When I was a young mother, shortly after being declared by the Social Security Administration as “totally disabled”, I was in my local grocery store with my book of food stamps and a pile of coupons.Newsflash: Food stamps are money. They may not be spendable in all the places you’d spend other money, but food stamps, EBT, vouchers, gift cards... they’re all money.
The woman behind me in line was impatient... not because of the food stamps, because of the coupons.
“You’re paying with food stamps, right?” she asked.
“Yes,” I replied.
“Then why are you using coupons? It’s not like you’re using money.”
Money is NOT valuable in itself. When you look at a dollar bill, you’re not looking at anything more than a piece of paper. It’s a promissory note from the government. It’s a note tradable for goods and services. So are food stamps. So are vouchers. So are gift cards. So are EBT benefits.
If I told you you could pay $2.99 for that bit of food, or you could use the coupon and get two for that price, you would get two. If you use food stamps or cash, it doesn’t make any difference. If you get 50% off, you either have more cash, more available credit, or more food stamps in your pocket after buying. Why would you NOT use coupons?
Yet most people simply don’t think of benefits as “money”.
If Sally gives Joe a $20 bill and sends him down to the grocery store with a shopping list, he’d be able to come back with the same food as if she sent him with $20 of food stamps.
If Sally gives Joe a $20 bill and says, “OK, go get the food, but first, I’m going to offer you a trade: You give me that $20 and I’ll give you a crisp new $10 bill!”
Joe would have to be stupid to take that deal. But thousands of people do just that: Sell food stamps for 50 cents on the dollar. Never mind that it’s illegal, it’s just stupid, because now Joe has $10 less in his pocket to feed the family with. Food isn’t something you can do without.
Now there are some reasons... some good reasons... why people sell food stamps. You can’t buy medicine with food stamps. You can’t buy toilet paper with food stamps. You can’t buy feminine hygiene products with food stamps.
And there are some less than good reasons: you can’t buy liquor with food stamps. And yes, people do, sadly choose their addictions over feeding their families, which is why food stamps are limited to food, and why it’s illegal to sell or buy food stamps.
But this myth that food stamps aren’t money is financially dangerous. They aren’t “not money”, and they’re not “free money”. They are the same as any other money you would use for food.
It’s not just food stamps. It’s WIC, it’s TANF, its vouchers and gift cards from charities. If you want to live well, you can’t think of them as “free money” and “disposable income”. View them as income, the same as you would a paycheck.