Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Emergency Preparation, Part 14: Preparing on a tight budget

I've had a few inquiries from readers of earlier articles in this series, commenting that they're on a very limited budget indeed (some have lost their jobs), and don't have spare disposable income to begin building up their emergency supplies.  They ask what can be done by people in their situation.

In this article, I'm going to address a 'bare-bones' approach to putting together your emergency stash.  It won't involve very tasty or varied foods, or high-quality items, because such things are likely to be too expensive on a very limited budget.  Nevertheless, if you can't spend more than an absolute minimum, these suggestions will equip you to survive at a very basic level for a few weeks.

I suggest you prioritize your purchases.  If you have no emergency supplies of food at all, start there.  Once you've put together enough for a couple of weeks, look at other needs.  Don't be tempted to say, "Well, he recommends that cheap item, but if I spend only $10 more I can get this better one."  If your finances are really that tight, you can't afford to put an extra $10 into one area of preparation, because you'll be robbing another area by doing so.  Get the basics first, then start expanding or upgrading in each area as money allows.

1.  Food.

Foodstuffs to keep you alive in an emergency don't have to be fancy.  Simple, staple items aren't too expensive, and can be stockpiled over time.  Look to build up your supplies of the following items:

  • Rice.
  • Pasta - basic varieties such as macaroni or penne.
  • Pasta sauce and/or salsa.  If necessary, a single jar can be 'stretched' to season or flavor a week's supply of pasta, plus whatever you add to it (although two to three jars will be better).
  • Beans (dried) - red (kidney), brown (pinto), black (turtle) and white (navy) beans are all useful.
  • Oatmeal - it's cheapest in the large bulk packs, and you can separate it into smaller Ziplock bags for ease of storage.  You can eat it as oatmeal/porridge, or add it to other foods such as stews to thicken them.  Instant oatmeal sachets are more expensive by weight, but also quicker and more convenient to prepare, and come in several flavors to add variety to your meals.
  • Canned tuna.  It's just about solid protein, and relatively low-cost - 5oz. cans are currently 69c at my local supermarket (albeit with about 1oz. of that being water!).  The foil pouches of tuna are very nice indeed, and aren't 'bulked out' with water, but they're much more expensive per ounce than cans.  On a tight budget, cans are the way to go.
  • Canned meat.  Spam may be boring and bland, but it's cheap and nutritious, and can be added (cubed) to rice and beans, or to pasta.  It's also relatively inexpensive.  Alternatives to Spam include corned beef, canned beef stew, canned chicken, etc.  Get whatever your tastebuds prefer and your budget will allow.
  • Instant coffee.  Drip-brewed or percolated coffee tastes better, but it takes longer to prepare, costs more, and requires additional hardware.  Instant coffee may not taste as good, but it's quick and easy to prepare.  For an emergency, it's the sensible choice.
  • Condiments.  With such a basic, unvarying diet, it helps to be able to add a little flavor.  Salt, pepper, ketchup, Worcestershire sauce, hot sauce, etc. are all useful.  You may want to stock sugar/sweetener and coffee creamer as well.  Stock a little extra of what you normally use, and when you need more, take it from your reserve supplies and replace it with fresh.
  • Multi-vitamin tablets.  On a restricted diet such as we're discussing here, these are vital.  Get the sort that promise you a balanced daily intake of all essential vitamins and minerals, and take one morning and evening to make up for nutritional shortcomings in your menus.
  • DON'T FORGET TO BUY A SPARE CAN-OPENER!!!  Store it with your emergency supplies.

This selection, stocked in adequate quantities, will give you enough nutrition to keep you alive for a few weeks.  Based on eating 2,000-2,500 calories per day, I'd plan on the following quantities per person for one week (multiply by the number of people - and the number of weeks - for which you wish to provide, to get your own total).

  • 2 pounds rice
  • 2 pounds pasta
  • 2 jars pasta sauce or salsa
  • 2 pounds dried beans
  • 2 pounds oatmeal
  • 7 x 5oz. cans tuna
  • A few cans of Spam or alternative meats (smaller cans mean that you don't have to refrigerate leftovers, but larger cans are more convenient for multiple people).

You'll probably get very tired of those ingredients after a few days, but hey - this is an emergency, after all!  Be grateful that you've got something to eat, and worry about variety when things get back to normal.  The total cost of a one-week supply, for one person, of all those ingredients is currently less than $30 at the supermarket where I shop (Aldi).

A final note:  infants and young children will probably want more variety in their food than adults, and they won't necessarily understand that in an emergency, that variety may not be available.  It's probably worth providing some candy and other kid-friendly food for them, and powdered drink mix to add to their water.  If you have pets, remember to stock up on food for them as well!

2.  Water.

I've already written an entire article about this.  Briefly, start collecting used 2-liter soda bottles (with their caps, of course).  If you don't use them, ask your friends and neighbors to keep theirs for you - that way, you get them free of charge, which is always good!  Wash them thoroughly, then store them somewhere out of the way (I keep a couple of 30-gallon garbage bags filled with them in the basement).  Two of these bottles hold just over one US gallon.  A minimum water ration is one gallon (= 2 full bottles) per person per day, so use that baseline to calculate how many bottles you need to collect.  Also, buy a bottle of unscented bleach, and use it to purify your stored water if necessary.

I suggest keeping 3 days' supply of water ready for use, and having additional bottles on hand to fill if an emergency threatens.  My personal minimum baseline is that I want to be able to store enough water to last for 2 weeks.  Since my household totals 5 people (myself, my wife, our housemate and his 2 children), I've bought enough containers to store 80 gallons.  Also, I currently have about 30 2-liter soda bottles on hand.  These will be used to distribute daily drinking water allowances, and/or to provide water to people who ask for help.  (I'm not going to give away my larger, expensive water containers, but I have no objection to handing out used soda bottles.  It costs me nothing, it helps my neighbors, and they'll have a better opinion of me for it - something not to be sneezed at in the stress of an emergency, when communal relations are likely to be under some strain.)

By accumulating used soda bottles, you can store water almost free of charge - you pay only a few cents to fill them at the tap.  You can add some commercially bottled water if finances allow.

3.  Cooking.

In an extended emergency, you probably won't have access to electricity or mains gas (although if you use a tank of gas outside your home, that should remain usable until it runs out).  You're going to need another means to cook your food.  If you're on a tight budget, I don't think camp stove fuel or gas cylinders are likely to be affordable;  so you need to look at simple, easy-to-use wood-fired cooking methods.

A campfire is all very well, but it wastes a lot of heat that escapes around the sides.  A small charcoal BBQ unit is OK for grilling, but not to cook with pots and pans.  For emergency use, I recommend a small rocket stove, which you can buy or make yourself (this article shows a particularly easy and low-cost way to make one).  If you aren't good with your hands, ask a friend to make one for you.  It's by far the simplest, easiest and cheapest solution I've found.  These stoves use small pieces of wood - off-cuts from your workshop, twigs, small branches broken into short lengths, etc.  Start gathering such fuel now, and store it in a box in your garage or basement (or, if you wish, build a woodpile in your garden).  Make sure you keep it dry, so that when you need it, it'll burn easily.  Make some fire-starters as well, and keep them handy - matches, too!

(Remember that cooking over a fire will deposit soot on the base of your pots and pans, which will be difficult to remove if water supplies are limited.  For this reason, I recommend against using high-quality cooking utensils that may never recover from repeated exposure to soot.  I keep a set of cheap pots and pans on hand for emergencies.  For example, a nest of 3 aluminum non-stick frying pans cost me less than $20;  used ones from thrift stores or a yard sale would probably have cost even less.  When things return to normal, if I have to throw them away rather than try to scrape off the accumulated soot, I won't have lost much.  However, if your budget is very tight, do what you can with what you have.  It's worth stocking a spray bottle of strong detergent, and a cleaning brush or sponge reserved solely for the removal of soot.  It certainly won't be good for anything else after its first use for that purpose!)

Cook on your balcony or in the garden - not indoors!  The fire hazard, and the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning, are too great.  Be sure to put a fire-proof, heat-proof surface underneath your stove.  Use disposable plates, cups and utensils rather than crockery and cutlery, to avoid wasting water by washing them.  A 30-day supply of the disposable versions won't be very expensive.

4.  Heating.

If you live in a very cold climate, and the power goes out, you're going to find it difficult to heat your home.  The best solution is to choose one room to live in.  Move excess furniture out, bring everyone's mattresses, bed-clothes and warm clothing into it, and shut off the rest of the house.  Bundle up together to stay warm.  Don't light a fire for warmth unless you have a fireplace with a chimney, and/or adequate ventilation.  Too many people have asphyxiated themselves!  Yes, you'll be uncomfortable for a few days or weeks.  You'll just have to live with that.  (If you can afford them, there are small camp heaters available - but again, make sure you have adequate ventilation!  Their fuel tends to be expensive for extended use.  You can also use a rocket stove to heat a room, preferably with a pan of water on top to humidify the air, provided you have a fireproof base on which to place it.)

5.  Lighting.

You'll need enough light to cook in the evenings, and locate supplies, and perhaps read a book.  A few LED flashlights will go a long way towards meeting this need.  They needn't be expensive:  I bought six of this 12-lumen unit (including batteries) at Wal-Mart a few days ago for $1.50 apiece, and two of these 18-lumen units for $1.88 apiece (again, including batteries).  At those prices, you can afford to keep several of them on hand:  one for each person in your household, one for each room, and one in each vehicle.  They also make great barter items - for example, in an emergency, your neighbor may desperately need a flashlight, while you need a gallon of gas for your car, or some of his food.  Remember to store extra batteries - these can be accumulated over time.  When you need fresh batteries, take the oldest ones from your emergency supplies and replace them with new ones.

6.  Other needs.

Many other needs have not been addressed here.  You'll require some means to defend yourself, your loved ones and your supplies against those who have nothing and want to take what you have.  You'll need something to amuse yourselves while you wait for things to return to normal - books, games, puzzles, etc.  Remember to provide soap, shampoo, toothpaste, clothes-washing detergent, toilet paper, sanitary napkins, etc. as required.  All these things are extras, and you'll have to provide for them as best you can.

Also, stock a few items that are really useful, but which people often neglect to purchase for themselves, or lose, so that you can swap them for things you need.  Can-openers are a good example;  also flashlights (see above) and pocket-knives.  (This Ozark Trail pocket-knife currently sells for only one dollar at our local Wal-Mart, which is almost unbelievably cheap!  It may not be the best quality, but it's better than nothing:  and as trade goods during an emergency, it'll be worth a lot more than you paid for it.)  Toiletries and sanitary consumables will also be in demand.

What I've tried to do here is demonstrate that even if money is very tight, you can still make adequate preparations for bare-bones survival in the event of a shorter-term emergency.  I daresay that a couple could stock up on enough of the essentials I've listed here to last them for a month, for a total expenditure (at current prices) of about $300.  If you budget $5 per week, or $25 per month, to build up your reserves, you can be there in a year.  Once you've got the basics, you can add more variety to your food stocks, or buy other items you may need.



Anonymous said...

If you wipe a thin coat of dishwashing liquid on the bottom of your pan _before_ you put it on the fire, the smoke will wipe right off with a damp cloth. But do NOT use shampoo: the smell will chase you away from the fire. Thanks to the Boy Scouts for this one.

JohninMd(help!) said...

On the subject of coffee-- yes, the nessesary staff of life -- sorry, Pete, but instant is just plain NASTY CRAP. However, a fairly decent substitute exists. Both Folgers and Maxwell House make a "coffee bag", like tea bags but coffee instead. Taste is far better than instant, & as convient as tea bags. Some things just can't be replaced, ya know....and a good cupa joe can help attitudes in hard conditions. ;^J

Mark/GreyLocke said...

On the 2 liter bottles, many of the newer 2 liter bottles are a little flimsy and more easily damaged. The 3 liter bottles are actually better. After rinsing them out, diet soda bottles are best as there are no processed sugars which leave residue, put a pinch of baking soda in the bottle then add 1 cup of HOT water, put on the cap and shake it real good. Loosen the cap and hold bottle upside down so the baking soda water mix drips out through the threads on the cap. This will neutralize any residual acids from the soda. Let the bottles and caps dry completely before recapping and either storing or refilling. When filling bottles with water use a funnel with a disposable coffee filter or if you have a water filter on your faucet use it to fill your bottles.

Adding bleach, I always add a little extra. I use a small syringe and for a 3 liter bottle I add 1cc of unscented bleach before filling.

After filling keep the bottles out of the sun. You can actually encourage algae to start growing in your bottles.

For the can opener situation, buy a dozen or so P-38 or P-51 can openers, attach them to key rings, light pulls, little hooks over the sink. Over kill is definitely needed.

Anonymous said...

A couple of points...

Bleach has an expiration date! Most people don't realize that, so it pays to check your supply.

As a backpacker, I use chemicals branded as "Aqua Mira". Not as cheap as bleach, but it doesn't leave an aftertaste in the water.

While backpacking, I use a SuperCat stove (Google it). Basically, it's a cat food can with holes punched in it, can't get much simpler than that. You can use denatured alcohol or Heet gas-line anti-freeze (in the yellow bottle) as fuel. Works great to boil water, which I use for dehydrated and/or dried food and hot drinks. For an emergency this would supplement the wood burning stove.

Other food options with much shorter cook times (or even no-cook given time) would include instant mashed potatoes, stove-top stuffing, boxed potatoes, ramen, etc.