How to Prepare for Disaster Without Going Broke

Have you ever seen the television show “Doomsday Preppers“? A few weeks ago on a Friday night I happened across the show on the National Geographic channel. It was dedicated to telling the stories of people or families who are preparing for the modern world to collapse. It might be someone who really thinks 2012 is the year the world ends or just someone who thinks with all of the chaos and turmoil in our world that, eventually, the modern economic system we have in place will collapse.

While I definitely believe an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of pain, these folks are on TV because they take it to the extreme. One woman spent over $50,000 on emergency food rations — more than she could ever carry and now the whole world knows where to get a great supply. (She also had no weapons to defend her expensive supply of food!) Another man was building an underground development in an old missile silo that expects to survive several years without any contact from the outside world. The underground condos were selling for millions of dollars. Another family lived in the woods of Maine and hunted many things they ate, slept outside, and constantly trained for the end.

Prepare for Natural and Economic Disaster without Ruining Your Finances

These people are on TV because of the extremes they go to to prepare for the worst. If the show was about taking reasonable steps to prepare your family, it would probably be pretty boring even though it would be more reasonable. Here are a few ways you can prepare for disaster without spending thousands or millions of dollars on your prep.

A Week of Supplies

A natural disaster can easily cut you off from civilization for a week. A massive tornado can wipe out your entire town or a hurricane can make roads impassable for a long period of time. When I was in elementary school we were without power for a week at my house due to the blizzard in 1993. Thankfully we had a nice stock of wood and a fireplace, otherwise we would have been in trouble.

For most situations, having 3 to 7 days worth of supplies on hand will provide you with enough of a buffer to survive any modest natural disaster. (Planning to survive an economic collapse is on an entirely different level — an expensive level.) For the average person, you need the following:

  • Water: The average person can survive 3 to 5 days without water. (Estimates vary because of the health of the person, how quickly dehydration sets in, etc.) Clean (also known as potable water) is clean enough to be consumed and should be your #1 concern in any disaster. It is recommended to store a minimum of 1 gallon of water per person per day you expect to survive on your own for drinking. Others say store at least 3 gallons so you can use it for washing and flushing the toilet if the water system is out. Let’s aim for a week with our preparation and go for a full 7 days for a family of four people. If you are storing water that is commercially produced, make sure to rotate it out as the expiration date comes closer. (Alternatively you can store tap water in clean 2-liter bottles and replace it every six months. You can also store some iodine or bleach to purify any water you aren’t sure about during an emergency.)
    • Cost to Prepare for 1 gallon/person: $3 per gallon x 1 gallon per person x 7 days: $21 x 4 people: $84
    • Cost to prepare for 3 gallons/person: $3 per gallon x 3 gallons per person x 7 days: $63 x 4 people: $252
  • Food: The average person can survive several weeks without food if they have access to water. Again it depends on how healthy you are and how much body fat you have, but I’d rather prepare a little bit up front to have something to eat. You can buy canned goods and also rotate them out near the expiration date.
    • Cost to Prepare for 1 canned good/person: $1 per canned good x 1 good per day x 7 days: $7 x 4 people: $28
  • Shelter: Shelter can be tricky if your residence is damaged or destroyed. At the very least you could get some emergency blankets for cold weather use (they run as cheap as $1 for the basic kind) or some cold temperature sleeping bags.
    • Cost to Prepare for 4 people: $4 to $200 (assuming a $50 sleeping bag)
  • First Aid: You can put together your own first aid kit or just buy a pre-made kit specifically made for disasters. Amazon sells the American Red Cross Disaster & Emergency Kit by First Aid Only for only $50.
    • Cost to Prepare: $50
  • Other Supplies to Consider (Cost: Varied)
    • Fire starting tools and wood to burn
    • Weapons to defend your family
    • Extra gas to fuel your vehicle to evacuate
    • Food and water for your pets

As you can see it doesn’t need to cost thousands of dollars to prepare for a family of four. You won’t have trenches dug in your back yard, but you will have the basic necessities for at least a week and you’ll be warm… all for less than $600.

Select a Family Rally Point

It’s also a good idea to select a family rally point in case disaster strikes when you are not together. Is there a safe place in various parts of the city that you can escape to if you can’t get home? Will your family know to look for you there?

Put Together a “Go Bag”

What’s a go bag? Imagine you’re sitting at home and find out you have 5 minutes to evacuate your home from impending disaster. There is no way in 5 minutes you could adequately pack a bag with your disaster supplies and whatever else you deemed important.

A go bag solves this problem by providing a pre-packed, ready made bag that you can snatch in a moment’s notice to evacuate. (What if you don’t have 5 minutes like in an earthquake?) You pack your go back with your emergency supplies: a supply of food, water, clothing, and first aid. In the event of needing to leave your current location as quickly as possible you just grab the bag and go. Many people leave them in their cars in case disaster strikes when they are away from home.

Other Disaster Preparedness Resources

Preparing for disaster is serious business, but it is easy to be overwhelmed by the number of suppliers out there willing to sell you that next “essential” piece of your disaster kit. For more in-depth and step by step guides, consider the following resources:

  • The City and County of San Francisco have put together a great guide for their citizens at 72hours.org. As you might guess the site is designed to help citizens prepare to survive an earthquake (or other disaster) for 72 hours.
  • The US Government’s Ready.gov also provides information on building a plan, assembling a disaster kit, and important information to know during an emergency situation.

About the Author

By , on May 9, 2012
Kevin Mulligan
Kevin Mulligan is a debt reduction champion with a passion for teaching people how to budget and stay out of debt. He's building a personal finance freelance writing career and has written for RothIRA.com, Discover Bank, and many others.

Leave Your Comment (4 Comments)

  1. Wayne says:

    Having been in several situations without electricity for days, it definitly helps to be prepared in some areas like nonperishibles and batteries. I could see the value in a supply of water, but it seems like a large effort to keep supplies current.

  2. Jonathan says:

    Not sure how I feel about this article. I think that planning ahead is a great idea, but if things do go seriously wrong is having a week’s supplies in the house really going to help? It smacks of desperation. It’s an interesting article though

  3. Charlotte says:

    Here on the Texas Gulf Coast we prepare for hurricanes every May. Fortunately, we have enough warning that we can pack and get out if necessary. I would not want to live in CA or in tornado alley.

  4. Jenna says:

    You might want to invest in a water filtration system instead of gallons of water. Chances are your small children can’t carry their own three gallons of water, so you’ll be doing the heavy lifting. Better for fine a source of water and clean it.

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