Preparing for disasters should be a priority no matter where you live. Chances are that sooner or later you’ll face some sort of a disaster that will leave you without power, water, or access to buy the things you need in order to live.
What is a disaster
There are many kinds of disasters. It could be a natural disaster like a hurricane, snow storm, flood, tornado, or earthquake. Or it could be a man made disaster that has the power grid down or requires you to stay in your home for a few days or even weeks. Disasters can also include unemployment, sudden illness, or the death of the breadwinner in the family.
I don’t say this to scare you. I tell you this because the best way to prepare for disasters is to be aware that they can occur at any time so you should always have what you need on hand. You must have an emergency preparedness plan and you need to prepare your finances. Some people might think that’s paranoid thinking. I think it’s just common sense.
Living on love
Years ago when my kids were still small, we lived in a tent on 18 acres. Yeah. Five kids living in a tent. Good times. But I digress…
Anyhow, we had a neighbor who planted a field of beans but didn’t have time to harvest them. He made a deal with me that if I harvested them, he would give me half. I gathered buckets and three of my kids and we went to the field. It was hot and it was hard work, but we harvested lots and lots of beans. After bringing home our half, I canned as many as I could. Those beans kept us fed for many months (and to this day my oldest daughter hates beans, but she didn’t go hungry).
Another elderly neighbor had planted a huge garden, but after her husband died she just couldn’t keep up. She told us to take anything we needed. I was happy to oblige. Other people in town had apple trees with apples rotting on the ground. They were happy to have someone take the apples instead of letting them fall and make a mess. We also had friends with garden excess. They were happy to share and we were happy to have food.
We also did a lot of foraging back then. Wild blackberries were everywhere and the kids loved to help gather them. My oldest son would hunt and fish. We did what we had to in order to survive, but as difficult as those days were, some of my best memories are of that time. Not memories of all the stuff money was wasted on (though maybe my ex has memories of that since he’s the one who wasted all the money), but memories of experiences and things we did together to care for our family.
I guess the moral of this story is that you don’t have to spend money or be entertained all the time. Save your money and enjoy the little things. Find joy in the experiences and you’ll be better prepared financially if disaster strikes.
Preparing for disasters at home: finances
Let’s start at home. Do you have at least a month’s worth of money stashed somewhere? Last year Vice published an article on saving money when you’re broke. According to the article, a quarter of Americans have less than $1000 saved for emergencies. That’s pretty scary since the average monthly cost of living in the US for one adult is over $2300. And the cost of living goes up every year.
For many people, saving enough money to last for a month is not an easy task, but it’s wise to sit down and figure up a monthly budget that allows for you to put a little money away with every paycheck, even if it’s only $25 a week. Too much? How about just $5? The key is to just start, even if it’s a very small amount. Put this money aside BEFORE you spend on anything else each week.
Tricks to save money
You have to be brutally honest with how you spend money. Track every penny. EVERY PENNY! Do this for a month, and if you are honest, you are very likely to see areas where you are spending unnecessarily. I’m talking needs vs. wants here. So you really need to understand the difference. Do you NEED a Starbucks coffee or can you survive by making coffee at home? Do you NEED to hit the drive thru or can you pack a lunch that is going to be way more healthy anyhow?
Once you see these areas, it’s time to trim the fat. This is where most people decide that they don’t want to budget. They feel entitled to their little extravagances. Here’s the thing: you aren’t “entitled” to anything, and if you want to save money and become more self-sufficient, you’re going to make a few sacrifices here and there. They don’t necessarily have to be permanent sacrifices, but if you say you aren’t prepared for a disaster because you can’t afford it, you need to be a little more honest with yourself.
Can you cut out that gas station treat when you stop to fill up? Stop getting your nails done? Cancel a premium TV channel? Pack a lunch for work? You think you’ll feel deprived doing these things, but just think how deprived you’ll feel when you can’t even buy a bag of potatoes or rice because you have no money due to unemployment or serious injury. Focus on saving enough money to pay your normal expenses for a month. Then think about if you really need those little things you’ve cut out to save that money.
There are other tricks you can use as well. We have an empty animal cracker container (shaped like a teddy bear; it’s adorable) that has become our change jar. Every time we get change (coins) we come home and drop them in the teddy bear. This is a good sized container, so even if it’s only partly filled, we can see that we have a couple hundred dollars in emergency money. Usually, when it’s about half full, we roll the coins and take them to the bank to cash them in. Then we either put the cash in a safe or in the bank, depending on our needs at the time.
Another trick is to start using that checkbook ledger. Yeah I know. How old school. If you feel like a dinosaur, use a spreadsheet or even keep a note app on your phone. Just keep your bank balance noted, and when you spend anything, round it up to the next dollar.
For example, if you have a $1000 balance and you spend $10.89, round it up to $11. This will make your balance $989 instead of $989.11. That 11 cents becomes invisible, so you essentially saved 11 cents. Combine this method with the change jar, and your savings will add up quickly.
One more tick that may seem scary at first is to do a no-spend month. Do not spend anything unless you MUST spend it to survive the month. So obviously, you’re going to pay your utility bills as well as the rent or mortgage payment. But don’t spend anything else unless you need food or medications. That’s it. See how much money you have at the end of the month. You may surprise yourself.
By the way, this doesn’t mean go have fun with the extra money. This is money to help you prepare for disasters. Your emergency fund. However, if you do this method each month, or several times a year, you may find that you can do something special each month and still have some money left to save.
Now, where do you keep your emergency money? There will be plenty of opinions on this, but we are most comfortable keeping an emergency stash in a safe, not in the bank. Think about it. If the grid goes down, how will you access money in the bank? Of course, there is also the argument that money might not even be useful, and instead you should have things to barter. That’s another topic all together, but it’s still wise to have emergency money on hand. If you don’t trust yourself to not spend it, ask a trusted friend or family member to hold on to it until you develop better money habits. Which you will, of course. The longer you are on this journey, the better you get at it.
Prepare your pantry
Your goal is to save up enough money to live on for at least a month, in the case of emergency. But you can also put aside some of the money to get your home ready and get your family more prepared for disasters. If you suddenly had no access to money or the grocery store, can you prepare enough food to feed your family for a month? A week?
Try this. Get a sheet of paper (or that handy note app on your phone) and take inventory of everything you have in your house that you can eat. Pantry, refrigerator, freezer, cabinets, that secret stash of chocolate in your nightstand… oh wait… let’s not get too carried away.
Look at your inventory list. Do you have stuff that you just won’t eat? Can you come up with a creative way to use it? If not, donate it or give it to your neighbor. Might be interesting to see how far around town that can of candied yams gets as it gets passed from neighbor to neighbor.
Now, throw away anything expired. Then think about what meals you can make with what’s on hand. This is a great exercise to do before a no-spend month (or even a no-spend week) because it prevents you from over shopping. But it also gets you thinking about what you can do to survive in an emergency. I have been doing this for years and I’m still always surprised when I do it. I always think “Wow, I didn’t know I had that much food in the house.”
On another piece of paper, make a list of the foods you eat most often. I’m going to tell you now, if it’s mostly convenience foods, you’re probably going to have to take a closer look at your eating habits, but that’s a topic for another post. This list of foods that your family eats most is the basis for two things: First, it’s your “buy extra” list. Second, it’s your “I can grow this” list.
Next time you go shopping, take this list with you. Try to buy one or two of each item each time you shop, even if you don’t need it. If it’s already on your shopping list, but an extra. If you do this each time you go shopping, you’ll start building an emergency stash of food. Just pay attention to expiration dates and rotate your pantry so you use the older items first. Spoiled food isn’t very helpful in a disaster situation.
Hopefully you have plenty of fruits and vegetables on your list. Think about how you can grow as many of these as possible with the goal for canning, freezing, drying, etc. Even if all you can do is grow some herbs in pots, you can dry those herbs and use them for cooking. That means you can usually bypass the spice aisle at the grocery store. Some of those store bought herbs and spices are really pricey!
Another option is to hit farmers markets or join a CSA. Or go to a you-pick farm. This will allow you fresh vegetables at a reasonable price. And sometimes if you talk to growers, they will give you a better price on less than perfect produce that you can preserve once you get home.
Do you have an emergency fund? Do you have any tricks for saving money?
photo credit: davidstewartgets Banknotes cash currency – Credit to https://homegets.com/ via photopin (license)