Stockpiling Is Rarely the Answer
If the answer is stockpiling, you've probably got the question wrong. (See also: The Second-Best Way to Make your Household More Secure)
Now, I'm not talking about having a well-stocked pantry. Having the things you use every week on hand in quantities that ensure that you won't run out makes your household run a lot more smoothly.
I'm also not talking about stocking up when you can get a good price on things you're going to use anyway. That yields huge tax-free profits.
I'm talking about the people who view stockpiles as insurance against things like natural disaster, civil unrest, or social collapse. Once you're stockpiling more than you're going to use anyway (and especially if you're stockpiling stuff that you wouldn't ordinarily use), I think you're wasting time, money, and storage space — plus doing a disservice to your neighbors.
Stockpiles add resilience in the very short term. If there's a natural disaster — a flood or a blizzard or an earthquake or a hurricane — there may be a period during which you can't get to the store, or the store can't get resupplied. In that circumstance, a stock of the things you use every day is great. But it doesn't need to be a large stockpile. Even the smallest kitchen has room for all the stockpile you need to get through a brief period where the power is out or the roads are impassible.
For a short-term negative event, a modest stockpile makes good sense. Stockpiling is much less useful as a way to deal with a longer-termed negative event.
Long-term events often require relocating, which takes you away from your stockpile. It's bad enough to have to abandon your home to move to higher ground. Having to abandon hundreds or thousands of dollars worth of stockpiled goods would make it that much worse. But the sorts of disasters where problems go on longer than two or three weeks tend to be just the sorts of disasters where you end up needing to move elsewhere.
For a short-term negative event, it doesn't matter if your stockpile doesn't have everything you're going to want. Even if it's missing essentials — well, you can get along even without essentials, at least for a little while. But over the longer term, you really need every essential, and some necessities don't stockpile well. This includes things as diverse as fresh fruit and gasoline. Storing supplies that will last for days is easy. Storing supplies to last for months is much more problematic.
If you think a larger stockpile makes sense, give some careful thought to the sort of negative event you think you're protecting against. A one-year supply of food could help you through a severe recession where all the income-earners in your family lost their jobs. But other things you could do with that money, space, time, and effort would almost certainly help more. Here are some alternative suggestions:
- An emergency fund. Cash in the bank may be of little help if you're trapped by flood waters — but it will be of great help if rising water forces you to flee your house.
- An investment portfolio. In much the same way that having a well-stocked pantry makes your kitchen run more smoothly, having a little capital makes your whole financial life run more smoothly.
- Additional skills. Investing in yourself is at least as likely to pay off in an emergency or a disaster as an extra hundred pounds of wheat or lentils — with the bonus that it also pays off when there isn't an emergency.
- A network of friends and neighbors. In almost any kind of emergency, having people who owe you some favors is going to be as useful as a stockpile of stuff.
- Tools. Being able to do stuff yourself is always useful. (Tools that are yours to share are also a way to build that network.)
- A fruit or nut tree. Over time, something that grows food will beat any stockpile of food.
- Energy savings. Fix energy in tangible form. A well-insulated house will be more useful than any practical stockpile of fuel — likewise a fuel-efficient car, or a bicycle, or a bus pass.
Just like with a stockpile, all these things have diminishing returns. An emergency fund with three-months spending is vastly more useful than an emergency fund of $20. An emergency fund with six-months spending is even better — but it's not twice as much better. Having the skills to get different job is great. Having the skills to get eight different jobs is better yet, but does not make you eight times more secure.
Once you go beyond stockpiling the things you were going to use anyway, you're stockpiling things that you'd only use in an emergency — things that will simply go to waste if there is no emergency. And even if there is an emergency, it may well be a different kind of emergency than the one you prepared for.
Anytime you're tempted to stockpile items beyond those you'll use anyway, consider that the time, money, space, and effort can probably be used more effectively elsewhere.
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