8 Tips to Build an Emergency Kit on a Budget

A woman climbs over debris after Hurricane Ian destroyed her trailer.
Kathy Hickey, 70, carefully climbs across a ruined trailer as she picks her way through debris on San Carlos Island in Fort Myers Beach, Fla., Oct. 5, 2022, one week after the passage of Hurricane Ian. Rebecca Blackwell/AP Photo
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No matter where you live, you are not immune from disasters. Floridians and Gulf Coast residents frequently deal with hurricanes, Californians with wildfires, Oklahomans with tornadoes and Minnesotans with blizzards. But one thing remains the same with all natural disasters: You need an emergency kit. And it’s possible to build an emergency kit on a budget.

Hopefully you keep sufficient batteries, bottled water and canned food in your home in case of emergencies. If not, it’s time to stock up.

Sure, you could plunk down more than $200 or so on a one-size-fits-all emergency kit filled with stuff you probably won’t need. But preparing for a natural disaster doesn’t have to be expensive. These eight tips will help you economically build an emergency survival kit that’s tailored to you and your family’s needs.

How to Build an Emergency Kit for Less

There are several things to do to make sure you have everything you might need in an emergency when you build your emergency kit on a budget.

1. Decide What You Need in Your Emergency Kit

The Red Cross suggests keeping bare essentials like water, non-perishable food, extra batteries, clothes, blankets, flashlights and medicine on hand to prepare for a natural disaster.

If you live in an apartment, fallen trees or limbs won’t be your responsibility to clean up. But if you’re a homeowner, you could have major yard work on your hands after a storm. Think about what tools and supplies you may need — or what you could borrow.

Check with neighbors to see what equipment they have, then pool together for the cleanup. You may already have a lot of the tools — chainsaws, clippers, shovels, etc. — you need for post-disaster cleanup.

It’s also smart to store items you’d need if you were trapped after a severe storm. A whistle lets you signal to rescuers that you’re there. Heavy-duty boots and jackets can protect you from broken glass and other debris if you need to dig yourself out of your basement. While it’s unlikely you’ll find yourself in this situation, it’s still best to be prepared.

Figure out what your emergency kit needs and prioritize those items. Your list will have to take into consideration family members, who may range from very young to very old. Think about toys to distract the little ones, for instance, and make sure you know your older family members’ medication needs.

But don’t get carried away — you’ll probably just need food for a week or so, not a fully-stocked shelter on a deserted island.

2. Prep for Free

Some of your preparation won’t cost you a dime. It’s all about gathering stuff you already have, like cell phone chargers, maps and emergency cash. Just make sure all these items are in an easy-to-reach place, since you’ll need to grab them quickly rather than scrambling to find them if you suddenly need to evacuate.

Instead of buying it by the flat, consider bottling your own water. Use bleach-purified, leftover two-liter bottles and municipal water treated with water purification tablets. Just don’t use milk or juice cartons, which can harbor bacteria. Date your bottles and replace them every six months.

If you’ll need water for hygienic purposes, clean your bathtub, then fill it with cold water. It won’t be potable, but you can use it to flush toilets and keep yourself clean. Filling the tub is only a tactic for those who will be staying in their homes rather than evacuating.

The CDC recommends storing at least 1 gallon of water per person per day for drinking and sanitation. You should aim for at least a two-week supply (and more, if you have the space to store it).

3. Store Enough Non-Perishable Food

Along with water, you’ll need to make sure you have enough food to last your household several days.

The federal government’s disaster prep website, Ready.gov, recommends stocking up on non-perishable food items like dry cereal, canned goods, granola bars, peanut butter, dried fruit and nuts, canned juice and non-perishable pasteurized milk (plus the necessary comfort foods, in case you needed more reasons to stock up your favorite cookies). These are all items you can keep an eye on for sales when doing your regular grocery shopping. Stock up using BOGO or money-off deals or look for these items at discount grocery stores.

You’ll also need to consider any special food requirements in your household. If you have a baby, stock up on jars of puree and cans of formula. Keep your family’s tastes in mind as well; don’t buy 10 cans of tuna if no one in your household likes fish.

As a storm is approaching and if it’s safe for one last swing through the grocery store, buy a bag of apples or oranges. It’s nice to have something fresh to eat, and those fruits tend to keep for a while.

A first aid kit is photographed in a studio with a blue background.
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4. Create a First-Aid Kit

Make sure you have the essentials to treat any wounds or other injuries that occur during the emergency. Whether you wait out a blizzard at home or evacuate your house to avoid a wildfire, you need to have a first aid kit stocked with bandages, gauze, tweezers, antiseptic cream and painkillers like ibuprofen or acetaminophen.

While you can buy a ready-made first-aid kit, it’s often cheaper to buy the individual items separately and build your own first-aid kit. Look for cheaper bandages at the dollar store and keep an eye out for sales on first-aid kit essentials at Walgreens or CVS.

The best first-aid kits are tailored to what you need, so if you tend to break out in hives under stress, make sure you have an antihistamine in your emergency kit to help treat your symptoms when they occur.

Keep a large first-aid kit at home and a smaller one in your car in case you need to evacuate. The one in your car can come in handy during everyday adventures as well as when you’re evacuating during a natural disaster.

5. Collect Cost-Effective Items

When you have to buy items, use coupons and smart hacks to your advantage: Use cash back sites to earn rebates and watch for deals at stores like CVS, Walmart or your local dollar store.

When you pick up extra batteries, hydrogen peroxide, bleach and bandages, make sure to buy generic — they’ll work just as well as the brand name stuff and will cost a lot less. Check out the dollar store for these items, and while you’re there, pick up some emergency entertainment: crayons and coloring books for the kids and a pack of cards or two for adults.

You can save further by buying in bulk, so long as you do so smartly. Emergency rations of paper towels, toilet paper, canned goods, personal hygiene items, batteries and bottled water are a perfect opportunity to take advantage of those savings. If you’re buying bulk items that might expire or you know you’ll never use all of, consider asking a neighbor or friend to split the purchase.

Finally, consider battery-free emergency additions, like wind-up flashlights and weather radios. If you’re going to be without electricity, you’ll definitely want a handheld cell phone charger, which you can keep charged and prepared beforehand.

6. Plan Ahead

One of the best ways to save money on disaster preparedness is to play the long game: Look for sales in your day-to-day life and stock up, way before a storm starts brewing. Cans of tuna on BOGO? Put your “get-ones” into your stash. Canned vegetables on clearance? Buy a bunch to keep on hand for an emergency.

Oh, and don’t forget the Fix-a-Flat tire repair aerosol that can temporarily patch a flat tire. This comes in handy if you have to evacuate via a rough road and run over something that punctures a tire. You can find this product at your local grocery store, Walmart or Target.

The more you avoid a last-minute disaster-prep rush, the better: Vendors can be prone to price gouging even though there are laws in place in some states that prohibits jacking up prices just before and after a disaster. Planning ahead helps ensure you have what you need to make it through the emergency without having to drop a bunch of money on water or fight someone for the last pack of TP.

In case you do need a last-minute item, include “disaster prep” in your savings budget. Set aside $20 a month or so, and consider it part of your emergency fund — because that’s exactly what it is.

7. Gather Important Documents

An important part of any emergency kit that you might not consider involves personal documents. If you store things like your birth certificate, social security card and car title in a heavy safe in your basement, chances are you won’t think to haul it out of the house with you if you’re being pounded by a hurricane or your home is on fire.

And, in an emergency, you never know when you will need these items — particularly if you get displaced.

Instead, store original copies of your important personal documents away from your house (like in a safety deposit box at your bank) and make backups that you can keep with you in a folder, on a flash drive or saved in the cloud.

Which Documents to Copy

Make sure you keep copies of anything you might need if you’re evacuated from your home during an emergency. Here’s a list of everything you might need a copy of:

  • Birth, marriage, adoption and death certificates.
  • Medical records such as your health insurance card, prescription information and contact info for your health providers.
  • Passport, social security card and driver’s license.
  • Home and car title, mortgage papers, etc.
  • Any personal mementos like photos and letters.

Where to Keep the Copies

It’s a good idea to scan each of these documents and keep them somewhere safe. There are several places you can choose to store your records digitally (and safely), including the following.

  • Dropbox
  • Google Drive
  • Apple iCloud
  • Amazon Cloud Drive
  • Microsoft OneDrive
  • IDrive
  • Box

Many of these options offer a certain amount of storage for free, but you can pay for more space if you need it. Make sure you have a secure password for wherever you store your important documents. Cloud technology has come a long way since its inception but can still be vulnerable to hackers, so you want to make it as hard as possible for anyone but you to access your account.

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8. Important Phone Numbers

If your cell phone died and you had no power to charge it, would you remember your significant other’s phone number? What about needing to call an official government organization to help with emergency management?

Keep a small notebook in your emergency kit with emergency contact information written down, as well as the official website address for FEMA or your local municipality so you can look up disaster-relief information.

Even if you live somewhere that’s sheltered from most natural disasters, you never know when the unexpected can happen. That’s why it’s vital to have a well-stocked emergency kit on hand to help you through a disaster or unexpected hardship, even if you don’t think you’ll need it.

After all, it’s better to be over-prepared and not use your kit than lose power in a freak snowstorm and have nothing to help you ride it out.

Ohio-based Catherine Hiles is a British writer and editor living and working in the U.S. She has a degree in communications from the University of Chester in the U.K. and writes about finance, cars, pet ownership and parenting. Information gathered by contributor Jamie Cattanach was used in this post.