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What Can You Buy with EBT?

What Can You Buy with EBT?

If you are a new recipient of county, state, or federal benefits, you may be wondering: what can you buy with EBT? The answer depends on which program(s) you’re enrolled in.

This article will explain the difference between food benefits and cash assistance, and list common items you can buy with EBT, depending on the program(s) in which you are enrolled.

SNAP Food vs. EBT Cash

The Electronic Benefits System (EBT) loads funds for food and cash assistance onto debit cards for low income families and individuals. There are two parts to the EBT system: food benefits and cash benefits.

Food assistance comes from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, also known as food stamps). 

Cash for basic necessities comes primarily from county and state general assistance/relief (GA/GR) programs and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), a program of the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. Depending on your state, other programs may also load cash onto your EBT card.

What Can You Buy with EBT If You Get Food Benefits?

If your EBT card is loaded with SNAP benefits, those benefits are intended to purchase food for your household. Most food items are eligible, especially if they have a Nutrition Facts label.

Some items you can buy with EBT food benefits include:

  • Breads and Cereals: Whole and refined grain products.
  • Bulk Bins: Various unpackaged foods, such as grains, nuts, and dried fruits.
  • Canned Goods: Including fruits, vegetables, meat, and fish.
  • Clearance Food Items: Discounted food items nearing their sell-by date or in overstock.
  • Cooking Oils, Spices, and Herbs: Essential cooking ingredients.
  • Dairy Products: Milk, cheese, yogurt, and other dairy items.
  • Desserts and Sweet Treats: Ice cream, cake, cookies, and other sweet foods.
  • Drinks (non-alcoholic): Juice, coffee, tea, and bottled water.
  • Food Storage: Items specifically packaged for long-term storage.
  • Freeze-Dried Foods: Including fruits, vegetables, and meats that have been freeze-dried for preservation.
  • Frozen Foods: Including fruits, vegetables, meats, and convenience foods.
  • Fruits and Vegetables: Fresh, frozen, canned, or dried.
  • Meat, Poultry, and Fish: Including fresh, frozen, and canned options.
  • Snack Foods and Non-Alcoholic Beverages: Chips, sodas, and other snack items.
  • Convenience Foods: From the freezer section, excluding hot or ready-to-eat items.

A few less well-known options may be flying under your radar. Below is a list of not-so-obvious items the U.S. Department of Agriculture classifies as eligible for purchase with SNAP benefits:

  • Cakes and Bakery Treats: You can usually use SNAP benefits to pay for cookies, cakes, and other bakery items at supermarkets and discount stores that accept EBT.
  • Cold Drinks, Smoothies, Slushies: Even though you cannot pay for a latte or other hot beverages with your EBT card, it’s OK to purchase cold drinks from participating retailers — like iced coffees, smoothies, and fountain drinks.
  • Energy Drinks: You can use your EBT card to buy energy drinks as long as your jolt juice bears a Nutrition Facts label. This means Red Bull, Rockstar, and bottled Starbucks drinks are covered, but 5 Hour Energy, Bang Shot, and Tweaker are not.
  • Farmers Market Foods: Eligible, including fruits, vegetables, meats, dairy products, and breads. SNAP benefits can often be used directly at farmers markets that accept EBT cards.
  • Fishing and Hunting Supplies in Alaska: If you live in extremely remote parts of Alaska, you can use SNAP benefits to buy hunting and fishing equipment to catch food through the SNAP Subsistence Program.
  • Gift Baskets: As long as a gift basket’s eligible food items account for at least 50% of the cost, you can buy it with an EBT card.
  • Live Animals: Live shellfish — such as lobster, shrimp, and clams — are allowed. You can also use an EBT card to purchase live fish if they are removed from water before you take them out of the store. Other animals sold live are SNAP-eligible if they are slaughtered before you leave the seller’s premises.
  • Protein Powders, Bars, and Shakes: You can use SNAP benefits to pay for protein powders, bars, shakes, or meal replacement drinks like Ensure if they have a Nutrition Facts label but not if they have a Supplement Facts label.
  • Restaurant Meals: Some states participate in the SNAP Restaurant Meals Program (RMP), which allows some enrollees to use their benefits to purchase prepared meals at certain restaurants. To qualify for this program, you must be age 60 or older, have a disability, or be experiencing homelessness. 
  • Seeds and Plants: If you have the time, space, and talent to grow your food, use your SNAP benefits to buy seeds, seedlings, or starter plants that produce vegetables, fruit, edible roots, and/or edible leaves, including plants used as herbs or ground as spices.
  • Water & Ice: Bottled water is eligible, and ice is eligible as long as it is intended for consumption or for preserving food.

However, there are some items that you cannot buy with EBT food benefits include:

  • Alcohol: Prohibited items including beer, wine, and spirits.
  • Tobacco: All forms of tobacco products are ineligible.
  • Vitamins: Dietary supplements are not classified as food.
  • Medicines: Prescription and over-the-counter drugs excluded.
  • Supplements: Health and nutrition aids are not covered.
  • Pet Food: Food items intended for animal consumption only.
  • Non-Food Items: Household supplies, personal care items, and more, not eligible for purchase.

For more information about how SNAP works and where you can shop with SNAP benefits, be sure to check out our other posts. We even have a list of 1,000 discounts you can get with an EBT card!

What Can You Buy with EBT If You Get Cash Benefits?

If your EBT card is loaded with cash benefits, you can use it to purchase food, shelter, clothing, childcare, and any items associated with needs like these.

For example, here are some things you can buy with EBT cash:

  • Clothing and Footwear: Apparel and shoes for any member of the family.
  • Education Expenses: School supplies and tuition fees.
  • Groceries: Includes all food items like fruits, vegetables, meat, dairy, and more.
  • Health Care: Medical expenses, including prescriptions and over-the-counter medications.
  • Household Supplies: Cleaning products, paper goods, and other necessary home items.
  • Other Essentials: Diapers, baby supplies, and any other necessities not covered by SNAP.
  • Personal Care Items: Hygiene products such as soap, shampoo, and toothpaste.
  • Transportation: Public transit passes and gas for vehicles.
  • Utilities: Payments towards electricity, water, and gas bills.

Although EBT cash benefits are more versatile than SNAP benefits, there are still limitations. You cannot use EBT cash benefits to buy the following:

  • Adult Entertainment: This includes services and materials deemed adult-only.
  • Alcoholic Beverages: All forms of alcohol are prohibited.
  • Bail: Funds to secure one’s release from jail cannot be obtained through EBT Cash.
  • Firearms and Ammunition: These items are strictly excluded from EBT Cash purchases.
  • Gambling: Lottery tickets, casino chips, and other gambling expenses.
  • Illegal Substances: Any drugs or substances not legal under federal and state law.
  • Tobacco Products: This includes cigarettes, cigars, and chewing tobacco.

For more about what EBT cash is, how it works and what you can buy, please check out our EBT cash benefits guide.

Restrictions & Considerations

Navigating the world of Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) cards can be straightforward, but it’s important to understand the specific restrictions and considerations that come with their use.

  • Location Limitations: EBT cards are widely accepted at various retailers, including grocery stores, supermarkets, and farmers markets. However, they cannot be used at certain establishments that do not accept SNAP benefits or do not have the technology to process EBT transactions.
  • Eligible Items: While EBT cash benefits have broader usage, SNAP benefits are restricted to food items only. This excludes alcohol, tobacco, non-food items, hot prepared meals, vitamins, medicines, and supplements.
  • Online Purchases: Some retailers now accept EBT cards for online purchases, but this service is not universal. Availability can vary by state and retailer.
  • Cash Withdrawal: EBT cash benefits can be withdrawn from ATMs, but there may be transaction fees, and not all ATMs accept EBT cards. It’s important to check the network and any associated fees.
  • State and Local Variations: EBT card acceptance and restrictions can vary significantly from one state to another, especially concerning the Restaurant Meals Program or specific exclusions.
  • International Use: EBT cards are not valid outside the United States and its territories. They are strictly for use within the country where they were issued.
  • Misuse and Fraud: Misuse of an EBT card, such as selling it for cash or purchasing non-eligible items, can result in serious penalties, including loss of benefits or legal action.

Relief Recap

Whether you’re hunting in Alaska, scouring flea markets in California, cake shopping in Kansas or looking for fresh fish in Florida –– or you just need a Red Bull to get through the day wherever you are –– this list outlines what you can buy with EBT. Our list covers both cash and food benefits in detail.