A Dollar Store Prepping Expedition, by T. Lee

Editor’s Note: Coincidentally, I received two very similar articles about dollar store shopping from writers in two states in the same week. But because they have different perspectives, I’ve decided to post both of them. The other one will be posted tomorrow.

I’m here visiting our oldest son in New York City, always an eye opening experience. After church, several of his friends have asked how to get started on building an everyday carry (EDC) bag after seeing our day bags. However, after seeing their respective apartments, we decided to start more basic (understanding we are teaching a few concepts that may be equally applicable to items within a starter level EDC bag or shelter-in-place plan). Think “just moved-into-their-first-apartment-out-of-college-basic” in terms of the problem we are trying to solve. They can build their full kit EDC bag after they prepare for the basics of shelter-in-place in the big city so to speak. To have some fun, we decided to host a grand tour of the dollar store to simply walk around with my oldest son and a few of his friends to point out items that would cost $1.00 at the Dollar Tree.

I was hoping to spark an interest in prepping with these city folks (ages 23-28) and get them thinking about how to prepare while understanding that you don’t have to spend a tremendous amount of money to make progress.   Not able to have a full game plan but the first few steps on that metaphorical long journey. On the actual physical walk over, my husband shared a 3×3 grid of probability and impact – probability marked as Low, Medium and High and then impact to you from the event happening as Low, Medium, High. We had one free afternoon – a few twenties in our wallet – and a desire to get organized for a power outage as a proxy for one of the “high probability/medium impact” events for our end users. No need to price check items at the Dollar Tree, everything is a dollar (just some humor).

These young folks just graduated from college and had literally just moved into the Big City. My husband commented that maybe instead of eight pairs of basketball sneakers, they could have bought a few cases of bottled water and I tried to sssshhhh him a bit.   We later dropped off four cases of water at their apartment and told them to stash those in the closet and put one case in their car trunk (car being kept at a local garage at some astronomical monthly fee). My son had already anticipated the “always keep your car with a full tank of gas” and we all shared a smile on that front.   We checked out their gas grill on their balcony along with propane tank and then took a good look in their freezer to gauge what type of food they cooked. Meat, check.  No soy milk, double check.

I reminded my son to keep his mini Sawyer water filter handy from camping and we took a look at their backpacking gear to ensure things were stowed in one spot.  I gently reminded him that the camping gear needs to get shoveled into the car if he needed to leave and he smiled wryly that he remembers me saying that a few times before.   We checked to make sure he had multiple choices for water storage (bottles, canteen, soft plastic and metal version that can be heated) and his Sawyer mini. They had a few leftover Mountain House breakfast packages from camping. I shared that the Mountain House meals (for example, breakfast skillet or egg varieties) work great in a tortilla wrap – and that the tortilla wraps hold up longer versus a loaf of bread in terms of shelf life). A bottle of hot sauce, tortilla wraps and Mountain House breakfast skillet inside and life is good, power outage or not.  We order our Mountain House foods from Ready Made Resources online. That works fine, and they have good prices.

Starting With Healthcare

Anyhow, our Dollar Store journey starts in the “healthcare section”. As we walk up the aisle we toss a small bottle of Excedrin in our basket (basically a generic version which is Tylenol with NSAID and some caffeine). Added a small box of immodium (as capsules) for stomach issues and a bottle of pepto bismol. A box of cold/flu medicine, check. We avoid “soft gel” caps since those can soften over time with even a little moisture, just pick the hard pill variety when possible understanding that certain brands made in China should be avoided. A box of band aids, a 3-pack of small Neosporin squeeze tubes (brand name), pack of 3 small hand sanitizers and a plain bottle of Tylenol rounded our ultra basic health kit.

While walking over to the “Tool and Auto Section” (understanding that term “tool” is used rather loosely at the dollar Store) whilst passing the candy session we tossed in 2-3 bags of our favorite hard candy (coffee nips, lemonheads sours and Jolly Ranchers). When our post college “tour guests” asked the purpose of the hard candy, my husband said they were to suck on while you waited for a deer to pass by your cross hairs or for a long drive home after hunting – but they could use them as poker chips if the outage lasts for more than one night (more weak humor). On a more serious note, it’s fun to have a few hard candies while you walk a long haul.

Tools & Auto

In the tools and auto aisle, amidst fifteen colors of Chinese made cell phone charger plugs and scent hangers (that ranged in shapes from Christmas trees to images of things we never knew existed) which won’t be needed since the power out is our “test concept”, we added a two pack of electrical tape, a small hank of paracord (for a clothesline if needed since their washer-dryer won’t work) which was 20’ in length, a package of old fashioned clothes pins and a patch of Diamond brand wooden matches. I added some travel size foil packets of Woolite for washing clothes in the sink without extra suds having learned that trick camping. Added a pair of faux leather gloves understanding they would likely last not particularly long but would help avoid cuts or scrapes around trash removal or sanitary items which might crop up during longer power outages. Added a 16 oz bottle of Chlorox brand bleach, a two pack of oven mitts which the initial apartment survey did not have (not sure how they cooked in college), a few foil loaf pans (to cook things from the freezer and not need to wash up), a package of 10 tan washcloths (and an extra for my own bug out bag), a cutting board and paring knife for food prep from the freezer.

We added a headlamp from the “Tool Section” that sort of merged with a faux camping section.   Here we tossed in a few BBQ skewers (for grilling) and another aluminum oven baking dish. I suggest you take a look at the sizes and select the aluminum trays that give you the most # of trays since you won’t be using this again. It’s just to procure the ability to grill a few meals without undue clean up – or a tray to defrost something from the freezer out on the counter (since the fridge won’t be working).


The Dollar Tree sells small amounts of Loctite and Superglue in easy to use and tiny sized sample amounts along with epoxy – we took a few of those since they are brand name repairs for general purpose and not necessarily for our immediate need. We prefer Cabelas for our shopping along with Walmart in general terms; however, the Dollar store (various varieties but basically, the one where the prices are actually a dollar) is interesting for the following reasons. 1. Name brands are often featured but the sizes of the products are smaller sample sizes which can be a good thing for a stockpile of products that might only get used in a pinch.   2. Non-name brand names (such as a two pack of salt/pepper for a picnic table) cost $1.00 which is one third or less than their cost at other stores.

Moving over the “Household” aisle.   This was our bonanza right here.   Stocked up on emergency candles (per box of 6, $1.00) and then 2 packs of Bic Lighters (we prefer lighter colors with a white shell or yellow shell rather than black so you can see how much lighter fluid is left). Another package of 12 Diamond brand matches. A flashlight was added. Found a $1.00 headlamp which probably won’t last but would let my son and his wife brush their teeth and not bump around in the dark. A $1.00 bottle of vegetable oil for cooking was added to our cart. Two boxes of 13 gallon kitchen bags (for laundry or sanitary disposal) and one box of generic brand ziplock bags were added. Later, we tested the ziplock bags and called these “zipleak” (those was no go for next time, a good lesson to learn that the brand name in this case was really required).

Foods and Beverages

In the “Food/Beverage” aisle – we added two liter bottles of Powerade (like a Gatorade), a picnic pack of salt/pepper, a few cans of soup, two large jars of brand name peanut butter, a smaller jar of jelly, and two choices of hard crackers. Wheat Thins last a long time and don’t taste as stale after one year in the box, just saying from experience. Later at the regular grocery store, we bought a box of Frosted shredded wheat which works as a cold snack or cereal in the morning. A plastic canister of Folgers coffee and a plastic drip lid with 5 paper filters that sits on a coffee mug (to make solo cups of drip coffee and noted since they have an electric stove which won’t work without power, they can use the grill and a pot of water instead). We added a few boxes of Pop Tarts and several tins of canned fruits and one can of tuna fish. The general approach is going to eat mostly cold foods and save the grill for items that are present in the fridge and freezer – this is not an extended wilderness plan.

In Summary

Here’s our summary. We have now have water and lighting via candles (burned on top of a foil tin in case the wick burns down for safety) + flashlights + headlight to give the kids a few choices; the ability to hand wash a few clothes and string a clothes line up to dry clothes in a pinch; drinks and food for 3-4 days covering breakfast and a main meal with a few snacks (this is stretched by using up the freezer/fridge items by cooking on the grill); the ability to deal with minor cuts/scratches or a mild flu – and options for staying hydrated and with a degree of personal hygiene.   That’s it.

At the check out counter, we found my favorite – that little plastic tube of eyeglass repair with two tiny screwdrivers (one flat head and one Philips head), extra screws, a nose bridge cushion and an alcohol wipe).   I keep that in my EDC pack so I bought one each as a starter set for their eventual kits. That’s it, that’s our big day in the City. We had fun, some laughs and for less than $40.

We got back to their “city apartment” and sat down with an old fashioned paper map. We pointed that walking roughly 28 miles they could get to family and friends well outside the city and which routes might actually work. My son had participated in a few walk-a-thons for fund raising (besides camping and hiking with us on trips and Boy Scouts) and so we felt that if the circumstances dictated, weather permitting, this might work if the New York city trains weren’t running.

Bottom line, planning isn’t perfect and I’m sure most of our readers will chuckle at the number of scenarios where this basic scenario will be overtaken (or quite frankly overrun) by events. Yes, we know that. However, we judge the quality of our advocacy by the quality the follow up questions and since we did get a few, the time and effort was well worth it. We did a small follow up to share which friends would be likely good milestone locations if the kids could not get entirely out of the city. We had a nice conversation around how storage is limited in their apartment and noted that their car trunk might be a good spot for certain items that don’t wilt in the heat, perhaps a sleeping bag and some of their camping gear would be better kept in the car to save time and also in case their car gets stuck on the turnpike in an ice storm, for example). Anyhow, we hope we stimulated further dialogue and got plenty of hugs as we headed out. It was fun for a few hours, “no pressure”, light conversation.


  1. Oh, my gosh. I love what you did with your son and daughter-in-law! You guys are awesome. Very productive, and yet not overbearing. More seeds were planted, and God will water them. I’m so happy for you that the kids were willing to go, learn and have a fun time as well. Oh, and I loved your, “I tried to sssshhhh him a bit.” hahaha. Your example will not be forgotten by me, and I pray the Lord will give me a similar opportunity… All I can say is, well done.

  2. An excellent example that for under $50 young professionals in a metro city can be ready for an emergency. Puts to rest the “I can’t prep because…” excuse. Good for you parents!!!

  3. Back in 1991 when I left home for a college approximately 250 miles away, I knew I had to build a BO kit that would allow a single young 20ish man an opportunity to walk home. Virtually no budget, just whatever I could scrounge from what I already had or save. What i came up with was an Pilots SEEK Kit, pouches which had straps securing the kit to the person. Mail order surplus, I think from an ad in a magazine.
    There were no contents in the kit – I had to insert them.

  4. A good story and fun too — even in the face of such a serious subject!

    $1 shopping works — at least for some things! We pick up refill bottles of hand sanitizer (much smaller now, but it used to be that we could even get the large bottles for $1), shampoo and conditioner, soap, bleach, toothbrushes, toothpaste, some OTC medical supplies, pads of paper, pens, and more. In fact, we were just there and spotted garden seed packets at 25 cents each or 4 for $1 (squash, radishes, corn, eggplants, beans, etc). The dates were good, and although we have a good seed stash, it seemed prudent to pick up a few extras.

    We are also stocking up on masks and gloves, although these are increasingly difficult to find. Gloves are being restocked slowly, and we found no face masks of any kind at the local pharmacy.

  5. This article has nice light humor coupled with a few key concepts which are: start small, think of a few scenarios you are solving for, and have fun. Really enjoyed the article.

    Thank you

  6. I hope that your son listens and learns. The old adage: (You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink) is true but at least he now knows where the water is.

  7. This is GREAT article. So good that I, an experienced prepper who does not even live in a city, archived it for future reference. Thank you.

  8. After 911. The #1 thing is fire and smoke escape tools. Why, most people in NYC live and work above 1st floor. Second thing is ability to get OUT of the city if extreme event takes place. Your basic preps, like food, water & filtration you covered. Next is maps, bikes/kayaks and gray man clothing to get out. Then you need place to go….PA or up state NY. Also, NYC not gun friendly place, so have to plan accordingly (not easy thing to do without breaking the law). Remember all the bad guys are armed. All IMHO

    1. If you arm yourself, make sure to train regularly. Failure to use your weapon properly will likely lead to, as Jim says, Remember all the bad guys are armed. You will be arming anothr one if you mess up.

      Remember what Col. Jeff Cooper said, “Owning a handgun doesn’t make you armed any more than owning a guitar makes you a musician.”

      Carry on

    2. N.y.c. is the pits. Right to retreat. Weird terms for thier laws. Weird laws to start with.

      On weapons it’s basically none. Any weapon (from my research) that is modified to do a human harm is illegal and using it is doubly so.

      Max knife blade size is 4 inches and must be carried in a concealed not quick deployment way.

      Unless your kids is planning on bugging out super super fast their car is a lost cause. You should have a designated pick up point for them with in bicycle range.

      Keep in mind for them and others in NYC if things look like they are getting hairy stop taking the subway (it’s service is spotty enough in good times) the bus system (which is slower but not unmanageable) will allow you to exit the bus at any point you have to.

      Case in point Wuhan breaks loose and quarantine is called. If your on the train your stuck. There will be CDC and Leo’s enforcement of the quarantine. No way to move around no choice just go to quarantine center which ever
      If you’re on the bus… It’s easier to see a road block and get loose. (When times square subway station was bombed I was safely away because of that.)

      Sorry to sound like I do. But you need to have a solid early actionable g.t.h.o (get the heck out) plan for what happens when the car work work for it.

      And btw if you ever see me running watch out I don’t do that for fun …. Lol

    3. You can be armed just fine in NYC….

      1) Slingshot and practice with 30 weight ball-bearings
      2) Pellet gun, sawed off rifle type or handgun and no need for permit
      3) bear spray – you can have the 8 oz ones like in Montana
      4) Smoke grenades are perfectly legal in NYC
      5) Body armor is legal, even level IV – Wear grey man jacket over vest – you may look fater but you will be still walking when shot in the chest by a bad woman/guy or LEO. BE sure the entire body armor is covered up with a yatching jacket type.
      6) Hairspray with a lighter will deter any close encounters with muggers
      7) umbrella with strong supports and one that is golf course type for a foursome… Longer handles to whack people
      8) You can have night vision in NYC and thermal vision
      9) Fireworks are legal (some types firecrackers, M80s sound like grenades)
      10) Steak knives are legal and kitchen butcher knives. I would carry them in their original case in your backpack or on your personhood.

      Be creative…

      1. Slingshots and pellet guns are NOT legal in NYC. You WILL go to jail. Neither are fireworks (sparklers are okay) or walking around with a steak knife or butcher knife. If the SHTF, then all bets are off.

        Best to obtain a NYC target pistol license. You must carry it unloaded in a locked box to and from the range (and only direct routes from your home). Mandatory range membership is expensive in NYC. It is also expensive and time consuming to get the license with a lot of hoops to jump through, but it is there in your home if you need it. I have carried mine on a few occasions when I felt I needed to. It is only an administrative code violation if you have the target license. You’ll lose your license if caught, but not arrested because you have a license that authorizes possession.

    1. If you buy the sideways looking can opener it will allow you to use the cut out as a lid. Originally I picked one up after my daughter got into an only flapped open (my wife technique of can opening) to get a green bean and needed stitches.

      The side ways one opens smoothly and can have cut off for a lid it also keeps the lid from dropping into can when cut its good

  9. A few additions.

    Frequently those $1 sizes are much cheaper per oz when buying larger containers. Of course they also take a larger investment. Some items, however, are just the right size at $1. To get the larger sizes without increasing your investment substantially, consider the other 2 dollar stores: Dollar General and Family Dollar. Both have apps that offer $5 off $25 almost every week of the year. DG frequently includes $5 off coupons on their receipts. I NEVER pay full price in either. Both stores have more variety, more name brands, and larger sizes. I am in both weekly. I have a 6 month larder of normal every day products, not counting my preps.

    To give you an idea of the savings I obtain, I made a list of products I use at least weekly: baking soda, toilet paper, vitamins, canned tomatoes, etc. I took that list to Sam’s, as well as the grocery store and drug stores within walking distance of me. Purchasing only $25 at a time using my coupon to make that $20 out of pocket, Dollar General beat out all of them, including Sam’s. Wait, you say you need more than $25 worth of groceries a week? No problem. Look around the parking lot. Most people toss their receipts within a few feet of the door. I know they won’t be good till next Saturday, but if you’ve been prepping awhile, you should be able to wait that long.

    Yes, I shop regular grocery stores for their sale items. And I buy 6 months to a year in advance when something I want goes on sale. I supplement my garden with out of season or out of area produce. But that’s another story that goes beyond the dollar store concept.

  10. A few of those D-Day Prepper tv shows had some good tips. I loved the ESCAPE FROM Manhattan NYC episode where the best tip of all was to keep a 25 dollar bolt cutter in your BOB there.

    While the ‘escapee’ toiled along at 2 mph with his backpack, the ‘coach’ pulled a bolt cutter out of his pack, cut a bike lock, and was mounted and moving along the street at 15 mph within 30 seconds.

    Speed is everything when escaping danger, especially as danger levels increase exponentially or even logarithmically within the first 12 hours.

    A folding bike(s) in an apartment or vehicle, especially a battery powered one such as the folding Rad bikes can go up to 20mph and go 40 miles or more on a full battery, are game changers for survival.

    Another area that needs more attention is one I am teaching our CERT team: scrounging.

    In disaster, have a mental attitude of teaching or showing people how to help themselves with what they can use from what is on hand.

    Medicine cabinets, cleaning supplies, towels, bedding, pillowcases and string or computer wires for homemade backpacks, etc.

    God Bless, and thanks for a fun article. I loved it.

  11. For Coffee I have used the individual coffee packs, they are used like a tea bag, have used them for camping and the longer they stay in your cup the stronger your coffee. They store very easily and have a long shelf life. Just a thought.
    Rita Miller

  12. For my coffee I have stashed away thousands of little packets of microground coffee. These are compact little foil packets that you just add hot water to. I worked at Sbux for 16 years and there were boxes and boxes of these that we had to mark out because they were expired. We couldn’t sell them to the public but I got permission to have them with my mind on this being for my preps and for barter. This was a major score as I love my coffee!!
    That day I also got take 4 bags of 1000 each the tiny salt/pepper packets because they were also expired .
    Point being is they were going to throw them away because of expiration dates. You never know where you might be able to forage items from for free or low cost!!

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