Swift | Silent | Deadly

Food Preparedness on $20 a Paycheck

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For a long time I’ve been telling friends, family, and readers how easy and inexpensive preparedness can be. I recently got curious about what a reasonable dollar amount – say $20 a paycheck – could actually do for one’s preparedness. I decided to find out, first-hand, and report the results to you. I’m pretty excited and consider this little experiment a success!

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I decided to use Walmart for my purchasing. Man, I really hate recommending Walmart; they have plenty of money without getting any help from me. I try to avoid Walmart like the plague, but there are some things to recommend it for this exercise. First, with over 4,700 stores in the USA, Walmart is about as “national” as a national chain gets. You almost certainly have one near you. If not, I’m sorry – I did the best I could in finding something accessible to everyone.

Secondly, Walmart has a price-stabilizing effect and my prices will probably be reasonably close to your prices. Yeah, things might be a tad bit more expensive at your store than mine, but I live in a pretty average financial market so we shouldn’t be far off. Thirdly, Walmart is homogeneous. This lets me remain private (grocery store chains are heavily regional, Walmart is not), and it gives you the opportunity to purchase exactly what I purchased, should you so choose. And it ensures that you have access to the same brands and products.

My dollar probably could have gone a bit further at a bulk purchasing club like Sam’s, Costco, or BJ’s. There are two reasons I didn’t do this. First, not everyone has easy access to a store like that. Second, there is a pretty big cost for entry – it probably would take more than $80 worth of groceries to make up for the membership fee. So, I just went with plain ol’ Walmart.

The Concept

The goal of this exercise is to see what $20 increments would do to improve food preparedness. I multiplied this to four times to equal $80. I did not include tax so this is my pre-tax total. If you get paid weekly (and can afford that $20, of course) you could do this in four weeks. If you get paid bi-weekly and can afford $20 per paycheck, this would take 2 months. Either way that’s not a long time to greatly increase your food preparations.

I also operated with a couple of other assumptions.

First, I assumed the ability to boil water. If you can’t boil water in the absence of your normal utilities, that is an urgent need that you should satisfy. All the rice in the world won’t do you a whole lot of good if you can’t boil it. If your preps don’t include a way to boil water, you should to make that a priority. I recommend something like a Coleman two-burner, propane stove.

Secondly, I tried to stick with reasonably healthy foods (keyword: reasonably). I could have gone with flavored, instant oatmeal and all the “heat ‘n eat” canned goods. But even in a survival situation I’d prefer not to bombard my body with the sugar, salt, and preservatives that it is unaccustomed to. This stuff isn’t expensive health food off the organic aisle, just pretty plain food with minimal preservatives and whatnot. Mostly. The other great thing about sticking to basic foods is they are cheap. They aren’t as tasty as a closet full of Pop-Tarts and Chef Boyardee but your dollar goes a lot further this way.

Third, I stuck to shelf-stable foods. Some things here expire sooner than others but nothing is considered perishable. Everything here should be OK in storage for at least two years. If you rotate it out – using some and replacing it – it should last more or less indefinitely.

One other thing: this isn’t just a race to the most calories. If that were the case, I could just buy 120 pounds of white rice and call it a day. But I don’t think very many humans would be happy eating that much white rice and nothing else. I tried very hard to make a somewhat palatable menu. That’s going to vary person to person, and I don’t mean for you to go out and buy exactly what I’m buying. You should customize this to your own tastes and dietary needs. Rather, this is just an exercise in the “art of the possible.”

Anyway, that’s idea behind this whole thing. I hope you enjoy it. More importantly, I hope it gets you thinking and acting! Let’s see what I was able to get on $20 a week.

Week 1

On Week 1 I wanted to spend my money on water. We can get by without food, but none of us are going to make it very long without water. I’m not going to lie – I was very surprised at how much water you can get for $20. At $0.60/gallon one can walk out the door with 33 gallons of water. I did this math before loading my cart up and I’m not going to lie – it gave me second thoughts – I wasn’t sure where I’d put 275 pounds of water in the cab of my pickup (the tailgate was off following a trip to the dump).

So instead, I first grabbed two cases of 40, 16.9-ounce bottles for $2.58/ea. That left me with enough scratch for 23, 1-gallon jugs. After I got in the car and did the math on the 16.9-ounce bottles the total came up to about 10.5 gallons meaning I got slightly more water by getting the cases of smaller bottles. Weird how that works.

Total Cost: $19.91
Total Gallons: 33.5

Analysis: With that much water for a twenty-spot it doesn’t seem like there is a great excuse for not being well-prepared when it comes to water. Even I was shocked how much water you can get for $2o. I won’t lie: I really considered whether I wanted to get that much water in one trip or not. It is a shocking amount.

How far will that go on the 1 gallon, per person, per day model? For one, single person that comes out to 30 days plus 10% breathing room. That’s an entire month of water for $20!!! At the other extreme, let’s look at a family of five. By adding two measly gallons (an extra $1.20) that’s a gallon per person, per day, for seven days. Not too shabby.

Week 2

I’ll be honest – I didn’t spend a whole lot of time thinking about week 2 prior to walking into Walmart. I was in a bit of a hurry and only had a dim idea of what I wanted to purchase this week. I did have one goal in mind: purchase a couple very calorie-dense items to provide the basis for stuff to come. I think I did OK, but I think I could have done better, too. Here’s what I got:

  • 10 pounds of rice (16,000 calories)
  • 64 ounces peanut butter (10,260 calories)
  • 1 box of saltine crackers (1,960 calories)
  • 18 ounces oatmeal (1,820 calories)
  • 5 cans of tuna (500 calories)
  • 4 cans of vegetables (470 calories)

Total Cost: $19.84
Total Calories: 31,010

Analysis: Ah rice, the prepper’s mainstay. White rice is not the healthiest thing, but it’s much better than ramen noodles and mac ‘n cheese. It’s easy to get a jump-start on some serious calories with a few pounds of rice. A huge jar of peanut butter also comes in strong in the calorie and protein departments (57 servings, each with 7 grams of protein and 180 calories) I picked up the saltines because a.) they were $0.77 and b.) that peanut butter would probably be a lot better on something.

The oatmeal might have been a mistake. It was only $2 but to be honest I wish I’d bought a couple more cans of vegetables instead, and here’s why. I had a big container of oatmeal in mind when I went shopping. I actually did this shopping week-by-week and Walmart was out of large containers of store-brand oatmeal on that day. Instead of waiting until next week I grabbed a small can. But that’s OK – I’m stuck with it now, and it’ll be good with some of that peanut butter. Mistakes happen, you won’t be perfect, learn to roll with it.

This photo only shows four cans of tuna – one had fallen out in my car.

Now, I could have purchased another 10 pounds of rice with the remaining money but I wanted to diversify just a bit. Eating the same thing over and over gets real old, so I threw in the tuna and a few vegetables. Next week I’ll focus on this just a bit more instead of focusing on bulk calories.

How long would it last? At 3,000 calories/day (a pretty heavy-duty calorie count), 31,000 calories would last a single, adult person a little over 10 days. At an average of 2,250 calories per person, per day this would last a family of five (assuming two adults and three children) almost three days (2.7 by my math). For $20 that’s actually not too bad!

Compare that to a Mountain House Three Day Emergency Food Supply which provides three days at 1,706 calories per day. The Mountain House kit costs $73.99. It stores for a long time, but you really pay for that storage. To get the same number of calories you’d have to buy six of those kits which would cost almost $450.

Week 3

This week I decided on another bag of rice for a large calorie infusion, and a secondary focus on vegetables rather than protein. This time instead of keeping mental track of my running total I used a calculator. I don’t know what the hell I did wrong because I came up way short, cost-wise, at $15.97. Next week I’ll spend those unused $4. Let’s see what I got for just under $16.

  • 10 pounds of rice (16,000 calories)
  • 1 jar of roasted, salted peanuts (2,880 calories)
  • 1 box of saltine crackers (1,960 calories)
  • 6 cans of peas (1,260)
  • 6 cans of green beans (111 calories)
  • Chicken bullion powder
  • 26 ounce salt

Total Cost: $15.97
Total Calories: 22,211
Total Calories to Date: 53,221

Analysis: This week my plan was to pick an anchor item with a ton of calories (rice) and add some more vegetables to the diet. It seems like I managed to do that. There was a huge vegetable display with cans of peas and green beans for what seemed like an absurdly low price…so I jumped on it. These aren’t super high-calorie foods, but they serve to put some important fiber and vitamins in the diet.

I also wanted to add something to help vary up the flavor of rice. Rice is compact and calorie-dense, but it can get real old after a while. The chicken bullion was a splurge at $2.58 but I think it’s well worth it. One jar of bullion like this should be enough to season almost 10 pounds of rice. Coupled with the can of salt ($0.52) this could probably be stretched just a bit further.

The second box of crackers…well, the peanut butter and the tuna from last week both benefit from crackers, and $0.77 is hard to pass up. The peanuts seemed like a reasonable snack to me (I probably would have gotten a couple more jars had I known I had money left).

With a lot of basics covered, next week I will probably focus on comfort items. I don’t know how successful I’ll be on $24 (carrying the extra $4 from this week) but I’ll do what I can.

How long would it last? With 53,000 calories at 3,000 calories/day, this would last a single, adult person 17-18 days. At an average of 2,250 calories per person, per daythis gives a family of five (again, assuming two adults and three children) almost five days (4.7 by my math) worth of food. My goal by the end of next week is for the amount of food stored to match the amount of water stored.

Compare that to military Meals, Ready to Eat (MREs). A case of MREs has 12 meals containing 1,250 calories each for a total of 15,000 calories per case. A case costs $120. To get 53,000 calories out of MREs you’d need to buy three and a half cases for a cost of $420…over ten times the $40 we’ve spent on food here so far.

Week 4

This week I had an extra $4 to spend from under-spending last time. I got as close as I possibly could without going over with a total of $23.99. I added a little more rice, along with some canned goods and a couple of “luxury” items like pasta and sauce, canned fruit, and instant coffee. Let’s take a look at what I got.

  • 5 pounds of rice (8,000 calories)
  • 3 boxes of pasta (4,800 calories)
  • 3 jars pasta sauce (1,050 calories)
  •  5 cans whole kernel corn (1,050)
  • 3 cans pinto beans (1155 calories)
  • 3 cans great northern beans (1,050 calories)
  • 5 cans of tuna (500 calories)
  • 6 cans fruit – pears, peaches, mandarin oranges, and pineapple (836 calories)
  • 1 jar instant coffee

Total Cost: $23.99
Total Calories: 19,277
Total Calories to Date: 72,498

Analysis: This week I had a couple goals: add something sweet, and add something different than rice and canned veggies. The “something different” was a few boxes of pasta and accompanying jars of sauce. This would be fairly easy to prepare and though most of us are probably used to some sort of meat in our pasta, this would fill your belly. For the “something sweet” I added the fruit. It would be a nice addition to the oatmeal or just standalone as something to break up the monotony a little bit.

For you coffee drinkers (like me) I added a jar of instant coffee. I’m not going to lie: if I were going to do instant coffee, I’d do Taster’s Choice. I have drank a lot of it on camping trips and whatnot, and it’s not that bad. But it’s 3x the price of the Walmart stuff ($6.something versus $2.something). This isn’t a strict necessity, but it would be hard for me to give up a cup or two in the morning. For those of you with kids who are used to drinking sugary drinks: you might think about a jar of just-add-water Kool-Aid for them or something similar. Just a thought.

How long would it last? A calorie count of 72,498 would last a single individual 24 days, at 3,000 calories per day. Cutting that back just a bit to 2,500 calories gets us up to 29.7 days…or, for all intents and purposes, a month. For a family of five on an average of 2,250 calories per person, per day: 6.44 days. I am a tad disappointed in how long (or how little) this would last a family of five – I had hoped for seven full days. On the other hand, feeding and watering five people for six+ days on $80? That’s not too terrible.

Compare that to a prepacked 30-day supply of freeze-dried food. At 26,320 calories per bucket you’d need 2.75 of these to match the calories we have here. At $209/bucket that’s an adjusted cost of $575 and it still doesn’t provide you with water. Instead, we spent $80 for 72,000 calories and 33+ gallons of water. That’s a pretty easy comparison.


Preparedness is full of lingo and acronyms. It can be intimidating. It can seem as though you have to do everything all at once. I hope this takes a little bit of the mystery out of it. More importantly, I sincerely hope this motivates one or two people to get started.

Spending a mere $80 provides a month of food and water for me, two weeks for me and my girlfriend, and right at a week for a family of five. I am very impressed that it was possible to get so much food for so little money. To be able to hunker down and weather a week or a month of riots, quarantine, natural disasters – whatever – feels really, really good and doesn’t cost a fortune. If you haven’t started doing this, what are you waiting for?

What am I going to do with this food? Since we already have a pretty decent stockpile of food, this is going into a Rubbermaid container. We’ll keep an eye on the dates and have this on hand as a pre-stocked food bank for our neighbors, should they need it. I know many of you plan to deter/repel/shoot anyone who comes near your property…but that’s an inherently unsustainable model. In regards to preparedness I am in the business of building and maintaining relationships.

If you enjoyed this let me know. I had only planned to do this for four weeks. But now I’m thinking about how easy it would be to continue this series for sometime to come – not just with food but other preparedness needs, too. Let me know!

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