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?

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There are 33 comments to "11 frugal ways to prepare for an emergency".

  1. Mr. Utopia @ Personal Finance Utopia says 09 September 2015 at 07:23

    It is so easy to put off emergency preparedness – until it’s too late! Taking the time to prepare for an emergency is like buying some inexpensive insurance.

  2. Mrs. Budgets @mrandmrsbudgets says 09 September 2015 at 07:33

    Great tips. It’s also important to have am emergency kit in your car. Disaster can strike when your not at home. I actaully have a pair of old running shoes and keep a blanket and change of clothes in my car in addition to water, treats and first aide kit.

  3. Tina in NJ says 09 September 2015 at 07:45

    Timely post, with hurricane season at full height. Hurricane Sandy gave us a weeks’ warning, but we were without power for a week afterward. We have natural gas for the fireplace and stove, so we were okay for warmth and cooking. You couldn’t get D batteries anywhere, but a neighbor gave us an extra pack. We didn’t lose water, but some friends did. Not pretty. Interestingly, the local market could process credit cards but couldn’t sell milk. The worst part was probably not having hot water for showers (electric heater). For entertainment, we played games, my son drew, and I sewed by hand.

  4. Claire says 09 September 2015 at 08:39

    When I created our emergency kit for the house, I also created a mini-kit for each of our vehicles. I found that it was cheapest to buy a large first aid kit & divide up the bandages, ointments, etc between the emergency kits. Also do consider creating an emergency kit for your vehicle. I can’t count the number of times I have gone to work knowing that there was winter weather in the forecast and wondering what time I would leave to get home safely; with the emergency kit in the car I knew that if I were stranded for some reason getting home, at least I would be reasonably safe (and have food, warmth [emergency blanket], and water). Also consider putting in a pair of socks and old sneakers; you can’t change a flat tire easily in heels or dress shoes. Emergency flares are not a bad idea, either.

  5. lmoot says 09 September 2015 at 08:53

    A propane gas stove is a lifesaver. My mom does most of her cooking outside on a propane cooktop (she doesn’t like the smell of cooking in the house). But it can heat up unsafe water, provide warm water for bathing, and cooks food of course.

    Having solar lights handy is help also, to conserve battery power and in case there are no batteries. I don’t have disaster experience (luckily…especially in FL), but I have collective years of experience living without or with very limited electricity months at a time. It’s really not as bad as it would seem (kind of nice at times), but I’m sure having to deal with it on top of a disaster, without knowledge or preparedness, is no cake.

  6. Carla says 09 September 2015 at 09:30

    When I was living in the Bay Area, I also had a small emergency kit at my desk at work complete with walking/running shoes. Living in the East Bay and working in San Francisco across the bay, we feared being stuck during 911 with the possibility of BART being shut down. Earthquakes was our major fear.

    During the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake, folks working in SF (living in the East Bay) were stuck which seemed like an indefinite period of time due to the Bay Bridge collapse and BART shutting down for safety reasons.

    Currently living in a city of bridges, this is a good reminder to keep my car stocked as well.

  7. KWL says 09 September 2015 at 10:18

    If I were to add anything to your list, it would be to stock up on gasoline before hurricane season, especially if you are in a position were you might have to evacuate. We had to leave for Hurricane Rita in 2005. It took us 22 hours to go what normally takes 3 and all the gas stations and restaurants we came to in the first 19 hours of that were closed. Dad thankfully filled up 2 five gallon gas cans when we filled up our 3 vehicles(a van, a car and a truck) the night before since one of the cars that held the food(plug-in cooler) and pets was to be kept running, but that barely did it. While we were at our destination, we bought all the gas cans we could find and a gas powered generator then headed home, where no gas station was open for days and our house was quite a bit away from help if we needed it. We made it on what we brought back for over a week though! After that, Dad will now fill up 2 five gallon gas cans per vehicle and once hurricane season is over, he uses that gas in the cars or for gasoline powered tools and such. We had to evacuate twice again in 2008 and due to better planning on our part and the city and road commissions, we had no issues with running out of gas or it taking 22 hours to get 3 🙂

  8. Kai Jones says 09 September 2015 at 11:34

    I have a backpack at work, along with a crow bar. The backpack has shoes, socks, first aid supplies, duck tape, notebooks and pens/pencils, hard candy, water, power bars, some money (change and small bills), a couple of emergency blankets (the folding foil type), a cheap plastic rain poncho (bought as a vacation souvenir from the Smithsonian), a multitool, a compass/whistle/thermometer, dust masks, work gloves, flashlight and batteries. I need to add some hand sanitizer and wipes, maybe a couple of plastic bags.

    • Carla says 09 September 2015 at 11:59

      (Maybe a roll of tissue.) Thinking out loud!

  9. Gary @ Super Saving Tips says 09 September 2015 at 15:20

    Great tips! I would add that if you take maintenance prescription medications, make sure you always have at least a 2-week supply. Also, have a communication plan with your family in case you are separated.

  10. Susan says 09 September 2015 at 23:36

    Under either #3 or #4, there’s also the question of menstrual supplies. These are essential for a good many of us! (Disposables are convenient, in a way, but they’re also bulky and create waste. A menstrual cup is durable and reusable, plus you don’t ever have to worry about running out of supplies.)

    Other things in our household grab-and-go kit include:

    * spare pairs of prescription glasses (for those who wear them). Remember Piggy in Lord of the Flies.
    * an old Kindle with lots of books loaded onto it – emergency preparedness and first aid manuals as well as novels.

    Lastly, perishables (e.g. bottles of Ensure) always need to be swapped out from time to time. The most efficient way to do this is to do a bring-forward and remove them 2-3 months (say) before expiry. Donate them to a food bank so that someone can use them, and buy a new set for your kit; not only are you good to go, someone else will benefit in the meantime.

  11. Rail says 10 September 2015 at 00:11

    One thing that has always struck me about GRS posters is that many of us must have been Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts as being prepared is a common value we seem to all share. Having a supply of CASH MONEY is one thing many seem to forget and is a top ten need. One thing I would ad is having a bicycle around, doesn’t need to be fancy, it needs no gas and can get you around quickly as opposed to walking if the need arises. Great posts everyone. Cheers!

    • Donna Freedman says 10 September 2015 at 09:35

      Agreed — which is why “money” is on my list.
      I like the idea of a bicycle, since gasoline could be hard to get and roads may be damaged or otherwise unusable to cars (but maybe not to a bike).

      • zzzzzz says 10 September 2015 at 15:44

        You can pick up a bike and carry it over roads that are damaged and unpassable by cars.

        Make sure to have a backpack and/or racks/baskets on your bike so you can carry things.

      • Rail says 16 September 2015 at 05:13

        Sorry I didn’t see that Donna. Late at night when I posted. Mea Culpa etc. etc. Cheers.

        • Rail says 16 September 2015 at 05:18

          I need to quit posting when I’m dead tired, just ignore my above post. Time for bed! Cheers.

    • zzzzzz says 10 September 2015 at 15:48

      I suggest that emergency money include a lot of small denominations. Whoever you need to buy stuff from may not be able to make change.

    • Carla says 10 September 2015 at 16:15

      Too bad I recently sold my bike I wasn’t using.

  12. Kyde says 10 September 2015 at 01:28

    I don’t have an emergency kit, and I live in an area where many disasters are actually likely. This made me think. And yeah, besides my family, I have a pet too. Usually after I do my shopping, I wait until I run out of everything before I go shopping again. I guess I should make it a habit to live a few cans, bottles, etc. just in case. Thanks.

  13. Jan says 10 September 2015 at 05:46

    I do keep a land line phone connected to an old outlet. Supposedly, it can be used even if you do not have land line service to dial 911. Anyone know this for sure? If cell service is out this could be a life saver and keeping an old phone around doesn’t cost a thing.

    • Victor says 10 September 2015 at 10:36

      Jan @14: This is true, as long as there is dial tone. You should have an old-style line-powered phone for this purpose.

      Take note though: often a terminated line is left physically connected, but can be disconnected at any time by a technician. So, great to have but you can’t rely on it being functional.

    • Sherry says 10 September 2015 at 10:53

      Jan, no it is not true that you can still call 9-1-1 if you have a phone connected to a dead land line. If there’s no service to the line and it’s dead (i.e. you hear nothing at all, not even what’s called “talk battery” when you pick up the handset,) there is no signal going out on it.

    • Cautious says 11 September 2015 at 20:19

      This is not true. I had repurchased a land line for the “security” aspect and discovered it does not work at all when the phones were down. The phone company said a cable was cut in the area and it took a week and a half to fix. No phone service for a week and a half. I consider the land line and the cell phone to be on level playing field. If you are overly concerned about communicating, ham radio would be your best bet.

  14. Crystal says 10 September 2015 at 14:40

    Remember when you save up your emergency cash do NOT use large bills. $10s and $5s and a few dollars in quarters are generally what I use. If you need to buy something small or use a vending or laundry machine you might not be able to break something large.

  15. zzzzzz says 10 September 2015 at 15:46

    Don’t forget water for stuff other than drinking, e.g., flushing the toilet or bathing. You can fill buckets or trash cans for that.

    You can also use the containers to collect rainwater for this purpose.

    • Carla says 10 September 2015 at 16:15

      Where do you suggest storing the buckets?

  16. MY Factoring Network says 14 September 2015 at 20:19

    There are a wide variety of emergencies that can come up at any time and hit you when you least expect it. Therefore, it is better to keep yourself prepared. A healthy savings account keeps you prepared for unexpected situations. For your business finance too, you can look for invoice loans, a better way to prepare for business emergencies!

  17. Jenny says 15 September 2015 at 09:47

    As a single person, I also like to keep a two-week supply of chicken soup and the like on hand in the event of flu. I do get my shot, but sometimes there’s a different strain than they were expecting.

  18. Elizabeth Vega says 30 September 2015 at 04:21

    These are good ideas, thank you!

    Some of the inexpensive items I regularly find myself grateful to have are cheap plastic rain ponchos and space blankets (I have to replenish regularly, because I hand them out often at freeway off-ramps in inclement weather, and during festival-type camping events), electrolyte fluid or coconut water and energy bars. Keeping our small vehicles at least half-filled with gas at all times is a minor inconvenience, but living through a couple of earthquakes that left gas stations inaccessible for a few days turned me into a tank half-full kind of person!

  19. Val says 20 November 2015 at 10:42

    Something I have not seen on these postings but are priceless during a poweroutage. I have used them for years.
    AS SEEN ON TV! 2-Pack Insta Bulbs – These are perfect. About $6.00 to $10.00 for 2, cool to touch, light weight. Each use 4 AA batteries, which seem to last forever in these things. I do not mount them, but place them in any area needed. Once everythng is back on, I take the batteries out and store them in the orignial boxes with the bulbs. Any place that sells “AS SEEN ON TV items will have them. One great gift that you can give and you will hear the praises after they are used!

  20. priskill says 20 November 2015 at 12:48

    Excellent article and responses, too — need to get on this. Would add bleach if it hasn’t been mentioned. I think a few drops can render water potable (if you’re near water sources) and could be helpful with sanitation, along with the “shower in a bag.” Very useful information here — thank you.

  21. priskill says 21 November 2015 at 08:06

    Excellent list — and comments. Really need to get on this. Would add bleach, maybe? In addition to sanitizing, a couple drops can render water potable.

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