How to save money: You may qualify for food stamps even if you think you're too rich

FoodlinesNot every WalletPop suggestion on how to save money is meant to help you save for a Caribbean cruise; many are lifelines to those of us struggling to even pay the rent and put food on the table. If you're among the more than one in 10 willing workers still looking for a job, or trying to keep your family together on a dramatically reduced income, you might find help you'd never expected from the government. A growing number of Americans are eligible for the most-used safety net in our social service network, food stamps.

You already know people trying to find ways save money by collecting food stamps, although you probably don't know that they do. For the middle class, the program still carries an unfair stigma suggesting failure of effort or will. Get over it. The program, now called the Supplements Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), was used by almost 35 million people in May, saving many children, elderly and disabled from malnourishment.

If your family is in need due to the worst recession in 75 years, it's time to swallow your pride and do what's right for their well-being, and food stamps could be a part of that effort to figure out how to save money. Once you're back on your feet, you can always donate to the local food bank to bring your karma back into balance.

How do you know if you are eligible for this government-sponsored way to make money? The program is administered by your state government, which has offices and web sites to help you make that calculation. But here are some facts to consider:

The program is available not only to families living together, but to any group of people sharing a household and buying groceries together. Take a note of that, you college grads sharing a house and working for minimum wage. To qualify, the household gross income must fall below 130% of the federal poverty level. For a family of four, this ceiling in 2009 is $2,389.

The amount of the benefit is based on net income. Starting with your monthly gross income, you can subtract household expenses, work expenses and some of your payroll taxes, child support payments, child-care costs if you need it to free yourself up for work or training, dependent care expenses and other costs. The elderly and disabled can subtract a portion of their medical expenses, and farmers can deduct some farming losses.

To be eligible, households may not have more than $2,000 in assets, including bank accounts, cash, bonds, other houses and property, and such. However, many assets don't count toward this total, including retirement and education savings, autos, tradesmen tools and farm machinery, the home you live in, other properties you own from which you get rent, and various other kinds of holdings.

How hard is it to qualify? And how do you save money?

  • A person working at Starbucks 40 hours a week for $10 an hour, grossing roughly $1,600 a month, and sharing a house with a spouse earning $500 and two children, qualifies.
  • Two young musicians sharing an apartment and grossing less than $1,579 qualify.
  • A son or daughter living with a elderly parent who has high out-of-pocket medical expenses can qualify regardless of gross income, if the deductions drop the household net income to $903 or less.

How much could a recipient receive? The amount is calculated by multiplying the net income by .3 and subtracting from the maximum monthly allotment. Our example family of four living off a Starbucks salary and some side income, grossing $1,600 month, may have a net income of only $400 after deducting rent, child expenses, payroll taxes, and other factors. Multiply $400 by .3 = $120. Subtracting this from the maximum monthly allotment for a family of four and this family could be eligible for $548 a month in food stamps. This could make a huge difference for them.

This money can be used to buy most any grocery store food item except alcohol, tobacco, pet foods, toiletries, household items, meds, food that will be eaten in the store, and hot food.

One of the great things about our country is our compassion for one another, demonstrated by our social programs designed to help provide a safety net to those who fall on hard times. These are extraordinary hard times, and for the welfare of their families, many Americans wondering how to save money are finding an answer where they never anticipated they would; food stamps.

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