Revisiting Preparedness

I brought up preparedness for the first time last year, in Building a Better Bug-Out Bag. As I said there, though, my history with this mindset goes back much further than 2019:

“I used to live in the preparedness space. I found Doomsday Preppers late one night in college, and despite a sensational portrayal of some already sensational people, I got hooked. I spent the next two years reading prepper blogs, listening to their podcasts, stashing supplies, and building a bug-out bag. I even wrote a book about it all. Preparedness fell to the wayside when I left college, though, until nutnfancy’s three part series pulled me back in.”

nutnfancy pulled me back in — but just for a moment. I rebuilt my bug-out bag, but then cannibalized it over the holidays; it has sat empty at its desk-side post since. As the global pandemic continued to worsen, though, two things became clear. First, I had grown complacent. I once filled my small apartment’s closet with weeks’ worth of food, water, and tailored disaster kits; I now had a house but food for a week or two, no water, and a hodge-podge of gear in a spare bedroom. Second, I needed to fix this. This feeling had nagged at me for some time, but ever-more extreme containment measures underscored the critical importance of preparedness now more than ever. I had a responsibility to get back to preparedness; today I will talk about how I did that, in the hope that you will, too.

Define the Threat #

Start by defining the threat. This may seem obvious now, but I will work through this process for those preparing for other disasters, and for those who found this post-COVID-19.

In specific terms, define the threat you expect to face. “A global pandemic” or “An economic collapse”, both out of your control and far too broad, involve too many disparate scenarios to qualify. Focus on the effect to make your definition much more specific; for example, “A food shortage”. This has two benefits: for one, you can do something about this! Anyone with access to a grocery store, a few square feet of storage space, and a few extra dollars, can mitigate this. This definition also helps because it allows you to prepare for many different events: whether a pandemic closes the ports or a market crash costs you your job, preparing for a food shortage addresses the immediate concern of feeding your family.

In my case, I chose a food shortage as the greatest immediate threat to my survival. With stores running low and facing the possibility of mandated closures, and given COVID-19’s incubation period of up to two weeks, I had a better chance of dying from hunger before even showing symptoms of the virus.

Given the fragility of the global food distribution system, and the myriad reasons it could one day leave many countries unable to feed their peoples, I have argued for years that this is the single greatest immediate threat to almost everyone’s survival. Some may argue that losing one’s home poses a greater threat, but even if you stop paying rent, lack of food will become a huge problem long before the typical thirty day eviction period comes to a close.

Define the Goal #

Once you have defined the threat, set a goal to mitigate it. If, as a retiree, you chose market volatility as the greatest threat to your survival, consider a goal to set a year’s income aside, in cash, to ride out the worst of it. While this would not have mitigated all the effects of 2008’s Great Recession, it would have at least allowed retirees to avoid selling at the bottom. Will holding this much cash hurt your returns? Some. Will selling hundreds of shares just to pay your bills after a 30% market slump hurt your portfolio more? Absolutely.

I set a goal to build up a year’s worth of food storage. This seems like the sweet spot for disasters ranging from a serious illness to a job loss; given some estimates that we will have to deal with COVID-19 for up to eight months, that goal seems prescient now. Given that I came back to the game so late, I started with one month, and then upped it from there.

For those curious, while I consider one year the sweet spot, I consider three the gold standard. While the former will help get you through the worst of a short-term disaster — like this pandemic — the latter will get you through the entire event: by mid-2011, the United States had all but recovered from the Great Recession. I also view three years as the minimum amount of time required to go from a consumer to a producer lifestyle after a total societal collapse: at most seven months to get to the beginning of the growing season, five more to its end, and then twenty-four before you can live off the land. Given the difficulty of this task, time- and resource-permitting, up this figure if possible.

Along with the goal itself, set a timeline for its achievement. The planning process later will reconcile this timeline with key situational details, covered in the next section, to ensure you walk away from this article with an achievable plan.

Audit Your Situation #

Once you have defined the threat and set a goal to mitigate it, audit your situation. You know where you want to go and why; use this step to figure out where you are now, so you can plot a path to get there.

Suppose the hypothetical retiree from earlier had a $10,000 emergency fund in a savings account; to reach a year’s income in cash, he could just augment that account with his annual income minus $10,000, rather than pulling the entire sum out of the market.

In my case, I had enough food on-hand for up to two weeks; realizing this made the first meaningful step toward my goal, storing a month’s worth of food, a much more attainable matter of doubling up on a few items than starting from zero.

Since your finances will play the most important role in governing your actions, use this step as an opportunity to audit them, too. In particular, answer these two important questions:

While those late to the game tend to focus on the first question, do not expect to solve preparedness with a big check and a “set-and-forget” mentality. You now have no choice but to shell out a large sum to make up for your past inactivity; in the long run, though, this approach will fail you. The lazy amongst you who take it will find themselves floundering in the wake of the next disaster, cracking open forgotten storage containers to find spoiled food and damaged gear. Success here requires a long-term investment of not only your money, but your time as well. Do not neglect that second question.

Build Your Plan #

With start and end points plotted, a reason to go from one to the other, and a good handle on the resources at your disposal, plot your route.

I like to start by itemizing each task between me and my goal. This gives me a concrete way forward, and after careful consideration, lessens the likelihood that I missed a critical but non-obvious step. I then order this list by importance, and align resources to each item over time. The money you can put toward preparedness now should bridge the most severe gaps identified in your audit, mitigated by the most important tasks on your list; your monthly preparedness budget will bridge the less critical gaps, mitigated by later entries, between now and the end date you set earlier.

If you set a realistic goal and aligned enough resources to achieve it in the time allotted, everything should fall into place. If not, you may need to start over. If you want to build up a year’s worth of food storage in a week but did not set aside $3,000 to make it happen, for example, either reopen your wallet or broaden your time horizon.

Execute #

Do not overcomplicate this: once you have a plan, execute it.

The threat of a disruption to the global food supply chain has existed for years; COVID-19 just reinforced its deadly potential, and pushed me to act. This process got me from an exceptionally vulnerable state to a much more secure one in the weeks leading up to the virus’s explosion in the United States; the plan that resulted from it will guide my actions as the situation continues to deteriorate, as I increase my self-reliance. If you have not yet prepared yourself for the hardships to come, I hope you will, and I hope this guide helps.