Food Budgets with Crystal White

Katie Wisneski, MSU student and intern, talks to Crystal White, community nutrition instructor, about making a food budget, helpful tools and phone apps for budgeting, using food assistance benefits online, and resources MSU Extension offers.

September 12, 2020

Neighborhood Nutrition graphic - Title on top of wood background with fresh vegetables and pasta and the MSU Extension logo.

Katie Wisneski: Welcome to Neighborhood Nutrition, a Michigan State University Extension podcast. This first season will focus on food resource management, providing you with tips and tricks for how to make the most of your food dollars. My name is Katie Wisneski and I'm a public health nutrition intern and student at Michigan State University. Today we're speaking with Crystal White, a program instructor in Macomb county. Hello, Crystal. Thank you for joining us today.

Crystal White: Hi, Katie, how are you?

Katie: Good! We're glad to talk with you. Can you talk a little bit about making a budget?

Crystal: Okay. I think the first thing to do when making a budget is to kind of lay it all out there. Lay out what your expenses are. Kind of figure out a food budget based on, you know, that hierarchy of needs. Like, what do you need to pay? What do you absolutely have to pay each month? And then to put that budget based on there, the food budget. And specifically with that food budget, what I try to do with people that come to our programs is to help them get the biggest bang for their buck. So once they figure out, based on their other expenses, what their food budget is, what our program does is help them figure out how to buy the foods that are most nutritious for their family and to stretch those food dollars until they get them again.

Katie: Mhm. So there are things like budget calculators, where can people find budget calculators?

Crystal: Okay, there are a lot of different budget calculators out, out there. Some of them are free, some of them are things that they might have to pay for. But the first one I want to talk about is on the USDA site, and that's a free one. What I like about that one is, not only is it free, so it's not going to affect your food budget. It's going to tell you probably how much a meal is per person. So say you have a family of five, it's going to help you figure out based on how old your kids are, the adults in the house, how much you should be paying for a meal. And to kind of put that into a realistic budget per month. And then it's going to actually have some food suggestions or meals that would be considered nutrient dense, which means they're very nutritious, but they're low cost. And that's one of the things I like most about our program is that we're going to show you something that tastes good, low cost, and you can prepare it easy for your family. There's also some on other extension pages. Iowa extension has one. I really like that calculator because again, you just put in your numbers and then it figures out what your food budget is. And then there's also going to be recipes. There's another one called Supercook and it's free, I think there's different layers to that, that'll give you different things. But again, what I like about the apps that I just mentioned, is that they all give you a way to prepare nutritious foods for your family for less. And so you can get access to them and then find out some ways to cook it. And, you know, we all kind of getting food ruts where we just kinda cook the same thing based on what we have. This gives use different ways to fix it.

Katie: Yeah. That sounds great.

Crystal: Yeah.

Katie: Are these all pretty easy to use? Like, can you kind of go through a little step-by-step on how to start?

Crystal: How to use them? Yeah. So the one on, you can probably use it. I'm going to say on a laptop. You can use on a tablet, you can use it on a phone, Android, or iPhone. So there's different ways that you can use it. But of course with that, you would have to have internet access. And I'm gonna say this, just add this in. If somebody's having a problem with internet access. They can go to one of our pages on Facebook. Well, that's almost like repetitious. If you don't have internet, then you gotta get on the pages. But I would encourage you to seek out hotspots and places where you can join the internet or to hook up with people or providers that are offering free internet right now. And free computers and some people have free essentials. Anyways. So you're going to, in these apps, put in how many people you have in your family and then what you have available each month. And it'll probably give a guesstimate of what you're spending on other things. And then tell you realistically what you spend on your food budget. So I've gone through pretty much all those apps and that's what they do. So they're pretty simple and straightforward to use. But most of the time you're going to have to have some information like how much you have totally, and how many people in your family. And it's really that simple from there. And then it'll give you what you need.

Katie: Awesome. That sounds like a really good resource to have.

Crystal: I think they're really good and what I think is best about them is that you will have access to recipes. And so like I said before, part of the thing with eating nutritious is we go to things that we like. And sometimes they're not always good for us and we can find different ways to make those things we like and have them be more nutritious.

Katie: Mhm. Leading off of that, do you have any recommendations of other phone apps for food resource management that are not necessarily budget calculators, but help out In that way?

Crystal: I would say MyPlate too. There's a lot of different budget resources on And there you're going to find out like what are the nutritious foods and each one of those categories. And then they're also going to give you ten tips for saving money and so those tips are often expounded on. Like, you know, when your grocery shopping, which isle do you go to first, how do you do that? How do you look for a fruit that's ripe, or almost ripe? Because that's actually a budget saving tip. So if I buy five bananas and they're not ripe yet, I'm going to have a little bit longer in my house while they ripen up. As opposed to buying five very ripe bananas that maybe I'm going to have to freeze if I have the time to do it. But sometimes they don't get eaten and then you end up wasting money because of that, so those are not necessarily things that are going to help you with budget, but they're going to help you stretch those food dollars by buying things that last longer in your house and that ultimately saves money.

Katie: Yeah, I never really even thought about that, but that's a really good point.

Crystal: Mhm. Yeah, that's you know, that's like right now where everything is in abundance. It's like how we buy things that end up, do we use them, do we buy too much? Checking to see what we have before we go. I know we always say we don't have time to do that, but ultimately you're going to take the time to throw it out and that's going to take your time.

Katie: Yeah. So now that it's a little more difficult to get to stores and it can be safer to stay at home. Do you have any thoughts on online shopping and how to use benefits to do so?

Crystal: Yes. So again, I'm probably going to mention something that you're going to have to use internet for. So please, if anybody's out there struggling with internet, please contact us and we can give you some, some free internet resources. But, I have a lot of thoughts on online shopping and one of them. So if you're at home and you're preparing food for kids, and you're working from home and all those other things, One of the things about online shopping in this world of social distancing right now is that it can save you money, gas, and going to the store with your kids. Sometimes going to the store with your kids adds to your food budget because they're looking at this and that. So I will say that first, that's one of the benefits of online shopping. The second one is, is that online shopping has now opened up to everyone, whether you're using a food benefit card or not. There are at least three retailers in the state of Michigan that accept the bridge card for online food benefits. So you can find out who these retailers are at the Michigan Department of Human Services. And they will say which retailers except money for online shopping. I don't think they pay for delivery fee. So sometimes if you join their club, you don't have delivery fees, or if you join a certain group you won't have delivery fees. And I will just say with that, look for sales or promotions where you can join one of their clubs. Sometimes you can do curbside shopping, which is just like going into the store. You can pull up, so there won't be a delivery fee. There might be some other small fee, but you can pull up, pop your trunk, they'll put the groceries in there and that's it and everything's done contact-less. But with the online shopping, you will have to have access to the internet, but it'll save you time. And in this world of social distancing, you won't have to physically go in the store. So it can help that way. What's good about that is you're not in store and you're kind of sticking to your budget because you know what you can spend when you shop online, you know, and if you buy the same things all the time, it will save them, make a list for you, and then you can constantly pick them up. You can kinda plan when you're going to do it. So if you say, oh, I don't need groceries until Friday, you can do the list and have it delivered on Friday. So again, saving you time, which ultimately can save you money. And there's also a question and answer section on there. So if you're having trouble using it or navigating it, you can get those questions answered about how to shop online. And Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

Katie: So most of the places that People can get groceries using benefits, are they big retail stores? Do you know if food deliveries from like restaurants, count or is it going to be mostly just grocery stores that they can use their benefits towards?

Crystal: It's all gotta be on grocery stores because the way this approval process was done nationally and then it was sent to states. So people are going to shop at big box retail stores. I expect that more will come in. But the response to social distancing through the food benefits system was to deal with major retailers that had the capacity to accept bridge cards first. I believe that it will probably filter out to more to include more stores because everybody's not in a large urban city, but that's the way it started.

Katie: Okay. Is this something that's sort of new or has this been around for a while where you can use for online?

Crystal: I think it's mostly new, but I do think social distancing kind of expedited who else was included in this.

Katie: Yeah. Which is good, I think this is a good Opportunity.

Crystal: Absolutely. And with people having children home right now, it helps give people another way to shop.

Katie: Yeah, for sure. So this is kind of taking a little bit step back, but can people apply for benefits online and where do they do that? If so?

Crystal: Oh yeah, people can apply through here in Michigan, Michigan Department of Health and Human Services website. What's nice about it is that not only once you create an account there, you could apply for your food benefits and other benefits as well. So it's kind of a one stop shopping portal that will let you know what other benefits you're applying for. So people are getting unemployment if you need other forms of assistance with job hunting, rental assistance, utilities, It's all there on one site. So you don't have to manage different accounts. Again, that will save you time and ultimately save you money because you're not using gas to go to all these different places and you could do it online. So that's good about the site. Once you create an account, you can get all of your benefits right there. There's also a phone assistance. So if you're having trouble getting through and doing it, someone can help walk you through.

Katie: Okay. That's good. Do you have any overall advice for someone who is new to using benefits?

Crystal: The one thing that I would really like to emphasize is that if you have benefits, there are resources on that page that can help you. We've named some resources that will help you in terms of managing your benefits. And because of online social distancing right now, you can take a class with us to learn how to manage those benefits so that you're eating more nutritious and you're saving money. My advice would be like we started off this conversation is to make a budget so that at the end of the month or when those benefits are running out, your quality of life is not changing. You're able to maintain it all the way through. And I think that the more resources you use or writing things down, whether you're using an app, or you're using a notebook, or you're using a spreadsheet, is to just have it in your head about what you're going to spend on what. That's the whole point of this, you know, is that sometimes we think we don't have time to create a plan. But if we don't have a plan, we ended up spending more time and money. And, you know, I'll be the first to say because I've had kids, a job and managing it all. Oh, I don't have time to write a list, I know what I want i'm just going to go to the store, or I know how much I have I'm just going to pay this bill. But if you commit to a plan, you'll move further. And we're here to help you, you know, and MSU, we even have some things to help with mindfulness and just kind of riding out the storm that we're all in called Life right now. So we're here to help. And you know, one of the things that Michigan State says, is we bring knowledge to life. And so I truly believe that the opportunities that we provide can do that.

Katie: Yeah, definitely. So you kind of briefly touched on this. Does MSU Extension have any online classes or learning opportunities for people that are staying at home?

Crystal: Mhm. So I'll start right now with the MI Health Michigan money. We have a lot of programs that help with people that want to learn about the home buying process that can help you develop a budget, learn more about your credit. I think that's one of the things that can help you be less stressful. If you know how much you're going to spend where. And we have classes and instructors and resources that will help people do that. In terms of your family, were all at home with our family right now and sometimes that day is long and sometimes that day is short, but we have ways to our MI stronger family program will help you just kind of deal with the ebb and flow of raising kids. It's not always easy and it's certainly a lot different than when a lot of us were kids. So those resources and other people that are experiencing that will be in those spaces. We have our 4-H programs, and they can help kids find something to do and help them become leaders. The kids that participate in 4-H are more likely to graduate from high school and go on to some other program that will help them prepare for, for life. We have a lot of things that, like I said before, bring knowledge to life.

Katie: Mhm. And how can someone find these classes that are offered?

Crystal: We promote a lot of them online. A lot of them can be found whatever county you're living in. A lot of our counties actually have Facebook pages or advertise some weight throughout their county. We have our Michigan State University Extension pages that are within each institute, like children and youth, health and nutrition. That site will lead you to events management that can tell you about specific opportunities that are in Michigan State University Extension, as well as contact numbers.

Katie: Yeah. And are all of the classes free?

Crystal: All of our classes are free to eligible participants. So I would just encourage you to just call and learn more about the class and when it's being offered near you. What's great about right now is a lot of our classes are online and you can probably find a time that fits in to when you can take it.

Katie: Yeah. Is there any other advice or opportunities that you would like to discuss?

Crystal: We're talking about food budget and one of the things that I think people are learning a lot about now, just how to eat more nutritious foods and how to bring them into their diet. Sometimes you think it takes a lot of time and it really doesn't. And I think that if you take one of our classes and are able to share what you do with other people who are doing something that you can learn more and expand what you're eating even when you're on a budget. So I hope people get that from this. And if you want to learn more, please contact us. We're, we're here 24/7 now because of social distancing, so just let us know

Katie: Awesome, and what is the main idea or main thing that you want people to take away from our discussion?

Crystal: There's help out here. And when you're managing a food budget, there's lots of resources that are out there on the internet. Set aside some time and do it. You know, I don't know when people what day is your day to prepare your lists or when you kind of organize your home, I think everybody has one. One idea I'd like to give people that are caring for children is sit down, find somewhere to sit even if it's on the floor or outside and talk about what we're gonna do for this week. What we like to eat? Maybe give the kids a to pick something. Kids waste less food when they're involved in the planning. So that would be something else. But in terms of making your budget and preparing it, make that household affair, whoever's in house, have them sit down and help you plan, share it. You know, people planning the meals, helping to prepare them, making it. You don't think that all those things, save money, but you'll see they do when everybody's kind of involved in the planning of it. If you don't have enough resources where you can figure out, you know, I'm sick of hamburger and what else can I do with it or not to pick on hamburger, but anything that you're cooking, you know, I'm sick of doing this. If you take one of our classes, we can show you some different ways to do it. But those websites that I mentioned, Supercook, USDA, Iowa extension, even Michigan State Extension, has some resources on our website to tell you different meals and things you can cook and stretch out those food dollars, just do that. In other words, what I'm trying to say is take advantage of as many resources as you can to stretch those food dollars.

Katie: Mhm. Great! Alright well, Thank you so much Crystal, for giving us all your expertise. And it was great talking with you.

Crystal: Thank you Katie.

Katie: Thank you for joining us for this episode of neighborhood nutrition. We hope you tune in for our next episode. Funding for this podcast comes from the US Department of Agriculture Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, and the expanded food and nutrition education program, also known as EFNEP, and is from the USDA's National Institute of Food and Agriculture. Music used on this podcast is Champ de Tournesol by Komiku, and was accessed from MSU is an affirmative action equal opportunity employer committed to achieving excellence through a diverse workforce and inclusive culture that encourages all people to reach their full potential. Michigan State University Extension programs And the materials are open to all without regard to race, color, national origin, gender, gender identity, religion, age, height, weight, disability, political beliefs, sexual orientation, marital status, family status or veteran status. Issued in furtherance of MSU Extension work acts of May 8th and June 30th, 1914 in cooperation with the US Department of Agriculture, Jeffrey W Dwyer, Director of MSU Extension East Lansing, Michigan 48824. This information is for educational purposes only, reference to commercial products or trade names does not imply endorsement by MSU Extension are biased against those not mentioned.

Take our listener survey below: