First, calculate household income

Understanding CalFresh benefit calculations

Monthly income is figured one of two ways: If there is an “elderly” or “disabled” person in the household, it is done one way. If there are no elderly or disabled people in the household, it is done a different way.

The special utility allowance (SUA), telephone utility allowance (TUA), gross and net income limits, and the maximum CalFresh allotments usually change every year. [See, e.g., ACIN I-60-22 listing updated numbers for FY 2019 effective from October 1, 2022 to September 30, 2023.] The USDA Food and Nutrition Services (FNS) each fiscal year publishes updated charts listing new income eligibility standards, standard deduction, shelter deduction, and maximum allotments based on federal cost of living adjustments (COLA).

Before beginning the calculations of how much CalFresh benefits an individual household will receive, it is important to understand the ideas behind the benefit calculations. This will make it easier to understand why some expenses are taken into account and how changes in income and housing expenses will affect the amount of CalFresh benefits.

Overall, the CalFresh calculation looks at how much money the household has to spend on food. That figure is compared to the amount of money a household of that size “should” be paying for food. If the amount a household has to spend on food is less than it “should” be spending, the household gets CalFresh benefits to make up the difference. Of course, figuring out how much money a household has to spend on food and how much money it “should” spend on food is quite complicated.

To figure out how much money a household has to spend on food, the CalFresh benefits rules look at how much income a household has. The rules start by looking at the total earned income and unearned income to the household.  Income is counted for the month it is received.  [MPP § 63-503.242(b).]  They then allow the household to take deductions for money spent on child care, child support, and medical costs. The money left over is what the rules say a household has available to pay for food and shelter. (We’ll call it “food-and-shelter money” here.)

The rules then figure out how much the household is paying for shelter. The rules add up the shelter costs, utility costs, and telephone costs. That amount is compared to the amount of food-and-shelter money. The rules expect that a household will use half of their food-and-shelter money to pay for shelter. If the household pays more than half, that is considered “excess shelter” money, or money the household pays for shelter that is in excess of half of their food-and-shelter money.

There is a limit on how much excess shelter payment the rules will take into account. This means that in areas with very high housing costs, where household must pay more than half of their net income for shelter, the rules do not take all of those expenses into account. Some of the money these households spend for shelter will be considered by the rules to be available to pay food costs.

After the rules look at how much food-and-shelter money a household has, and how much of that money is going towards shelter, the rest of the money is considered available for food and other expenses. The rules estimate that the household will spend one-third of that money on food. If that amount for food spending is less than the maximum CalFresh grant — the amount of money that USDA thinks a household should spend on food — CalFresh benefits will be issued to make up the difference.

That is the CalFresh Program rationale, providing the framework for understanding why calculation of the monthly CalFresh allotment is made the way it is.

Doing the actual CalFresh calculation

Ready to give it a go? This Guide includes four basic examples illustrating how the calculation is made in four different household situations. After completing the calculations illustrated in the four examples, use net income to determine the monthly allotment. (For related information, see the section about how to use net income to determine the monthly allotment.)