Preparedness on A Shoestring Budget

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Editors Note: Don’t forget to vote in our current Prepper Journal Writing Contest!

Getting Gear

I will stand by physical fitness and know-how as two of the seriously overlooked areas in disaster preparation. They apply to all disasters; car accidents, annual storms, all the way up to whatever apocalypse you like. Even so, there are facets of preparedness that do require “stuff”. “Stuff” usually means spending. That can be a problem for beginners, for people trying to budget, and for preppers traveling when disaster strikes.

One way we can lower the burden on what must be bought is by taking a page from the homeless, the hobos of old, and modern hobos. Other times, we can cut costs by heading to a different “department” to get our survival and grid-down supplies.

Good gear matters. “Get good gear over cheap” is excellent advice. But sometimes, you don’t really need gear to be all that good. And sometimes, you don’t have to spend extra – or anything at all – to get perfectly serviceable preps.

Steel “Tin” Cans

It would be the rare soul who doesn’t run across any soup, fruit, veggie, bean, pie filling, or pasta sauce cans. If we don’t buy or use them often, we can probably score some from coworkers or family, or from along ditches, in recycling boxes, or near park campsites (those … mutter-mutter).

Cans can serve a lot of functions for us, from pots to filters to stoves.

So, first meal, eat one of the bigger cans of fruit or beans, and you can build from there. If you’ve got a hammer and nail, some wire off a chain link fence or from a coat hanger, or some light chain, you’ve got a billy pot for over campfires, on the grill, or over candles – or, a way to transport smoldering coals and save matches.

Give it a pinch at the lip using pliers, snips, or your thumb and a rock, hammer, or file, and you can dimple a pour spout and have a fancy kettle for your disaster cooking.

With the next can, make a water filter using rock and sand, with activated charcoal an ideal “bottom” layer. Pre-filtering will extend the working life of any “real” filters you have, or clarify your water before you boil it. Socks or a cleaned mayo or peanut butter tub can be used to transport your filter.

With your now-clean water and a can or two from the next meal, mix up some bannock to bake on tuna cans or make slicing loaves in bigger cans. Any packaged baking mix – muffins to cake to waffles, with or without yeast or beer for breads – can be used for bannock (or griddle cakes, if you have oil or Pam).

If you have a can that will fit over your pie plate (tuna can) or loaf pan (soups, fruit, tomatoes), you can bake faster and more evenly. Those covers help boil water or heat foods faster.

You can also use your tuna cans to poach foraged eggs or cuisses de grenouille, while your billy pot simmers your pine and creeping Charlie tea or dandelion and cattail soup.

If you have tin snips or good wire cutters (tin snips and wire cutters are really handy tools, period), the sky becomes the limit with your cans.

You can use smaller or cut-down cans for Crisco, alcohol, or oil-based stoves. Larger cans can be cut to sit overtop those, or used in conjunction with all kinds of candle stoves. You can also cut and bend larger tin cans, line with foil to hold campfire coals or charcoal, and add a light baker’s cooling rack, light grill rack, a chunk removed from a grocery buggy with wire cutters to make a grill. Rocket stoves are another option, and hugely efficient.

Cans are also handy to keep you from messing up good pots anytime you want to melt wax – like for waterproofing matches or fire starters or dipping candles – and can eliminate some of the scrubbing if you decide to render down small amounts of animal fats.

A Good Knife

When you shop or price-compare online, specifically eliminate “tactical” from your search results. Type it in your search engine: “tactical”. Pretty much always, but especially buying bags, boots, and knives, you pay for that word … without always getting extra quality with it.

Full disclosure: I love my Kershaw pocket knife, and I breathe a sigh of relief every time I unroll my Cabella’s butcher set. That said, my fishing kits all have box cutters from the Dollar Tree in them. They work well enough that as I sit in my current life spending $400 a month on Heartgard and NexGard to maintain my 18-36 month stash, I still have them in there.

Remember, an inexpensive fishing license is one of the reasons I can afford those dogs. It’s not like they’re not getting used.

My first camping-hunting-packing do-all blade was not from a sporting goods section, either. It was a scimitar-styled “cleaner” kitchen knife. I periodically find them as carving knives now. Blame it on habit, they’re my go-to – as is entertaining family and friends with samurai and pirate noises when I snag one.

It had a thick blade, a clip-point, and a full tang. I looked back and forth between the wooden handled kitchen knife and the equivalent “decent” (not “good”) woodsman knife, and I opted to pay half as much. Some cardboard, three buttons, dental floss, and $2 Goodwill cowboy boots, and I had a serviceable scabbard.

It feathered sticks, cut thick rope and cardboard, and butchered. I rarely baton wood, but I did use it to chip little V’s in the top and bottom of branches so I could “bounce-pull” or stomp-kick to break them.

Will today’s craftsmanship hold up the same? Probably not. Still, compare apples to apples the quality of steel, the tang and grip, and the versatility of shape you’re getting between kitchen and hunting or survival knives.

Dollar Tree Candles

We’ve all heard “you get what you pay for”. Sometimes that’s true. Sometimes, though, what you’re paying for is a label or logo, marketing and advertising, and cart collectors (see Aldi’s business model). Sometimes, it’s worth “cheap”.

I buy Dollar Tree emergency candles, even though those are now 4.5-hour candles instead of 5-6 hour candles. They’re comparable to Coughlin’s emergency candles in scent, blackening, wick care, and flame steadiness, and I’ve never had them melt in whatever temp a black camper shell reaches when it’s 110 degrees outside.

I don’t buy their tea lights or votives. I don’t dislike them, I just buy bulk online. Wherever you get them, make sure the tea lights are the type with metal shells, not plastic. It’ll give you more versatility.

Dollar Tree also carries some pretty sizeable pillar and jar candles. I find them to be no shorter-lived or “sootier” than candles from Walmart or Bed, Bath & Beyond, just a whole lot less moolah.

Any of those candles can be used in conjunction with a tin can camping or emergency stove. You can use any of them to turn your oven into a stovetop during outages, or to bake in your toaster oven.

While you’re in the dollar store, don’t forget to check for a candle holder, hotplate (candle aisle) and oven mitt for your vehicle bag and your SIP/evac kit.

Other Dollar Tree Preps

If you shop at dollar stores, be aware of the unit-per-price locally and online, and the quality of items. Still, there are things at the Dollar Tree that I either can’t find elsewhere, would pay more, and that allow incremental purchases for tight budgets – and thus more well-rounded preparedness rather than a single outlay that only covers part of a need.

I wouldn’t buy duct tape, flashlights, foil, bandanas, q-tips or cotton balls for cleaning ears (they’re fine as a medical dabber or fire starter), or storage bags.

I’m not a fan of those green-lid Tupperware, either, but glance around them. There’s Betty Crocker storage tubs in a variety of sizes that do live a nice, long time and seal well. That’s an excellent way to keep various kits organized and dry, and way cheaper than Walmart.

I can spend 1.5-4x as much on shelf-stable pepperoni and salami, or a buck a pop on the same size/weight product. Same goes for some of the canned goods, soaps, and long sheaves of cleaning sponges. For the most part, the jute for garden, gift wrap, or wick or fire-starter use is fine – no need to spend more. Flip side: I don’t buy rope or bungees at dollar stores.

I’d rather see somebody with $20 and 3-5 family members get ten sets of jersey “liners” and leather “shells” than only 1-3 pairs of better gloves, total.

In other cases, I don’t actually need items to be of lasting quality. If I’m working through a short-term emergency, Dollar Tree aluminum bread and pie pans work just fine to keep candles from spilling and shelter them from drafts.

For cakes, starting a campfire, or inside a tin can or jar to burn off some dampness and chill in a survival shelter, Dollar Tree birthday candles do us just fine – they’re only getting used twice, at most (I reuse birthday cake candles in my bags and fire kits). Why spend more?

Bootstrap Preparedness

Check out news features about modern hobos for some of their survival tips. Even when it’s not a focus, there are clues for living with little or no income. Another major source for eliminating and reducing costs are curbside pickups.

A used or wrecked kiddie pool can become stash-back water catchment or a tarp. The “shrink wrap” thrown away after winterizing boats and unwrapping pallets has tons of applications. Plants have no idea if they’re growing in a $15-50 pot or a free trash can, storage tote, or filing cabinet drawer. They don’t know you got their mulch by raking pine straw instead of buying it, or that their weed barrier and your fire starter is cardboard from a liquor store or moving company.

There are lots of ways we can cut the cost of preparedness and hit bare minimums. It lets us expand elsewhere and buy some breathing room, without leaving us vulnerable in the meantime.

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Hart
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Hart

I really really like this article. I hope you win the next contest with it. Great ideas, many I have never even considered. Even for those of us not on shoestring budgets this is excellent information for improvising should one find themselves without anything. Good article to print off and throw in the BOB.

R. Ann
Guest

Thank you!
I’m a proponent of a light and lean pack, myself, but I’m glad you found it useful.
Cheers! – Rebecca Ann

Ann
Guest
Ann

Love dollar tree, I have $50 set aside this month just for dollar tree preps.

R. Ann
Guest

There’s some stuff that’s incredibly worth it, that I can’t get anywhere else or where the portion size makes it appealing to me. Lots of stuff that isn’t as good of as deal as it seems, though. Just calls for knowing what you’re after and what the area pricing is, but it can be worth slipping in for regular grocery-goods shopping and with an eye for preparedness.
Cheers! – RA

Barry
Guest
Barry

Excellent advice. I think the hardest thing when browsing a Dollar store is seeing past what the item is and thinking what it could do. I also appreciate the stay away from suggestions.

R. Ann
Guest

Glad you found it helpful! Some stuff is fantastic (I love the little mini stand-up timers on the kitchen stuff wall and Pyrex-like for a buck Hello!) but it’s like anywhere else and sometimes you get what you pay for, whether it’s due to the amount or due to the quality. Gotta say, another one from dollar store? The purple aeresol blue-to-white and pump spray tile cleaner. Wow. We have a completely bricked in shower so it gets no airflow. LOVE that stuff. Just have to remember to only use it when no one’s going in that bathroom for 8… Read more »