Getting Prepared on a Smaller Budget

Getting Prepared on a Smaller Budget

Even if you don’t have a spreadsheet defining spending limits for each category of your life, you’re probably aware of how much is too much for any given expense. The $25 cocktail? No, thank you! I’m a wise consumer with a clear understanding of budgets. I’ll take the $23 cocktail.

So where does life-saving emergency gear fall in our accounting? We know we have to spend some money to get prepared, but exactly how much cash should we be putting toward our survival in the hellscape that is the apocalypse? If you’ve got an ideal number in mind, let’s do what we can to play The Price Is Right. Can we get as close as possible without going over?

Some things in your emergency kits will need to be brand new, like food, water, emergency blankets, fire extinguishers, PPE, first aid kits, and sanitation supplies. Plan a budget for those items, but keep in mind that you can also repackage your existing PPE and sanitation supplies to cut costs.

"He me, I'm poor" GIF
Thank you, inflation.

If you put your downsized items in zipper bags, as we all love to do, keep everything labeled so your kids don’t defile your clean N95s while they’re looking for paper towels.

It’s tempting to DIY your water if you’re really pinching pennies, but only fill your own containers if you have a way to purify the water later, and make sure the containers you’ve chosen are safe. For most households, buying commercially bottled water is the best bet. Grab your strongest family members and head to the grocery store, where you should be able to find gallons of water for less than $2/gallon. If you want it delivered, you’ll likely pay a bit more, but it’s up to you to put your own price on convenience!

Emergency food with a long shelf life can be very expensive (sometimes shockingly so), but as long as you’re maintaining your kits on a yearly basis, you can choose items from your usual grocery store that won’t break the bank. Focus on high calorie foods that are easy to eat without preparation.

Rule of Thumb

Always aim for a balanced diet so constipation doesn’t become a secondary disaster, but if you’re low on space in your Go Bags, opt for the items that pack the biggest caloric punch or fit into the gaps most easily.

Here are some of our favorites that have reasonable price points and should be easy to return to your weekly food rotation when the expiration dates are closing in. Waste not, want not! Whether you buy them online or look for deals at your usual spots, your budget won’t take too much of a hit.

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nutella jars
We won’t tell anybody if you sneak in a jar of Nutella.

Food is a great category to find ways to make your money go further. If you’re willing to eat a lot of peanut butter (or sunbutter, for the nut-allergic amongst us), you could keep your emergency food costs within a few dollars a day per person! If you’re making Go Bags for 72 hours, that’s about ten bucks per member of your family, which is a small price to pay to keep them from starving during a crisis. For a Stay Bag to cover 14 days, you’d still come in under $50 per person. Be sure to throw in some multivitamins if you’re leaning heavily on peanut butter for two weeks, though.

Once your food, water, and important consumables are locked in, your search for gear on the cheap can truly begin. Charity begins at home, so start there. If you have some of the items you need on hand already, consider them fair game! As long as they aren’t items you’ll be tempted to pull out later, you’ll be sitting pretty. Emergency kits are great places to rehome duplicate items that have been forgotten in a junk drawer. 

Pulling items from your home also gives you an opportunity to upgrade the items you take out of rotation. If you have a serviceable flashlight by your bed, but you’ve been interested in getting one that doubles as a deadly weapon, this is your moment! If your favorite wool sweater has one too many moth holes in it, now’s the perfect time to transfer it to your Go Bag and treat yourself to one with zero holes… and a few fresh bags of mothballs. Consider these small extravagances your reward for buckling down and completing your disaster preparedness.

man with flashlight
Take no prisoners!

The adventure continues! After you’ve ransacked your home for those unloved items (I’m looking at you, matching fair isle wool socks, gloves, and beanie from that one weird ski trip in 1998), it’s time to source your remaining gear. First things first, make some educated guesses and tally up the second-hand prices of each individual item you want to include in your kit. Compare that total to the overall cost of a pre-packaged kit with most of those items.

Depending on how much free time you have to go shopping, you may decide it’s cost effective to invest in one pre-packaged kit to make sure your household’s most basic emergency needs are covered while you source the other items.

The hunt is on for whatever remains! The usual in-person joints to find high quality stuff at rock bottom prices are thrift stores, garage sales, and estate sales, so take your list with you whenever you head out to find your treasures. Give your dollar store a shot as well; frequently, small items like flashlights and travel toiletries can surprise you for a buck. Don’t forget to look at your local army surplus store, which usually has great deals on durable gear.


Check your county’s website to see if your local dump, landfill, or transfer station has a thrift store, as well! Great stuff gets diverted from our waste streams everyday, and someone else’s discards might make your prepper dreams come true.

If you’re more of an online shopper, eBay, Craigslist, OfferUp, Freecycle, Freegle, Streetbank, trash nothing, Facebook Marketplace, and Buy Nothing community groups are all great places to find cheap or free stuff. Looking for high quality, secondhand versions of the items below could save you hundreds of dollars and make your Go Bag more reliable when the pressure is on. 

  • High lumen, all-metal flashlights and lanterns
  • First aid and survival reference books
  • Orienteering compasses
  • Wool or waxed canvas clothing
  • Sturdy shoes (look for steel toes!)
  • Wool blankets
  • Compact sleeping bags
  • Brimmed foldable hats
  • Camping shovels
  • Well-sealing goggles
  • Local maps

Keep your eye on your budget, but if you start to get overwhelmed, prioritize sourcing your hand crank radio, first aid kit, flashlights, batteries, sturdy shoes, food, water, warmth, and backup glasses if your vision is impaired. Please, please, please don’t spend even one minute shopping for a sleeping bag before making a solid plan to maintain your eyesight during the end times.

woman with glasses
TEEHEE! Why, yes, I AM legally blind without these.

About the Author

Writer, editor, and professional joker with an environmental science background. Like most trivia nerds, she's an ardent admirer of Only Connect competitors, but more at home on the QI field.

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