11 frugal ways to prepare for an emergency

According to the U.S. government, all citizens should have enough supplies to survive for at least three days in an emergency. Depending on where you live, “emergency” could mean tornado, earthquake, blackout, flood, wildfire, hurricane, ice storm or zombie apocalypse.

How ready do you feel?

It is possible to put together an emergency kit without breaking the bank. In fact, you may already have some (or much) of what you need already.

Use this list of basic needs and frugal hacks to be ready for the worst. Best-case scenario: The worst won't happen. Second best-case scenario: The worst happens, but you'll be as ready as anyone can be.

1. Water

You can go for a few weeks without eating but only for a few days without hydration. Allow for one gallon per person per day, plus extra for pets. You can watch for bottled-water sales at the supermarket. (The cheapest I've ever seen is 69 cents per gallon.)

You can also fill up jerry jugs or emptied two-liter soda bottles. (Don't drink soda? Someone you know might.) Mark your calendar to refill the containers every few months; use the old water for cooking, doing hand laundry or watering plants/the garden.

2. Food

Aim for a mix of quick-cook and no-cooking-needed items. A few options: canned beans, stews, soups, fruits, vegetables, meats and/or fish; peanut butter or other nut butters; granola or protein bars; deviled chicken or ham; crackers or pilot bread; dried fruit; cereal and powdered milk.

If you have a way to heat water, stock up on instant soups, flavored noodle cups/rice bowls, dehydrated foods, bouillon cubes, instant coffee, cocoa mix and teas. Shop the dollar store for things like marinated vegetables, sun-dried tomatoes in olive oil and olives; some of these foods are made in America, so check labels if you are concerned about contaminated Chinese products.

Make sure these are things you normally eat, so you're not cold and miserable and eating food you don't like. Write the sell-by dates on the fronts of the packages and rotate the stock as needed. If you don't have a manual can opener, go buy one right now. And while paper cups/plates/bowls aren't eco-friendly, they're awfully useful in an emergency when water can't be spared to wash dishes.

3. Sanitation

You'll need at least one large (and leakproof!) container in case toilets quit working. Those five-gallon buckets that hold pet litter, paint or detergent are great. Save the next one you empty, put the word out among friends, or check The Freecycle Network or the “free” section of Craigslist.

It is possible to buy a toilet seat that snaps onto a bucket, or a prefab bucket toilet. Whatever receptacle you use, consider adding a few inches of cat litter and regularly fishing out the, uh, clumps for later disposal. Store some good-quality trash bags with the toilet — both for sanitation and for disposing of all those extra cans and paper products from dinner.

4. Personal care/first aid

Stash hand sanitizer and some baby wipes, aka “shower in a pouch.” (Both are fairly cheap at warehouse or dollar stores.)

The dollar store also has inexpensive bandages, rubbing alcohol, antibiotic ointment, analgesics, antacids and anti-diarrheal medication. Watch for sales and/or coupons for these things at drugstores and discount department stores too; you may wind up getting them cheaply or free.

(Tip: Each week the CouponMom.com website provides a free state-by-state list of coupon/sale match-ups. Lots of those coupons can be downloaded to your store loyalty card or printed out.)

Develop the habit of renewing prescription drugs as soon as you're allowed vs. waiting until you're down to one or two doses. This decreases the risk of running out during the next tornado or hundred-year storm.

5. Warmth

If you live in a hot climate, feel free to ignore this tip. Everyone else should think “layers” — like thermal underwear, wool pants, sweatshirts, sweaters and warm socks. Check the closets, then shop yard sales, thrift stores and The Freecycle Network if necessary.

If you've got sleeping bags or maybe down comforters, you're probably fine; if not, watch for affordable ones at the sources above. Everyone should have a stocking cap too, since it's harder to sleep if your head is cold.

6. Illumination

You'll want at least one flashlight per room — and make sure everyone knows where they are before the lights go out. Headlamps are great too, and they're getting more affordable all the time. Stock up on batteries for whatever you choose; these are cheap at warehouse stores and regularly go on sale elsewhere. Or get yourself a hand-cranked flashlight and forget about batteries. (If it's not in the budget right now, put it on your birthday or holiday wish list.)

Candles are very dangerous. If you must use them, make them votives or pillars vs. tapers, and set them inside wide-mouthed glass jars.

(Hint: Candles are super cheap during post-holiday clearance sales.)

7. Money

Power outages mean no cash machines and no debit/credit option. How much you save is up to you, but it's probably smart to assume $100 or more. Start setting aside a dollar here and some change there, in case some stores/services do open up but can't process e-payments.

8. Pet supplies

What if you're down to your last two cans of guts ‘n gravy when the earthquake hits? Make it a point always to have at least a week's worth of pet food and litter on hand — and again, store extra water for Fido or Fluffy.

9. Communication

A hand-cranked or battery-operated radio keeps you connected with emergency services and weather reports. Keep your smartphone up and running with a charger that you can plug into your vehicle (that is, assuming the cell towers didn't collapse in that earthquake).

10. Diversion

Staying warm, fed and hydrated won't take up all your time. Whether you are at home or in a Red Cross shelter, you'll need something to do. Get a deck or two of playing cards and check thrift stores for a few games, some of which should be appropriate for all-ages.

(Hint: Five dice and some Yahtzee scoring sheets won't take up much room in your emergency kit or coat pockets; neither will Mad Libs or travel versions of chess, Parcheesi or Chutes and Ladders.)

11. Treats

Disruption and upheaval plus several days' worth of canned stew and instant oatmeal will leave people feeling unsettled and cranky. Never underestimate the power of chocolate, a tin of those Danish butter cookies, good-quality nuts or other niceties. Even small amounts will provide a feeling of comfort and cheer. Again, write the sell-by dates on package fronts — which gives you the excuse to eat these things regularly, in order to guarantee freshness in case of emergency. Win-win!

Readers: What's on your emergency essentials list?

More about...Frugality, Home & Garden, Planning

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