Is Hurricane Sandy blowing your budget?

All sold out photo courtesy flickr user stevendepolo

(MoneyWatch) I hit the grocery store here in suburban Philadelphia Saturday morning to find a curious sight: The parking lot was completely full. People who looked like they'd never made a fire in their lives were grabbing firewood from the outside pile. The man in front of me in line had filled his cart with bottled water. I quizzed the clerk; he said it had been like this since the store opened. Pop-Tarts had been flying off the shelves.

Yes, with "Frankenstorm" approaching (aka Hurricane Sandy), people are going into full-on panic mode. And who knows, I may not have power by the time this post goes up. But I do know that there are ways to prepare for storms and other emergencies without spending a fortune on Poland Spring.

First, tap water is safe until it isn't. That means that if you know a storm is approaching, you can haul out any of the numerous containers the average household owns, and fill those with far more free water than you're going to buy in 12 oz form at the supermarket. We rinsed out a few milk jugs and plastic bottles otherwise destined for the recycling bin, and filled our serving pitchers, and now have enough drinking water for five people for a week.

That weekly time frame -- 168 hours -- is also useful because it represents how long you need to be prepared to go off the grid, food-wise. If the power outage actually lasted a month, you'd probably be evacuated to somewhere else. That means that if you like Pop-Tarts, great. But there are a lot of normal foods that will last for a week too.

Bread, bagels (the major packaged brands, not the fresh ones), apples and oranges, cereal (with powdered milk if you've got it), nuts, crackers, peanut butter and, of course, canned goods like tuna fish. If you can get a fire going, you can boil some of your saved tap water over it and cook things... just as people did up until the advent of the microwave. Back in the pioneer days, people went whole winters without electricity or visits to the store. And they didn't have Pop-Tarts!

As for items like candles and batteries, the worst time to be buying them is in small quantities at the grocery store right before a major storm (indeed, stores such as Home Depot have been reporting shortages of storm-related items this week).

A package of 144 votive candles -- which last 10 hours apiece -- can be shipped to you for $25 if you think ahead. Batteries, likewise, are a better bet at Costco when you don't urgently need them. And since not every disaster gives several days of warning, best to have those economical batteries and water containers on-hand. You'll save money -- and mental angst.

Did you stock up on bottled water this weekend?

Image courtesy of Flickr user stevendepolo

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