Updated on 09.14.17

Armageddon on a Shoestring: Prepare for Disasters Without Destroying Your Budget

Just before and right after every disaster, you see news coverage of crowded stores, depleted shelves, and interviews with people who don’t have enough (water, batteries, whatever).

Don’t be those people. September is National Preparedness Month, and its theme – “Disasters don’t plan ahead. You can.” – is also the theme of this post. Even if you’re on a tight budget, or living paycheck to paycheck, you should be prepared to live at least three days without basic services.

Should things go south, got any idea how you’d eat, drink, and stay warm until things got back to normal?

Two other things you might not consider until it’s too late:

  • Where would you and your family would go to the bathroom if the power and/or water cut out?
  • Do you have a manual can opener?

Sound funny? It’s deadly serious. If you don’t have a plan for the potty, your back yard is going to get real foul real fast. (Assuming, that is, that you even have a back yard.) And imagine the frustration of not being able to open up those cans of soup for your hungry household. (Assuming, that is, that you have a way to heat them up.)

The good news: You probably already have a lot of the stuff that Ready.gov suggests you need. The better news is that you can get the rest of it very cheaply, or even for free. And the time to do this is now, before the next power failure, ice storm, blizzard, hurricane, earthquake, or windstorm reshapes your life.

What’s for dinner?

The “food” section of Ready.gov suggests the best foods to have on hand: protein- and calorie-rich items with long shelf lives: soups, stews, canned beans, quick-cooking oatmeal, peanut butter, dehydrated foods (e.g., instant mashed potatoes), dried fruit, canned fish or meat, protein or granola bars, and crackers.

To that list I would add almond or other nut butters (not everyone likes peanut butter), some gelatin or instant pudding (a dessert can really brighten the day), Nutella (it’s just fun to eat), interesting foods from the supermarket’s health-food section (hummus, refried beans, even vegetarian taco filling), good-quality bouillon cubes, and hardtack — aka “pilot bread.”

(Never heard of pilot bread? This amusing video explains it all.)

You might already have a lot of the foods you need. Now you just have to keep it that way, i.e., never let your pantry get too bare. When something your household really loves goes on sale, get a few extra. Use a dark marker to write the sell-by date on the front (not the top!) of each food product and make sure they get rotated and replaced regularly.

  • Pro tip: A site called CouponMom.com does a state-by-state match of coupons, many of them downloadable, to sales in supermarkets, drugstores, and even dollar stores; fairly often you’ll pay nothing at all for food, toiletries, and first-aid supplies.

Should you buy disposable plates and bowls? Residents of hurricane country probably should, since they’re likely to lose water and power regularly. As for others, that’s up to you. If you’re without running water, you certainly shouldn’t use up precious stored water to wash dishes.

  • Pro tip: Watch clearance sales after major holidays and get up to 90% off paper plates, bowls, and cups. Don’t necessarily throw them out after eating; sometimes the higher-quality stuff can be used more than once.

Water, water everywhere?

Ready.gov suggests stashing one gallon per person per day for at least three days. Got pets? Don’t forget some extra agua for them.

Rather than spending money on bottled water, fill empty milk jugs or two-liter soft drink bottles until you have enough. Every few months, use the water in these containers for tasks like watering the garden or doing hand laundry, then refill them with fresh water for storage.

A word to those who filter their water: that sink-mounted or whole-house filtration system won’t do you much good if the power is out or the municipal water supply system is damaged. In that case, have a filtration pitcher and at least one extra cartridge in your emergency kit. (I regularly see these pitchers at thrift shops.)

Or take a simpler route: Sprinkle a little powdered drink mix (Wyler’s, for example) into each glass of water to disguise the yucky taste. These packets cost about a dime each at Walgreens and dollar stores.

Incidentally, most of us already have a decent amount of water stored – in the water heater. This video from WikiHow shows how to turn off the power and the water supply valve before tapping this standing supply in an emergency.

Canned juices are nice, but not essential. If you live in a hot climate, consider storing some powdered Gatorade drink mix. Or take the frugal route and mix your own, from ingredients like sugar, salt, and a drink mix like Kool-Aid (or the Aldi version, which is tons cheaper). Do an online search for “electrolyte drink powder recipe.”

Sometimes a hot drink is soothing – or even potentially life-saving – in a winter storm emergency. (Hypothermia victims are cold all the way to their innards.) Thus teabags, instant coffee, or cocoa mix are all great things to have on hand.

  • Pro tip: Whenever you boil water, make enough extra to put into a thermos-type jug.

For hot water you’ll need a safe heat source – and again, you may already have one in the form of a wood stove, camp stove, barbecue grill, hibachi, or burn barrel. While modern gas stoves may not function normally in a power outage (click-click-click-click), you might be able to use the range the old-fashioned way: lighting the burners with a match.

Any pan you use for heating water or food is likely to get sooty over a fire. Consider looking for an extra pot or two at thrift stores and/or yard sales. (I’ve found three pans that way, including a cast-iron skillet, in the “free” boxes at yard sales; maybe you’ll be that lucky, too.)

Note: It is essential to cook outdoors with grills and open flames, not indoors, due to the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning. Generators pose the same risk. The Orlando Sentinel recently reported that five people died and more than a dozen were injured due to CO poisoning after Hurricane Irma.

Thus if you’re planning to create your own post-emergency power, get a CO detector and follow other best practices suggested by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.

A roof over your head

Organizations like FEMA and the American Red Cross may show up after major disasters like earthquakes and hurricanes. But they can’t always help everyone, and some people prefer to shelter in place. Besides, some problems (windstorms, ice storms) don’t necessarily make your home unsafe – just inconvenient.

The questions, then, are how you’ll stay warm or cool. In cool or cold weather, dress everyone in layers: long underwear top and bottom, plus wool socks, extra shirts, fleece layers or sweaters, and knitted caps. The quilts or comforter from your bed might stand in for a sleeping bag.

  • Pro tip: Plan to have everyone sleep in the same small room for shared heat.

If you don’t have enough warm items for everyone, time to hit the thrift stores and yard sales. For other tips, search online for “staying warm during power failure.”

Keeping cool post-hurricane or during power outages is a real challenge. Some fairly obvious tactics are staying hydrated, wearing light clothing, and avoiding direct sun. Pull the curtains or shades and close off warmer rooms (e.g., the ones with south- and west-facing windows) to keep things from heating up. Sleep in the basement, if you have one (and if you have enough flashlight batteries).

Lighting is an enormous issue with regard both to safety and morale. While plenty of people stock up on candles, the danger of fire is very real. If you must use them, put them in jars set well out of the reach of children, pets, and anyone who might bump into a table.

Flashlights are safer. My partner and I have five headlamps (he bought them in a blister pack at Costco) plus some hand-held torches. If you don’t want to store batteries, look for flashlights that recharge by being cranked or that can recharge via your vehicle’s cigarette lighter.

  • Pro tip: When someone asks what you want for your birthday or Christmas, ask for one of these light sources.

Where’s the bathroom?

As the children’s book says, everybody poops. The question is where you’ll do that.

I grew up in a rural area and we filled buckets and the tub with water when bad weather was predicted, then used that water to flush the toilets when the power went out. That’s still a good idea.

  • Pro tip: Before filling the tub, thoroughly duct-tape the stopper in place. Otherwise the water may slowly, inexorably seep out.

You may already have a giant bucket (or more than one) left over from a painting job or a bulk buy of laundry soap. If you don’t, get one: It will make a passable toilet. (Check Freecycle and the “free” section of Craigslist.)

Since not everyone is physically capable of squatting over a bucket, look online for toilet seat that snaps onto most five-gallon pails. If you’re flush, so to speak, then splurge on a prefab portable toilet.

  • Pro tip: Line the bucket with at least one layer of garbage bag, and throw in some clumping cat litter.

You’ll want hand sanitizer for afterwards, and some baby wipes (which I call “shower in a pouch”) to keep the rest of you clean. And speaking of babies: If you’ve got one and you routinely run out of diapers, break yourself of that habit pronto. You don’t want to be down to a couple of didies when trouble starts.

The same is true of pet food and supplies, and prescription medication. Do not run out of these things.

A few more final tips:

  • When severe weather is predicted, boil some or all of the eggs you have. Should the power go out, you’ll have an easy-to-eat protein. Should the power not go out, just about everybody loves deviled eggs.
  • Buy supplies with gift cards you get by cashing in points from rewards credit cards, or rewards programs like MyPoints and Swagbucks, to get gift cards to places like Walmart, Target, and Amazon.
  • Keep candy or some other treat on hand; it’s a great morale-booster when times are tough. (Pro tip: Shop the post-holiday clearance sales for chocolates and fun-size candy bars.)
  • Check out the dollar store. Paper products, hand sanitizer, and some interesting foods can be found there.
  • Keep small bills on hand. It’s possible that stores won’t be able to process credit or debit cards right away. (For helpful tips, see ‘Why You Need a Cash Cache.’)
  • Make sure you have matches – even if you aren’t using candles you might need to light a camp stove or hibachi. You can probably get free matches from bars and restaurants (although it’s not as easy as it once was).
  • Stocking up all at once? Ask the supermarket manager for a discount on buying cases of canned goods, especially the store brand.

Remember how challenging it can be to build and maintain a cash emergency fund? Think of emergency preparedness the same way: It can take some doing, but it’s as essential as financial preparedness.

Get started right now, by taking pen and paper throughout your home to look at what you already have. Then make a list of what you still need, and make creative, frugal plans to get those items. Don’t wait until after an emergency happens to start looking for your flashlight. Or your can opener.

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Veteran personal finance writer Donna Freedman is the author of “Your Playbook for Tough Times: Living Large on Small Change, for the Short Term or the Long Haul” and “Your Playbook for Tough Times, Vol. 2: Needs AND Wants Edition.”