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Tips for Building a Budget-Friendly Preparedness Kit

A self-proclaimed bargain bounty hunter shares how to prepare an emergency kit that will not only protect citizens, but also their budgets.

In the July/August issue of Emergency Management, Jim McKay's article Who's Prepared? Not Many highlighted some of the many reasons that members of the community at large, and even the emergency management community, have not created preparedness kits. No doubt, the following are excuses we’ve all heard before:

“I didn't know I needed one.”'
“Will I really need this?”
“I can't afford it.”

Sound familiar?

To these reasons, I offer three simple responses:
“Now you know.”
“Yes, you will.”
“Yes, you can.”

Disasters can come in many forms, and it is important to know what to prepare for. A chemical release will not require all the same resources as a hurricane. Nevertheless, there are basic items that every kit should have. Various websites offer checklists of things you may need in the event of an emergency. These lists are not law, however, and only you can determine the best needs for you and your family. Websites such as and the American Red Cross are great resources to help get you started and provide suggestions for kit contents as well as other items that you may not have previously considered.

Think budget constraints will keep you from creating a kit? Think again! I happen to be the sovereign of savings, a dignitary of discounts, rollback royalty, queen of all things clearance and, well, you get the idea. I don't believe in paying full price for anything if I don’t have to. As a self-proclaimed bargain bounty hunter, I’m going to share a few ideas to make sure that, regardless of your budget, you will be able to prepare an emergency kit that will protect your family as well as your finances.

Keep it simple.

Chances are you're not preparing for the zombie apocalypse or a long-term global resource shortage. When disaster strikes, you want to have enough resources to last for the better part of a week. That said, there is no need to spend hundreds of dollars stocking up and hoarding items that you may never need or that may expire before you have a chance to use them. 

The American Red Cross’ list of the basic supplies to have in an emergency kit includes:

•    Water — one gallon per person, per day
•    Food — nonperishable, easy-to-prepare items
•    Flashlight
•    Battery-powered or hand-crank radio
•    Extra batteries
•    First aid kit
•    Medications (seven-day supply) and medical items
•    Multipurpose tool
•    Sanitation and personal hygiene items
•    Copies of personal documents (medication list and pertinent medical information, proof of address, deed/lease to home, passports, birth certificates, insurance policies)
•    Cellphone with chargers
•    Family and emergency contact information
•    Extra cash
•    Emergency blanket
•    Map(s) of the area

Patience pays off.

Make a list of items you think you may need and search for sales. I’ve personally had my eye on some of the new patterned/printed duct tape (because if I ever need to shelter in place, that leopard print tape will look fabulous with my plastic sheeting!). When I first found it, I was not thrilled about the price, but after a few weeks the price dropped significantly — enough for me to not have to choose between colors (hello leopard and snake print).

Another thrifty tip: Catch canned goods or nonperishables when they are on sale. A well-known grocery store chain in my area is famous for its “10 for $10” stock up sales. Other things to look out for are discontinued flavors (of soups, etc.), out-of-season nonperishable items and other products that may be on clearance — these can all make great additions to your kit. Some items may be on clearance simply because they sustained a dent or ding, but be careful: Cans that are bulging or leaking have been linked to botulism and should be avoided.

Whatever you buy, be sure to select food items that you and your family enjoy and will want to eat.

Don’t skip the good stuff.

A disaster is no time to pig out. If anything, it’s even more important that you consume foods rich in protein, vitamins and minerals. Be sure to pack plenty of these kinds of foods in your kit, along with the always-essential fruits and veggies.

Create DIY meals.

If you are concerned about what preservatives or other unpleasant surprises may be lurking in processed, nonperishable foods, or have certain dietary restrictions (low salt/low sugar diet, organic, gluten free, low cholesterol, etc.), the DIY option may be for you. There are plenty of books as well as online tutorials that teach the basics of canning, pickling and preserving food. If you are a novice canner or pickler, this option may not be the best choice for you. Home-canned items have a higher risk for contamination and spoilage, especially if prepared incorrectly, so it is critical that home-canners follow meticulous preparation, preservation and sanitation procedures to ensure the safest food supply for themselves and their families. These DIY options do require a bit more prep work, but like store bought food options, items preserved at home can be stored for months and provide those with dietary limitations the security of knowing exactly what is in their food, as well as the freedom to modify their food supplies to fit their personal needs.

Water, water, everywhere.

While purchasing commercially bottled water is recommended, it is not always economically feasible. Many of us have two-liter soda and soft drink bottles around the house already. Instead of chucking them into the recycle bin, incorporate them as a critical part of your preparedness kit. recommends at least one gallon of water per person per day, with a minimum three-day supply for each person in the home (consider increasing this amount if you live in warmer climates, or if there are young children, nursing mothers or persons with illnesses in your home). Below are instructions from for using your own containers to store water:

Thoroughly clean the bottles with dishwashing soap and water, and rinse completely so there is no residual soap.

Sanitize the bottles by adding a solution of 1 teaspoon of nonscented liquid household chlorine bleach to a quart of water. Mix the sanitizing solution in the bottle so that it touches all surfaces. After sanitizing the bottle, thoroughly rinse out the sanitizing solution with clean water.

Fill the bottle to the top with regular tap water. If the tap water has been commercially treated from a water utility with chlorine, you do not need to add anything else to the water to keep it clean. If the water you are using comes from a well or water source that is not treated with chlorine, add two drops of nonscented liquid household chlorine bleach to the water. Let the water stand for 30 minutes before using.

A slight chlorine odor should be noticeable in the water, if not, add another dose of bleach and allow the water to stand another 15 minutes.

Tightly close the container using the original cap. Be careful not to contaminate the cap by touching the inside of it with your finger. Place a date on the outside of the container so you can know when you filled it. Store the container in a cool, dark place.

Water can also be treated with water purification tablets that can be purchased at most sporting goods stores.

Water that has not been commercially bottled should be replaced every six months.     

Do not use containers that have had milk or juice in them. As explains, “Milk protein and fruit sugars cannot be adequately removed from these containers and provide an environment for bacterial growth when water is stored in them.” The website also does not recommend using glass jars because they can become heavy and are likely to break.

Before anticipated emergency events such as hurricanes, it is important to have an additional supply of water on hand for sanitation purposes. You can do this by filling your bathtub with water before the storm. Be sure to clean bathtubs thoroughly with bleach and rinse well before filling with water. This water can be used for bathing, cleaning and operating toilets.

Off-brand and on target.

Visit your local dollar store or other discount retailer to pick up basic first aid equipment. Kit staples such as adhesive bandages, gauze, face masks, gloves, alcohol, peroxide, bleach, batteries, flashlights, etc., can all be found at significant discounts. These stores are also a good place to find things such as coloring books and crayons, puzzles, toys, books and games to keep kids occupied during a long-term emergency event. If you would rather visit your local chain retailer, you can still find savings on the shelves. Consider purchasing store brands for items such as aspirin or ointment and you could easily save a few dollars (just make sure that they have the same active ingredients).

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration weather radios are another kit staple that can prove invaluable in an emergency (especially if you live in areas that are notorious for extreme and violent weather) and price is no reason to go without. While many units cost $30 to $50 or more, you most likely won’t need the top-of-the-line model. Instead, you can find several basic models on websites such as eBay or for about $20.

Preparedness should be a family affair — be sure to involve everyone in preparedness purchases and decisions. Crises are already a stressful time for individuals and families. A little investment now will go a long way if, and when, disaster strikes. By taking the proper steps ahead of time, you can ensure that emergencies don’t cause an unmitigated strain on you, your family or your funds.

Charisma Williams is an emergency management analyst in Crystal City, Va. She is currently completing her M.S. in engineering management at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C.