Stockpiling Is Rarely the Answer

Photo: Danny Choo

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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Linsey Knerl's picture

Thanks for starting the conversation, Philip! I feel like the article presents the situation as an "either/or" question. I prefer to think of "stockpiling", "Prepping", etc. as more of a natural compliment to a frugal, sustainable, and financially savvy lifestyle.

Let me give you an example: Is it smart to spend 10% or more of your paycheck on rolls and rolls of toilet paper to stuff into your already cluttered condo, just so that, when the zombies come, you'll have the comfort of 2-ply for the next 5 years? No.

Is it wise and admirable to plant an additional tomato plant each year, be extra careful with the harvest, and put away 20 extra jars of sauce on the shelf for when/if tomato prices become out of reach, tomatoes because genetically undesirable, or you just want a way to give your 5 kids a healthy alternative to sugary commercial brands? Yes.

Stockpiling has earned such a bad name thanks to the coupon-obsessed and doomsday determined. It is rarely approached in the same manner by those with a balanced approach to managing the home and responding to unpredictable outside factors.

Y2K is the perfect example of doing it the "wrong" way. So many people we knew stored up gallons upon gallons of water, grain, beans, etc, and when nothing happened? Most of them gave or threw it away because it was all commodity that they wouldn't have consumed unless the world was coming to an end. It was a waste.

If you take the same situation, however, and continue doing what you're doing, putting away bits here and there so that you store up a year's worth of non-perishable, delightful, and nutritious canned goods, water, etc. you've prepared yourself for the unthinkable AND you've made good use of the resources you've always had access to. If nothing bad happens -- GREAT! You can continue to use the "first in, first out" method of enjoying the fruits of your labor. And if something bad DOES happen? You don't have to wait for the small rural grocery store that's only equipped with 2 days of food for the entire population of the community to come back online -- which could, in fact, take many, many months.

Some depression-era common sense combined with modern tactics (food storage, better gardening techniques, etc.) can keep "stockpiling" a balanced approach to preparing for the unknown AND continuing to enjoy life independent of it. I'm sure you'll find many like me who agree.

Thanks again for the discussion, Philip!

Guest's picture
Erica M

I can agree, to a point. I think that stockpiling things you wouldn't use anyway is kind of silly.

For example: My family prepped for Y2K. My parents were very careful to only store things they would use even if nothing happened, and to store the items in a way that they wouldn't go bad. Even the storage containers were meant to be re-useable so nothing went to waste. And guess what? It hasn't. All those buckets of wheat, corn, beans, etc have kept my family from having to purchase those things and the buckets have made great water pails for their farm animals. Nothing wasted.

Also remember to rotate you goods. My mom always keeps 3 months worth of canned goods in her cellar. But, she uses them and replenishes the stock when she finds sales, always putting the newer cans in the back. This is stuff they use on a daily basis and would save their lives should they be stuck at home during a prolonged ice or snow storm.

If you live in the city and would have to move all your long-term storage with you? That's rough. That's why you need an escape plan in place, and an off-site storage for your stockpile. Perhaps you have a friend or family member who lives in the country and feels the same way about being prepared as you do. Plan to make that the place you go, and store your things there.

Philip Brewer's picture

Thanks for the good comments!

There are a lot of clever, thoughtful stockpilers out there, putting aside stuff they actually use, getting it when it's cheap, rotating their stock, etc. But when they describe how much effort they end up going to, I can't help but think they'd be better off putting putting some of that money and effort into alternative strategies, like taking a class or planting a berry bush.

Guest's picture
Charles McCaffrey

Another useful and thoughtful article by a wise man. I would add a few thoughts.

I stockpile, if that's the right word, enough water to support myself for a week or more. We can go for a long time without food, but we need water every day. In an emergency, we can go about 5 days without water, but that's not a good idea.

Stockpiling is different for different people in different places. I stockpiled more food, water, and supplies when I lived in the Caribbean than I do now. A major disaster--most likely a hurricane or other fierce storm--might cut off water and electricity for several days or more, and it might prevent ships from bringing supplies to the island.

Guest's picture

Very good article - flexible options like an emergency fund or additional skills don't keep you tied up to your home. In the end, you can't prepare for every situation - just keep on breathing, that's what it matters in life - otherwise you'd get to generalized anxiety disorder.

Guest's picture

Although I understand the sentiment behind this article, I'd venture to guess that the writer knows very little about the actual "prepping" lifestyle.

You'd be hard pressed to find a "prepper" who doesn't have a fruit tree (or dozen or more), who hasn't enhanced their skills by taking first-aid classes or learning about food preservation, who doesn't have an emergency reserve of cash, who hasn't looked for ways to live "off-grid," who doesn't have a large stash of good-quality tools, and who doesn't invest their money in some way (particularly things like silver and gold). Indeed, most also build a network of likeminded folks so they have a community when TSHTF (as it's known).

Now, I'm referring to "survivalists" or "preppers," rather than people who simply coupon the heck out of their supermarket so they can store 300 boxes of cold cereal. But since the writer mentioned civil unrest and the like, I assume he was actually discussing those who view a stockpile as an insurance policy against disasters.

I suggest a little more in-depth research about the survivalist community in the future. You'll find, as I mentioned, that most actually do have all those bases (investments, skills, network, etc.) covered. Like all smart investors, preppers tend to know it's unwise to keep all your eggs in one basket.

Guest's picture

One other comment:

I am unsure where you're getting the idea that stockpiling involves a huge time and energy commitment. It's as simple as keeping a "well-stocked pantry," which I noticed you advocate.

Buy what you use. Buy in quantity when on sale. Use it with the FIFO (First In, First Out) principle.

I would browse/shop grocery sales regardless of whether I stockpiled. Aside from costing me an extra 2 minutes at the supermarket to ring up 20 cans of sale veggies instead of 5 cans, it takes no additional time. Simple shelves allow FIFO without any burden of extra energy expenditure.

Philip Brewer's picture

I guess I see a division.

Stocking your pantry comes quite early. Buying enough staples that your kitchen can function smoothly—so that you can spot a bargain at the store and pick it up, knowing that you'll have all the accouterments to turn it into a meal—I'd prioritize stocking your pantry ahead of almost everything else (emergency fund, 401(k), adding insulation to your house . . .).

Once you've got all the basics covered, you've probably got plenty to last out a minor emergency like a blizzard. If you make a point of including a few things that can be served as meals even if the power is out, you're probably all set for medium emergencies, like a hurricane or a flood.

Once you're there, I think there are a hundred things that should be a higher priority than more of the same—all the stuff I listed above.

It is, of course, an impossible balancing act, given that you don't know the future. Suppose you have your pantry stocked, six months expenses in your emergency fund, your 401(k) is on track for funding your retirement, your weatherstripping is all in place, you've boosted the insulation in your attic to some ridiculous R value, you've got a great garden, you own all the tools you need (and you've taken classes on using them) . . . and now you've got another $1000 and another 2 hours a week to spend on something else. Where does that time and money go?

Maybe stockpiling another two month's groceries is a very reasonable option. But maybe you'd be better off digging a pool for raising tilapia or buying a loom and learning to weave or taking a class on bricklaying (or brick-making).

I guess what I'm saying is that a small stockpile comes very early in setting up your household, while a large stockpile comes very late.

Thanks for getting me to think more about it!

Guest's picture
Josh Thompson

I think having a year's supply of food is the best option you have. Making sure you have foods that don't spoil, and essentials, isn't only good if things go sour in the economy, it's also just good sense for if you lose your job or have hard times. Just an afterthought.