produce. When it is deemed not fresh enough for the market (but still very edible and legal to sell), it is whisked away to the next best store, and the next, and the next. This meant that the meats and produce we were buying from our local chain that expired so quickly had actually been to at least one location before - if not more. By shopping at the more affluent stores, our food was fresher and ultimately lasted longer.
  • "Ethnic markets" are another great place to find fresh fruits, veggies, and meats. They oftentimes have a larger selection and better prices, too. Though we have plenty of Mexican markets around and even a couple of Mexican grocery chains, we found that we preferred the prices and freshness of a Korean market we found in the middle of our Chinatown Center (MT Market).

There are a lot of nuances to making such a large change, and you have to take into account what is manageable to you and what is best for your family. Perhaps you'd feel better starting a savings account to ensure you have some food money if something were to go awry? (Lord knows we would have preferred that!)
If you've made the leap from food stamps to freelance, how did you prepare? What tips would you offer? Let me know in the comments below!

© 2018 Rebecca

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