Being Ready For Emergencies On a Tight Budget

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People experience disasters in different ways. And there are lots of reasons why.  Poverty is something that both affects people’s ability to prepare for emergencies and the consequences they suffer when an event strikes. 

As a Red Cross spokesman put it in The Atlantic in 2019:

“Disasters, for most communities, exacerbate already existing issues, which is why we often see in shelters what we sometimes refer to as ‘the least, the last, and the lost.’ The people who had the least, who were the last to get services, who were already at the end, who were lost beforehand, especially financially.”

Because we’re in the notification business, we focus on the preparation side of things. So we want to offer ways to prepare that are affordable to as many people as possible.  

Unfortunately, much of the preparedness advice that’s provided by emergency management agencies to the general public fails to take residents’ economic circumstances and capacities into account. One list we saw of emergency supplies, for example, included relatively expensive items like generators, sleeping bags, and even simple things like granola which is much more expensive per cup than other cereals. 

So we’ve gathered some tips for disaster preparation that most folks can afford.  Feel free to include these in the advice you provide for your residents.  (Note: we’ve written this with reliability in mind. It should be readable by about 75% of US adults):

First things first. Think about what you need and prioritize. You can start with an online list of what to have in a disaster supply kit and then focus on what you really need. For example, the Ready.gov website offers this page that starts with water and food (your first priorities) and goes from there.  

Make your supplies play double duty. You don’t need to have emergency supplies that are completely separate from what you use every day.  Having a few days extra food on hand means you’ve got something for dinner that you can also use in an emergency.  Clothing and bedding can be used every day, and still provide what you need when you have to evacuate or hunker down at your house.  The key is to know what you’ll take or use when there’s a disaster. 

Keep it cheap.  

There are many ways you can keep down the cost of emergency supplies.

1. Cheap food that’s good for you.  You might not have fancy meals during an emergency, but there are many foods that will feed you well for pennies a meal:

  • Canned beans
  • Frozen vegetables
  • Canned vegetables

Yes, you want to mostly have shelf-stable foods, but we include frozen vegetables because experts suggest having 3 days’ of food on hand for emergencies. Without electricity, your frozen veggies might be thawed by day 2 or 3, but you can still eat them, even raw, which you can’t do with meats or some other foods.

Compared to chicken nuggets or pizza, they may not taste great, but they’re better than an empty stomach and are often better for you. 

2. Get basic supplies vs. fancy packaging.  Here’s an example.  Instead of a first aid kit that might cost $15 – $30, get a box of store brand band aids in different sizes, a roll of bandages and some alcohol and spend less money. Put it all in a baggie and store it where you can easily find it. Or split it up and use half for everyday use and stash the other half for emergencies. 

3. Look for sales. When sales come up, keep your eyes open for the things you don’t have. Scan the clearance sections of the seasonal items. Camping items go on sale at the end of summer, back packs after back to school, light sticks after Halloween, candles at Christmas, basic household supplies after the New Year. 

4. Do It Yourself. You don’t need to buy bottled water. Wash out used plastic milk and soda bottles and refill them with tap water. 

5. Go to the dollar store. Your local dollar or discount store has basic first aid equipment. Kit staples such as adhesive bandages, gauze, face masks, gloves, cleaning supplies, batteries, flashlights, etc., can all be found at lower prices. These stores are also a good place to find coloring books and crayons, puzzles, toys, books and games to keep kids occupied during a long-term emergency event. 

6. Get it used. Thrift stores, yard sales and Craigslist are great resources for all kinds of things like sleeping bags, lanterns, etc.

7. Get it free. Some states have free resources for emergency kits or training. Call your local emergency management agency or search online to ask about these kinds of resources in your area.  

Sign up for your community’s emergency alerts

Now that you’re more ready for an emergency, you want to know as soon as possible if there’s one coming.  So sign up for emergency alerts to give you time to gather the supplies you need. 

Emergency alerts are usually provided for free by your local government and give you messages by text or voice, so you can get them on any kind of phone. 

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