Reading through survival and prepping guides, you might notice something: most of the ideas cost money—and sometimes quite a lot of money. Luckily, you can start prepping today even if your budget is tight, while at the same time designing a long-term strategy to save toward your survival goals.
Here are a few free or low-cost prepping ideas that you can take advantage of right away:
- Keep an Eye Out for Free and Cheap Supplies
- Get Great Deals on Food and Water
- Join or Start a Prepper Group
- Start Your Bug Out Bag, Get Home Bag, and Everyday Carry Kit
- Learn Survival Skills
- Find a Bug Out Location for Little or No Money
- Practice Living Off the Land
- Repair, Reuse, and Upcycle
Having a plan is probably the most important thing you can do to make your prepping as cost-effective as possible. Without a plan, you can end up wasting money by buying things you already have, prioritizing the wrong things, and missing out on the lowest prices.
If you haven’t done this already, it’s essential you get a list together of everything you anticipate needing. Brainstorm everything first, and then you can move to prioritize things. Remember, planning costs you nothing, and you’ll probably feel a lot better just knowing you’ve got the groundwork in place.
The number of items on your list might be overwhelming. Try marking out the highest-priority items (probably food, water, tools) first. Those are the things you couldn’t live without for very long. This list shouldn’t include major purchases that you won’t be able to buy soon; put those on a separate list to address later.
For example, big-ticket purchases like an RV, cabin, or land should be considered long-term goals. You’ll want to start saving for them as soon as your high priority items are in hand. Maybe you want to spend half of your budget on your medium-priority list and put the other half in savings for your big purchase.
Once you have finished your high priority list, you should plan to put any extra money or resources you have toward those items. Try to find them for free or at a discount if you can. Make your way through the list until you have everything you’ve designated as a necessity. The next step will be to reassess your medium and low priority items to decide on your next priorities.
At the same time you’re planning out your supply lists, write down an approximate budget for each item you will need. Once you’re finished, you can add up your potential costs for your complete plan. This might be the first time you’ve seen this number, so it might be a shock. Remember that you can spread the cost over the years if needed, so just take it one step at a time.
Once you’ve looked at the budget you made for your survival supplies, it might be discouraging if you seem far away from your goals. For some people, foregoing a few luxuries might provide enough savings to put towards your prepping, but others might need more than that.
There’s plenty of advice out there on budgeting and living frugally, and most of it will apply regardless of whether you’re saving for your bug out location or just a tropical vacation. The most important thing is to start as soon as possible and have a logical plan.
Now that you have a list of prepping items in place with a budget, it’s time to work towards getting as many supplies as you can for the least amount of money so you can stay within your goals. The following are eight prepping ideas that will cost little to no money:
1. Keep an Eye Out for Free and Cheap Supplies
You don’t have to go down the road of extreme couponing or looking through peoples’ garbage to find some great deals once you start looking for them. Start with location-based groups like NextDoor, Craigslist, and Facebook Buy-Sell-Trade groups, as they always have items that people want to give away or sell cheaply in your area.
You should also check the Buy Nothing Project website and see if there’s a local group near you. The advantage of Buy Nothing is that you can ask for the things you’re looking for. You’d be surprised how many things people are happy to get rid of if you just ask.
Likewise, watch for garage or yard sales near you. You can try to negotiate lower prices if you find several things that interest you. If you can’t get the price you’re looking for, try coming back around later, when the sale is winding down. If the items you want haven’t sold, the owner may be willing to make a deal.
Location-based groups and local garage sales have another, less obvious advantage: you’ll have a chance to connect with your neighbors. Maybe you’ll end up as friends or just friendly acquaintances, but either way, it’s always good to have a few extra allies should you need them.
2. Get Great Deals on Food and Water
Since you’re unlikely to find any neighbors giving away canned food or instant coffee for free, you’ll need to invest a little money in your food and drink supplies. It’s better to save money in other areas and prioritize this one since you won’t get very far if you don’t have enough to eat and drink.
It’s best to create both short-term and long-term sustenance plans, and then slowly start to build up your supply. Stick with essential supplies first. Watch for sales and coupons on canned or dehydrated food, and stock up when you can get the lowest prices.
If you have the time and inclination to do some searching, you can often find free samples of non-perishable foods like energy bars, tea bags, and snacks available just by requesting them from the manufacturer. The advantage of samples for prepping is that they’re usually small and individually packaged, so they’re easy to slip in a backpack.
A quick search online will give you lots of websites listing how to get free food and drink samples. People also have success in writing directly to their favorite companies to request something they particularly want to try. In any case, you might need to pay a nominal amount for shipping, but the company often provides you some coupons as well.
Most stores have discontinued the practice of doubling up on coupons, but there are still a few places that will do it. Do your research and see if you can find cheaper options when shopping for food and supplies, but make sure you’re not wasting a lot of gas driving around for minor savings. Remember that your time is valuable too.
Saving on Water
When it comes to water, you can invest in bottled water when it’s on sale for an initial supply, but that won’t be a viable medium- or long-term solution. Since the usual recommendation is one gallon of water per person per day, you’re likely to run through bottled water supplies quickly in a catastrophe.
Filtration straws and pitchers are more portable than bottled water and can be found for less than $20, but their capacity is limited. Meanwhile, larger water storage tanks, rain barrels, and similar solutions are a sizable financial investment but will last you longer when you need it.
Using What You Have
You can start a basic emergency food supply cache today for no money, using what you already have in your pantry. Designate shelf-stable foods for your cache, making a note of their expiration dates so you can be sure to cycle them out before they spoil. Get creative with water storage using existing containers while you save up for more specialized options.
3. Join or Start a Prepper Group
It doesn’t cost anything to start networking with other preppers locally and can potentially benefit you a great deal if things go south. There might already be a group in your area, which you could find by searching online for your town name and “prepper group.”
The website Prepper Groups, as the name implies, is devoted to connecting people based on location and interest in their forums. The site also features some information articles about best practices for joining or forming a group. As of when this article was written the site isn’t very active, but you might still get responses there. More general sites like Meetup also have prepper and survivalist groups listed in several cities.
If you’re not able to find an existing group that suits you, it should be easy to start your own. Unless you already have a group of acquaintances with similar interests in these topics, a post on Craigslist or Meetup will probably catch at least a couple of peoples’ attention. From there, they may also be able to introduce you to others. Some hardware or outdoor stores still have active bulletin boards where you might also be able to connect with others.
Some groups are formed with the intention of bugging out as a coalition or even creating a self-sufficient community where they live together while preparing for an SHTF scenario. Other groups will just want to share ideas and resources. Be sure you know what you want from the group before you join or create one.
Once you make connections with like-minded people, you can leverage your group to save more money. You might be able to buy in bulk and split the costs of certain supplies, go in on land or other investments together, or trade for supplies. And of course, you can also benefit from the exchange of ideas and general camaraderie of your group.
4. Start Your Bug Out Bag, Get Home Bag, and Everyday Carry Kit
You’ll want to have a few types of portable supply packs available to account for a variety of scenarios. It’s simple to start these using only the things you have around the house and build on them as you acquire items from your list.
- Bug out bag
- Get home bag
- Everyday carry (EDC)
Bug Out Bag
Your bug out bag should contain the items you’d need for a speedy escape and should be light enough for you to carry without getting fatigued. It’s designed to have enough supplies for up to 72 hours. A backpack is usually recommended as the best choice. If you don’t already have a pack, look at thrift stores as they typically have a few inexpensive options. Most people choose to store their bug out bag at home.
Get Home Bag
A get home bag, on the other hand, will usually be stored in your car or maybe at your workplace. As the name implies, it’s meant to have just enough supplies to get you safely back home, where you presumably have more resources waiting for you. This bag should be able to get you through about 24 hours.
Everyday Carry Kit
Finally, your everyday carry kit will contain the things that you have with you every time you leave the house. Most people already have a list of things they take—wallet, keys, phone—so the EDC just expands on that idea. It’s a good idea to know what you’re going to want in your everyday carry before you decide what kind of bag you want to carry it in. Remember, you want to keep this as light and minimal as possible.
For all three of these emergency bags, start with your ideal list of what you want to include. If you have multiple people in your household, each of them will need a bug out bag at a minimum. Ideally, they’ll also get involved in the project, but if not, make sure your supply list accounts for everyone.
Gather the supplies you already have at home, and ask around to see if friends or family can give you any of the things you’re missing. It doesn’t matter how little you have for each of your portable supply packs at the beginning; anything is better than nothing, and you’ll be glad to have it if you end up needing it.
5. Learn Survival Skills
There’s no need to spend money on a survival camp or course to get the skills you need to survive a catastrophe. There are plenty of ways to learn everything you need to without spending a dime. It just takes determination, self-discipline, and the right resources.
Here are a few examples of survival skills that you can learn for free at home:
- Knot tying
- Canning or dehydrating food
- Homebuilding or repair
- Soap making
- Candle making
- Using a compass
- First aid
- Edible plant identification
- Self-defense and physical training
You can probably think of many more. Some of the skills might need materials to practice on, but you can get the basics down just by watching videos or reading.
If you don’t have one already, get a library card. Your library is likely to already have books on survival skills, camping, edible plants, and other essentials. If you’re looking for more obscure resources, you can use interlibrary loan to request materials from other libraries. Librarians can also help you source magazine or digital articles on specific topics. Many library networks also provide patrons with access to online courses that you can access for free.
You can also learn survival skills from free resources online. YouTube has tons of videos that can teach you just about everything, and there’s generally a blog or two about even the most niche subjects. As with anything you find on the internet, be sure to check your sources for accuracy and verify them for yourself.
Some communities offer free or low-cost classes through community colleges or continuing education programs. Self-defense and first aid are often available in these kinds of programs, as well as life skills like cooking or sewing that are useful in everyday life as well as in survival situations.
Finally, you can learn from people you know. If you have a friend, neighbor, or relative with hobbies or skills in a particular area that you want to master, ask for a lesson! Most people love being considered an expert and will be happy to spend a little time with an enthusiastic student. You can teach them something you know in exchange.
Whether you choose an online course, watching videos, or learning from those in your community, learning survival skills is one of the best options to get a lot of value without spending much money. There’s no limit to the variety of things you can learn if you’re willing to put in the effort to find the right resources.
6. Find an Inexpensive Bug Out Location
You may be considering a bug out location (BOL) as part of your survival strategy. Depending on where you’re looking, even undeveloped rural land can be a serious investment, so you might not be able to buy a place right away. Luckily, there are a few options to plan your bug out location for free or on a limited budget. This article lays out some of the critical and the nice-to-have considerations when deciding on the right bug out location.
First off, do you have friends or relatives with unused land that they’d let you use? If you can find someone who has some underutilized acreage that meets your criteria, this is your best bet. Maybe you can make some improvements to the land that will increase its value to them, or perhaps they’ll let you use it out of the goodness of their heart. Just be sure that you lay out an agreement with them. You don’t want to suddenly find an extra family in your Bug Out Location in an emergency scenario.
If you’re not lucky enough to have a family farm you can use, investigate public land. Maybe there’s a national forest that’s a short walk or drive away. Once you have an idea of your options, take a camping trip to check it out first-hand; that valley that looked ideal on the map might have unexpected hazards, or maybe the water source has dried up. You’ll also be able to understand access options, security, and natural resources while you’re there.
Unlike with private land, you’ll have limited options on your shelter and storage options. Depending on how secluded a location you choose, it’s possible to keep a cache of necessities, but you shouldn’t put anything there you can’t afford to lose. There’s no guarantee that your supplies won’t be found by someone else and removed.
Also keep in mind that others in your area may have the same idea. Prepper sites are full of advice about finding the perfect bug out location on public land, so the spot that seems secluded now might be part of other people’s plans as well. In the case of public land, it’ll go to whoever gets their first and can defend the space.
If you can afford to spend a bit on your bug out location, you have a few more options. You could lease a small piece of land from a rural landowner. It’s not uncommon for people with a lot of land to allow hunting or camping on their underutilized areas, and if you’re lucky, the landowners may be preppers themselves. Just make sure you’re honest about your intentions for the land to avoid issues or misunderstandings down the road.
Split the Costs
Another option would be to join with a group of like-minded people to purchase a piece of land together. Along with the other benefits of having a broader coalition, this option can put you on track to have a designated private bug out location much sooner than if you save up to purchase land on your own.
If you’re set on having your own private land, keep an eye on websites like Rural Vacant Land or LandWatch for possible matches. You can find some properties offering owner financing, and many of them are available for a very reasonable monthly payment. Make sure you see the land in person before purchasing so you can evaluate its suitability for your needs.
While the free or cheap options might not allow you to design your ideal Bug Out Location, you can always use any of them as a temporary plan while you save up for something more permanent. If the time comes that you need to use it, you won’t regret having invested a little effort into finding a place beforehand.
7. Practice Living Off the Land
We’ve already mentioned developing your survival skills with free tutorials, so why not start practicing them right away? Maybe you’ve learned about foraging or setting traps recently, or you can start a fire without matches. You and your family probably don’t want to do those things for the first time in a real-life disaster scenario. Practicing the outdoor skills you’ve learned is the best way to improve them quickly.
Aside from improving your skills and discovering unexpected gaps in your knowledge, you’ll also be saving money when you go out to practice living off the land since you’re not spending money to eat food you’ve purchased or using any utilities in your home. If you have already decided on your Bug Out Location, try to go there as often as you can for practice. The more you know the area, the better it will serve you.
8. Repair, Reuse, and Upcycle
If your prepping budget is zero, or just very minimal, look for ways to reuse and recycle things that you might have otherwise thrown away. You can easily find tutorials on how to make a mini camp stove from tin cans or DIY fire starters from dryer lint. If you have a tent or tarp that gets torn, find ways to repair it instead of replacing it.
The website Instructables is an excellent place to go for step-by-step details on projects of all types. Look through the projects on their camping page for ideas that would suit many survival situations, including recipes using wild edibles. You can search for terms like “prepper” or “survival” to find lists curated by other users on those topics.
If you get good at making something and you’ve stocked as many as you need, that means you have something to barter. If you have a prepper community, there’s a natural market for these goods, so you can check things off your supply list without spending anything.
Getting something for nothing is the best deal you’re going to find, so reusing and repairing the things you already have are easy wins when it comes to budget prepping.
There’s a way to do prepping right, no matter what your budget. As with all large projects, you’ll make the most efficient progress if you start with defining your goals and then breaking down the steps into manageable pieces. It’s essential that you don’t get discouraged just because you’re not as ready as you want to be right now.
Prepping isn’t a race; it’s a way of life. You’ll always be working toward improving your supplies, keeping track of your food stores, and learning skills that can help you in the future. So, go slowly, make plans, and revisit your progress periodically. You may be surprised how much you can get done, even with a minimal budget.