16 Important Rules To Know About SNAP Benefits

From eligibility to application, master the SNAP benefits program with these key insights.

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Updated May 28, 2024
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If you're looking for a way to save money on groceries, enrolling in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) can be a huge help. 

In many cases, eligible Americans receive more than $200 a month to help pay their grocery bills. But that amount can vary a great deal between families.

So if you're considering taking advantage of SNAP benefits and enrolling, here are 16 key facts to know to see if you qualify.

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Low-wage and unemployed workers can apply

Sandra/aDOBE mother buying food at the supermarket

While SNAP recipients have to meet specific income and asset requirements (more on that later), you and your family may qualify for a few different reasons.

People who are working for low wages or part-time and those who are unemployed may both qualify. Those on welfare, older or disabled, or homeless may also be eligible.

There are monthly income limits for recipients

Serhii/Adobe baby boy at the supermarket

Your household must meet gross and net income limits to qualify for SNAP benefits. Gross income is how much you make overall, and net income is your gross income minus any allowable deductions.

Currently, the gross income limit for a single applicant is $1,580 per month, and the net income limit is $1,215. For a family of four, the gross income limit is $3,250, and the net limit is $2,500.

There is also a limit on ‘countable resources’

Drobot Dean/Adobe beautiful family standing at the cash counter

There is also a resource limit to be eligible for SNAP benefits. Households need to have only $2,750 or less in countable resources. This includes cash or money kept in a bank account. The limit increases to $4,250 if a household member is 60 or older or has a disability.

Certain resources are not counted toward the total, such as homes, resources of people who get Supplemental Security Income (SSI) or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF or welfare), and most retirement plans.

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SNAP amounts are subject to change each year

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How much eligible households receive in SNAP benefits is adjusted annually based on the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Thrifty Food Plan.

The plan, which estimates how much it costs to buy groceries for nutritious, low-cost meals, is adjusted yearly based on inflation and other factors affecting food prices.

You need to apply through your state

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SNAP applications need to go through the state you live in. The application process may vary a bit from state to state.

To apply, someone from your household will need to contact your state’s agency by visiting a local SNAP office, online on your agency’s website, or by calling your state’s SNAP hotline.

You can apply online in most states

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Most but not all states allow their residents to apply for SNAP benefits online. Check the U.S. Food and Nutrition Service’s website if your state has an online application.

If your state does not allow online applications, you may have to print an application or pick one up from your local SNAP agency and mail it in.

The amount depends on household size

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How much you get in SNAP benefits depends on your household size. In most states, a SNAP recipient who lives alone or applies for benefits for just themselves can get up to $291 a month in benefits if they qualify for the maximum.

The amount increases depending on family size. A family of four can get up to $973 in most states.

Eligible recipients will get benefits within a month

yuriygolub/Adobe grandparents

Fortunately, applicants can expect swift responses to their SNAP applications. If your state’s office finds you eligible to receive benefits, you'll get the money no later than 30 days from the day you applied.

Certain recipients can get benefits within a week

JackF/Adobe man with his son making purchases

While all eligible applications can expect their benefits within a month, some may be able to have the money expedited. If you can prove you have either no or very little monthly income, you may be able to get food benefits within seven days.

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Benefits come through an EBT card

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If approved, your SNAP benefits will be delivered through an EBT account, which is like a debit account. SNAP recipients will receive a plastic card that can be used at approved food stores. When you get your EBT card, you will also receive a PIN.

The cards function as a debit card would, but they must be used at approved stores and on approved items.

SNAP benefits are accepted at many different stores

Drazen/Adobe woman putting groceries on counter

You can use your SNAP benefits to buy food at most grocery stores, superstores like Walmart or Target, some convenience stores, farmers markets, and more.

You can use the USDA’s SNAP Retailer Locator tool to determine which stores near you accept SNAP.

Benefits can be used on most food items

Halfpoint/Adobe mother unpacking local food

The USDA notes that SNAP benefits can be used to purchase most food items for the household. This includes fruits, veggies, meat and fish, dairy products, bread, cereals, and snack foods.

SNAP benefits can also be used on plants and seeds for recipients who wish to grow their own food.

Pro tip: Keeping a garden — even if you just grow a few tomato plants and some lettuce — is a great way to conserve cash if you’re trying to stop living paycheck to paycheck.

SNAP doesn’t cover certain food items

InputUX/Adobe Woman comparing products in a grocery store

You cannot, however, spend your SNAP benefits on all food items. The benefits do not cover food in restaurants or hot food items at grocery stores.

They also can’t be used for alcohol, tobacco, vitamins, or medicines.

You'll need to reapply

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If you are approved for SNAP benefits, you will receive a notice that explains how long your certification period is, or how long you will receive benefits.

Before your benefits expire, you will be notified that it’s time to recertify. You can get information about how to recertify from your local SNAP office. 

SNAP recipients are also expected to report any changes in their household circumstances, such as income changes.

Alaska and Hawaii pay families more

jackfrog/Adobe beautiful woman picking food in bag at bulk food store

The maximum amount of SNAP benefits families can receive is consistent across 48 states and Washington, D.C. However, families in Alaska and Hawaii can get more.

In most states, the maximum allotment for a family of four is $973 a month. In Alaska, the maximum for a family of four is up to $1,937; in Hawaii, the limit is $1,759.

There are work requirements

anoushkatoronto/Adobe dad carrying baby son under arm

In most situations, those receiving SNAP benefits must meet several work requirements.

To be eligible, applicants cannot quit their jobs or voluntarily reduce their hours. They must take a job if offered, be registered for work, and — if their state requires it — participate in employment or job-training programs.

Bottom line

luciano/Adobe Woman surprised at grocery bill

If you're eligible, applying for SNAP benefits is one of several ways to reduce your financial stress

Even if you’re not eligible for the maximum amount, getting help with groceries every month can help create the safety net you need to get the rest of your budget in order.

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Author Details

Laura Gesualdi-Gilmore

Laura Gesualdi-Gilmore is a seasoned freelance writer who also teaches writing courses at Rutgers University. She's based in Jersey City and enjoys travel, live music and, of course, spending quality time with her pup.