Surviving high costs of doomsday prepping


Preparing for dire scenarios -- be they man-made or natural -- can be an expensive endeavor. But is doomsday prepping only for the rich?

Not at all, insist survival experts. By budgeting, knowing what to assemble, and getting what you can for less, even those of modest means can be preppers, too. Here's how to plan for extreme disasters that could happen in the future, without sacrificing your economic well-being today.

Enough with the zombies. First get real, say the professionals. Doomsday is not about flesh-eating monsters roaming the planet, but events that have at least somewhat of a reasonable chance of occurring. If they do, life as you know it will be upended for weeks to years. And yes, perhaps longer.

Money tips for surviving high costs of doomsday prepping

"The term disaster is usually associated with large-scale events that impact thousands of lives and cause massive property destruction," says J.C. Owens, author of "Aware, Not Afraid." "Any life-changing event, no matter the cause or geographical area affected, will be a disaster to victims and family members."

A genuine doomsday circumstance, therefore, is worse than an unexpected snowstorm that would keep you indoors without electricity for a day or two, Examples include major floods and earthquakes, accidents involving nuclear reactors and toxic factories, infectious diseases that wipe out large portions of the population, and acts of terrorism or war. Each can result in communication breakdown, power outages, food shortages and mayhem.

Second, identify what is most plausible for your community, says Janet Spencer, aka "Calamity Janet," a Helena, Montana, resident who was featured on the hit TV show, "Doomsday Preppers."

"I'm not worried about nuclear war or meteors from outer space," says Spencer. "I live on an active fault line, so am preparing for earthquakes. Massive wildfires, too. I'm concerned about what could happen in my town. That's what people need to think about."

Incorporate necessary items into your budget
To evaluate what you have to spend on survival items, subtract your current monthly expenses from your take-home pay. Use the remainder to purchase supplies. Don't despair if all you have to spare is a dollar a day. That's enough, assures Spencer.

"I don't have a lot of income to spend, so I do it on a very frugal level," says Spencer. "I average $20 a week. Best places to shop are local thrift shops, dollar stores and garage sales." Estate sales, too, are perfect for deals. "I go on the last day, because everything has to go and that's where you'll pick up laundry soap, garbage bags, bulk batteries and flashlights for almost nothing. Like a Coleman lantern for $1! The glass might be broken, but that's easily repaired."

As for what to assemble and what those items may cost, Jim Cobb, author of "Prepper's Long-Term Survival Guide," suggests the following:

  • Food. "Concentrate on foods that you normally eat and will store well for long periods of time, such as rice, beans, pasta, canned goods, granola bars, protein bars, nuts, peanut butter and dried fruit," says Cobb. Avoid anything that requires a stove or microwave. "Add a few items to your cart each time you go shopping," he says. "This prevents incurring a massive hit on the wallet all at once. If you shop the sales and use coupons when they give you the best available price, you can spend as little as $10 a week and still quickly accumulate a fairly robust food stockpile in little time."
  • Water. A minimum of one to one-and-a-half gallons of water per person per day is recommended. For a family of four, that's 28 to 42 gallons of water per week -- 53 to 79 half-liter bottles.  "Commercially bottled water is great, but it's hard to store that much. Look at alternatives, such as rain barrels and natural sources like streams and ponds nearby. Be sure to have equipment necessary to filter/purify water obtained from those sources." If you can house bottles, your cheapest route is to recycle soda and juice bottles. "Wash them well, and refill from the tap, add a couple of drops of nonscented chlorine bleach then seal them up," says Cobb.
  • First aid and medical needs. Stock up on necessary medications, and invest in a decent first aid kit, which is usually under $15. Add extra adhesive bandages, antiseptic ointment and burn cream. "A good first aid manual is a must as well," says Cobb. His pick: "The Survival Medicine Handbook."
  • Hygiene.  While full baths or showers may not be feasible if the grid is down, having basic cleaning supplies will be welcome, says Cobb. "At the absolute minimum, have plenty of bar soap, toothpaste and toothbrushes, and other basic hygiene supplies on hand." Cobb says discount retailers such as Wal-Mart or the Dollar Store may offer the lowest prices. 
  • Shelter and heat. "In most cases, you'll be able to shelter in place at home, but you may need some ways of keeping warm in the winter months if the furnace isn't working," says Cobb. "Fireplaces are OK, wood stoves are better. They do make a few propane or kerosene heaters that are relatively safe to use indoors." Also on the list -- plenty of blankets and warm clothing for each member of the family. If you don't have enough now, scour thrift stores and rummage sales. Think function over fashion.
  • Lighting. When the power goes out, you'll need to see in the dark. Get at least one oil lamp ($10 to $15) per room with fuel and extra wicks and plenty of flashlights (a few dollars each) with extra batteries. Stock up on candles in January; they're deeply discounted after the winter holidays.

And then comes protection. "I do believe that people have the right and obligation to defend themselves, but if you don't feel like you can trust yourself with a gun, don't get one," says Paul Purcell, a terrorism and disaster trainer from Atlanta. "There are less-lethal options. A BB gun can be good for rats and even discourage less-than-committed two-legged invaders. Paintball guns, gel pepper spray, Tasers and stun guns, too."

I average $20 a week. Best places to shop are local thrift shops, dollar stores and garage sales. I go on the last day, because everything has to go and that's where you'll pick up laundry soap, garbage bags, bulk batteries and flashlights for almost nothing. 

-- Janet Spencer
aka "Calamity Janet" from Helena, Montana

If you do want to arm yourself, Purcell recommends beginning with two types: a 22-caliber handgun, available for about $150, and a 12-gauge pump shotgun, which can be purchased for as little as $175. Don't neglect firearm training. A basic pistol shooting course through the National Rifle Association, for instance, may set you back $150. "Or ask your local police department," says Purcell. "They often put on gun safety courses, and they don't pry into your business. A lot of gun ranges also have qualified instructors."

Survival bunkers aren't for everyone, as even standard models can run $54,000, nor do you need a special wing in your home to keep everything. "I live in a small space," says Spencer. "One of the places I keep things is under my California king size bed. I have probably two tons of food under the mattress! I stack canned goods behind my wardrobe. Right now I have 300 to 400 cans in ready-to-eat food in a 3-inch wide space. Pull out your furniture and store it there."

Learn survival techniques for free (or nearly free)
Not all doomsday prep comes with a price tag. In fact, Purcell says the first line of defense is free. Make friends, not enemies. "Network. Join your Neighborhood Watch group.

Also vital is understanding how to react during and after a critical disaster. Comprehensive disaster survival education is provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the American Red Cross and regional Community or Neighborhood Emergency Response Teams (CERT and NERT). Some even reward graduates with survival gear, such as hard hats and safety gloves.

If you can't attend on-site workshops and classes, the Internet is also an excellent source of free information. Just be sure to visit credible websites that won't lure or frighten you into purchasing useless gadgets and gear. A sensible place to start is, which houses a large number of emergency preparedness publications. 

Set some cash aside
As for cash, it's a good idea to have some on hand after a doomsday type event.  Accessing funds from your local bank or ATM may be impossible for a while, says Seth Bromberger, principal of NCI Security in San Francisco, which provides cyber security for organizations involved in the operation of national critical infrastructure. Anything that results in a major power outage can render credit and debit cards useless.

Exactly how much to stash depends greatly on your current financial picture. If a $100 is all you can spare, that's better than nothing. But if you can squirrel away a few thousand (accepting that you'll forfeit any capital gains you'd earn in an investment account), you'll be in a much better position. Make sure the bills are in a variety of denominations.

Can't afford to set aside even a penny? In a pinch, desired goods can take the place of currency, says Bromberger: "Precious metals, tobacco, alcohol, condoms, lighters and matches and other things can be bartered and used for trade."

Know when to stop
It doesn't take much to create a disaster plan and safeguard your future, promises Spencer. "A lot of the people I talk to say they don't have time, money or space, but these are the three biggest excuses. All it takes is a few dollars and a few minutes a day and you'll be so much better off."

Conversely, you've got to resist going overboard. "Only prep to the point where you're comfortable, and that includes financially," says Spencer. "Do not charge and say, 'Oh, there's no tomorrow to think about.'" Odds are high that next month will arrive as normal, as will your credit card bill. "If you can't afford day-to-day expenses or stockpiling is impacting moving around your household, stop," says Spencer.

Finally, approach doomsday plans kindly. "There's a stereotypical view of us, dressed in camo, with AK-47s ready to gun down anyone approaching our household. That's not me or anyone I know who preps. We want to care for ourselves and the most amount of people. Prepping should come from the heart with a sincere desire to help others in times of trouble," says Spencer.

See related: 6 ways to protect your credit after a natural disaster, Pre-disaster financial preparedness checklist

Published: January 5, 2015

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