Burger King Sign Accepting EBT cards
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What You Can and Can't Buy With SNAP Benefits

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Burger King Sign Accepting EBT cards
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images News/Getty Images North America

SNAP Decisions

Participation in the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — better known as SNAP and formerly known as food stamps — surged in 2020 when the pandemic took hold. Today, the program serves more than 42 million people.


Those SNAP beneficiaries benefitted from a major boost in monthly spending allowances in October 2021 after the USDA raised benefits 25% above pre-pandemic levels. This permanent adjustment pushed the average monthly benefit to about $157 per person (exact amounts vary by state; see the estimated benefits for your local area.)


If you're among those new to food assistance programs and unfamiliar with how they work, here's a quick yet comprehensive list of what you can and can't buy using SNAP benefits.

grocery delivery box
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Groceries for Delivery or Pickup: Yes

The days when food stamps were distributed in the form of physical vouchers are long gone. Nowadays SNAP benefits are loaded onto Electronic Benefits Transfer cards that work just like debit cards. EBT cards can be swiped in grocery stores or at other designated points of sale.


SNAP recipients can also use their EBT cards to order groceries online for delivery and/or pickup at a number of stores, thanks to an online purchasing pilot program. In response to increased safety concerns about in-person shopping during the pandemic, 47 states and the District of Columbia signed on to participate in the pilot.


Many stores work with popular grocery service Instacart to fulfill orders (and now shoppers paying with EBT SNAP at select retailers can get free delivery or pickup on their first three orders of $35 or more through the end of 2022). Amazon also offers grocery delivery with EBT, and covers shoppers in all states except Alaska. SNAP beneficiaries are eligible for discounted Amazon Prime membership.

RelatedWhere You Can Order Groceries Online With EBT

woman buying toilet paper at the store
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Non-Food Grocery Items: No

Government guidelines are strict: The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program provides food for people in need. This means you can buy fruits and vegetables, meats, fish, poultry, dairy products, breads and cereals, baby food and formula, and non-alcoholic beverages with your EBT card. Non-food items, however, are prohibited. Among the everyday grocery items you can't buy are cleaning supplies, paper products, and household supplies.


Related: 24 Things You Need to Know When Applying for Food Assistance Programs


diapers
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Diapers and Personal-Hygiene Products: No

Hygiene items like soaps, deodorant, shampoo, toothpaste, and cosmetics can't be purchased using SNAP. Baby wipes and diapers aren't SNAP eligible either, nor are they covered under the Women, Infants, and Children program, better known as WIC. Although advocates have long tried to implement federal programs to address diaper needs, only families living below the federal poverty level currently receive money that can be used to buy baby diapers. The National Diaper Bank Network works with manufacturers and community organizations to provide free diapers to parents in need.


Related: Where to Apply for Food Assistance in Every State

pharmacy
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Pharmacy Items: No

Vitamins, supplements, and medicines (over-the-counter and prescription) also cannot be purchased with SNAP benefits. Medicare and Medicaid may cover some of these costs.


Related: 10 Tips for Saving Money on Prescription Drugs

energy drinks
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Some Energy Drinks: Yes

If Red Bull gives you wings, the Food and Nutrition Service is not going to ground you. Energy drinks that include nutrition facts labels qualify as "food items" and are eligible for purchase with EBT. If your energy-boosting beverage of choice carries a supplement facts label, however, it falls under the same category as "vitamins and medicines" and won't make the cut.

Related: 23 Natural Ways to Boost Energy and Fight Fatigue

grocery store alcohol aisle
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Beer, Wine, and Liquor: No

Be prepared to become a teetotaler or pay out of pocket for any drinks containing alcohol. Beer and wine from the grocery store are forbidden, as is hard liquor. Also, EBT cards cannot be used to make food purchases at liquor stores, wineries, or other shops dedicated to the sale of alcoholic beverages.


Related: 20 Cheap Imported Beers Better Than Budweiser

Smoke-Free?
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Cigarettes and Tobacco Products: No

Smoking is another vice that is not supported. Cigarettes, cigars, chewing tobacco, and other tobacco products cannot be purchased with EBT. Although e-cigarettes do not contain tobacco, they are still grouped with "tobacco products" on the list of forbidden items, as are e-cig refills. Penalties for violating the prohibitions on purchasing tobacco products or alcoholic beverages with EBT can be stiff, and in some states people caught breaking the rules can be immediately disqualified from benefits.

Avoid Impulse Buys
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Junk Food: Yes

There have been many calls to restrict the types of food that can be purchased with food assistance, particularly in light of growing concerns over obesity and diabetes among Americans. Still, while junk foods like chips, candy, snack crackers, ice cream, and soft drinks may not be particularly nutritious or healthy fare, they're fair game for purchase with SNAP benefits.

Arguments that food assistance recipients should not be allowed "indulgences" like steaks, lobster, and pricier organic foods have likewise been shut down, as was an initiative led by the Trump administration to cut program costs and replace free-choice shopping with government-issued food boxes.

Related: The 20 Least Unhealthy Junk Foods

packaged sandwiches
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Hot Prepared Food: No

Convenience often comes at an extra cost, and the Food and Nutrition Service doesn't want to foot that bill. Hot foods and prepared food items meant to be consumed immediately or on the premises cannot be purchased with an EBT card. So, rotisserie chicken is a no-go, as are shrimp and seafood that has been steamed or fried, and stews, soups, and chili. Cold deli foods, including sliced lunchmeat, packaged sandwiches, salads, and sushi rolls, however, should be fine (although some beneficiaries report that sushi's SNAP eligibility is a sticking point at some stores).


If you want to make food purchases at a gas station or convenience store, you can, but you won't be able to buy food at your favorite coffee shop. There does seem to be some flexibility around whether you can use SNAP to purchase Starbucks items — particularly canned beverages or packaged foods — at kiosks within grocery stores or Target locations.

Burger King Sign Accepting EBT cards
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images News/Getty Images North America

Maybe: Restaurant Food

Despite the general prohibitions on EBT purchase of hot food and food intended for immediate consumption, the Restaurant Meals Program makes concessions for qualifying beneficiaries in certain states. SNAP recipients who are elderly, people with disabilities who may not be able to prepare their own meals, and people who are homeless and lack a place to store food can use SNAP at select restaurants in Arizona, parts of California, IllinoisMichiganRhode Island, Virginia, and Maryland. New York is also set to have a program.


The list of restaurants where you can buy food with SNAP includes fast-food establishments like Burger King, Denny's, Domino's Pizza, Popeye's, El Pollo Loco, and Subway. Use the official USDA SNAP Retailer Locator to verify which eateries are active participants in your area.


Related: Fast Food Deals to Feed the Whole Family

birthday cake
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Cakes and Gift Baskets: Yes

Special occasions and birthdays should be celebrated no matter your financial situation. Even if you're paying with SNAP, you'll be able to pick up a cake for your special event. Just know that you'll have to avoid extravagance, since "the value of non-edible decorations [must] not exceed 50% of the purchase price of the cake."


Not only can you buy a cake with EBT, you can also mark an occasion or a holiday with a gift basket. But, again, the value of non-food items included in these baskets cannot exceed half of their cost. (Because lawmakers have thought of everything, there's even a stipulation that, when celebrating autumn holidays, you can buy pumpkins — but not decorative gourds.)

farmers market
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Farmers Market Fare: Yes

EBT cardholders can use SNAP to shop at farmers markets in all 50 states. Markets must have a special license to participate in the program, however, so look for eligible markets in your area. While individual vendors may be equipped to process SNAP transactions, there's generally a single point-of-sale terminal where users swipe EBT cards and are given tokens or paper receipts to be submitted in exchange for food items at stalls or storefronts. At some markets, SNAP users can even earn double credit for their EBT dollars, although there's a cap on those extra bucks. Butcher shops and meat markets are also eligible for SNAP purchases.


Related: 22 Unique Farmers Markets Across America

planting seeds
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Plants and Seeds: Yes

As the saying goes, give a man a fish and he will eat for a day; teach him to fish and you feed him for a lifetime. With the goal of promoting self-sufficiency, the USDA allows SNAP beneficiaries to purchase seeds and plants to grow food. So, you can start a garden — but not a farm: You cannot use an EBT card to buy live animals, like chickens to lay eggs or livestock for butchering. The purchase of live seafood is also prohibited (shellfish and fish removed from water are exceptions).

Related: 22 Tips to Keep Gardening Dirt Cheap

dog food
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Pet Food: No

The government's rules are clear: Pet upkeep comes at owners' expense, and pet food does not count among the eligible food that can be purchased with SNAP dollars. This has long been a point of contention, with petitions filed to amend a rule that forces many people suffering financial hardship to make the hard choice of turning beloved "family members" over to shelters. If you're looking for assistance with your pet's upkeep, the Humane Society's Pets for Life program is one organization that helps struggling owners provide food and veterinary care for their pets.

Related: 14 Cheap Pets That Are Easy to Take Care Of

Real estate agent or finance advisor doing a meeting with customers at home
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Frequently Asked Questions

Who is eligible for SNAP?

Most people who fall under certain income and asset thresholds are eligible for SNAP, though there are some exceptions for college students and workers on strike. Income limits are also determined by household size. For more information, contact your local SNAP office.


How long does a SNAP application take?

The application process can take up to 30 days.


Do I need to have a job to apply for SNAP?

No. You don't need to be working to apply.

Can non-citizens apply for SNAP?

It depends. According to the USDA, "certain lawfully-present non-citizens" can receive benefits, but there may be an extended waiting period. More information is on the USDA's website.