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Author of Shoestring Survivalism
How to Prepare for Bad Times on a Budget

Threats to our well being from natural disasters, acts of terrorism, or other wide-scale
calamities are always going to be with us, but the looming specter of long-term financial crisis
in this country has made preparedness more essential than ever. Which makes the new book
Shoestring Survivalism: How to Prepare for Bad Times on a Budget timelier than ever. It
examines time-tested strategies of inventorying and stockpiling through a strict prism of
saving money while doing so, putting serious preparedness within the reach of people living
even on the tightest of budgets. Here, author Andy James talks about his book and the
concepts that form the foundation of shoestring survivalism.

PALADIN PRESS: There have been dozens of books written about survival and disaster
preparation, but you came up with a new angle: how to do it economically. What gave you the
idea to approach the topic from that perspective?
ANDY JAMES: I’d love to say I wrote Shoestring Survivalism purely out of my desire to
help folks in their preparedness no matter what their resources, but in truth it was a pragmatic

Years ago, as a young man starting a family, I realized that it’s perhaps more critical for those
living paycheck to paycheck to prepare than others. Later, as I advanced in life, I realized that
in addition to paying bills, I like to enjoy life a bit—have a good meal, go on vacation—and I
still had to consider kids’ college funds, IRAs, dental bills, and all that. Approaching
survivalism on a shoestring allowed me to cover those concerns as well. When I kept hearing
people complain that they couldn’t afford to prepare for disasters on a budget, I wanted to
share a means to do so rather than to just argue they had a responsibility to their families to
make it happen without showing them how.

The most important aspect of Shoestring Survivalism is to understand that many of the most
important steps—like understanding your hazards, inventorying what’s on hand, setting
achievable goals, and learning some key techniques—cost almost nothing. This point is often
ignored in other books that focus on survivalism.

PP: With the recent upheavals in U.S. financial markets, this book seems timelier than ever.
Is it just fortuitous timing on your part, or has the threat of financial collapse always figured
into your budget preparations?
AJ: Preparedness, in my view, is about preserving options for whatever crisis comes about,
having resources available to you when they’re scarce elsewhere, and using your stockpiled
items so you can shift money and worry to other areas. To me it matters less what caused
those shortages—whether it’s a financial, natural, or manmade crisis—than figuring that
something will happen eventually and preparing for the deficiencies that will result.

Disasters don’t always occur in faraway places with funny-sounding names, and they aren’t
always visually dramatic. People in some regions of the United States have been slammed by
real showstoppers lately, and there are ongoing national situations that affect us all. For those
who have been engaged in shoestring preparedness over time, they’ll find that right now,
dipping into some of the stockpiles of food and, as importantly, using some of the economical
skills described in the book might help stretch their dollars and leave them more resources to
pay bills.

Part of preparedness is also planning for a future where nothing significantly bad happens.
That means by practicing shoestring survivalism, you’ll build reserves in money, bonds,
silver, gold, retirement funds, and marketable goods that, bit by bit, add up. You might not
need to dip into those pools, but at least they’re there. Again, it’s about preserving options.

PP: What immediate recommendations would you make to people interested in beginning
shoestring survivalism right now?
AJ: Find out where you stand and decide that if you’re going to do it, you’re going to do it
right, because sometimes we’re sated with the notion of doing only a little bit of work toward
a project. Developing an awareness of news events and your own finances costs little or
nothing, and this might provide you with the nudge to get going.

Once you’ve decided to engage in shoestring survivalism, plan. Don’t just be satisfied with
the notion that “I want to practice survivalism.” Plan for whom you’re going to need
resources and decide what you want to have on hand in terms of water, food, and money for
whatever period of time. It’s often good to simply start with a plan for seven days, then build
up to 30 days. Some shoestring survivalists stop there, others go on, but either way, if you get
serious, you won’t be the one on CNN or FOX begging for water or complaining you’ve not
eaten in the few days since the disaster struck.

PP: How would you categorize the typical survivalist? Are they especially budget-minded, or
do they generally spare no expense when preparing and stockpiling?
AJ: The range of survivalists I’ve known include everything from “shoebox” survivalists, like
a single mother and young son who literally could put their stockpile of food, flashlights,
batteries, and such in a shoebox but were building up from there, to the doctor who had land,
solar power, stores of food, a well, generators—enough capacity to supply several families.
The vast majority of survivalists fall in between—some food, some water or empty 5-gallon
jugs, a few firearms and ammunition, and means to provide emergency heat and light in their

Many people don’t even know they’re survivalists! This would include the average person
who has been paying attention to suggestions from the Red Cross and FEMA to have food,
water, flashlights, and radios on hand in the event of a disaster. The huge amount of media
coverage of such recent disasters as Hurricanes Katrina and Rita caused many people to enter
into survivalism in this way, and the relative lack of problems following Hurricane Gustav
provided evidence that it’s working for many.

PP: In which areas is it easiest to stretch one’s budget when making preparations and
gathering supplies, and where can a person expect to spend a bit more money?
AJ: Food is one area in which you can get surprising bang for your buck. I once began a book
on how different cultures get by on very little, and I interviewed many people who lived on
less, including urban and rural poor, Native Americans, and Asian immigrants. I learned
quickly that such staples as beans and rice, flour, pasta, potatoes, shortening, and apples keep
a lot of these people alive and cost very little to acquire. So getting enough to prevent
starvation is relatively inexpensive; once that fundamental necessity is covered,
supplementing with healthier foods and vitamins could come next.

You shouldn’t scrimp when acquiring some things. For example, while you can get by with
some screwdrivers, long-nose pliers, and a knife or two for a basic mobile toolkit, it’s good to
have a name-brand multitool, and I do mean name brand like Gerber or Leatherman. Another
worthwhile item for preparedness is army wool blankets. They’re not cheap, and for good
reason—the issue ones are useful for all sorts of tasks. Of course, they’re good blankets and
will keep you warm better than most other items even when damp, but you can also use them
for things like fire suppression and insulation.

PP: What are some of the mistakes you see survivalists make in terms of wise allocation of
money? Do you see things like, for example, the guy who spends hundreds of dollars on .308
ammo but forgets to purchase a $2.50 can opener to go along with all the canned food in his
AJ: That definitely happens. It’s funny to meet someone who calls himself a survivalist who
has a $1,200 rifle, a $700 pistol, and six bricks of ammo but only four cans of chili, a carton
of ramen, and a few water jugs. I figure that I’m going to be feeding, watering, and sheltering
more people than I’ll be shooting. I’ve no objection to expensive firearms for preparedness,
and practicing shoestring survivalism and horse swapping got me to where I have some
decent guns, but I made sure I had my bases covered with food, water, shelter, illumination,
and heating first. Not incidentally, if you engage in shoestring survivalism, you can benefit
from the savings in food, water, batteries, and such and eventually get that AR carbine with
ACOG sight you’re convinced you need.
On the flipside, having crates of French seltzer water and pallets of top-of-the-line freeze-
dried food and nothing but pepper spray might not be all that great a combination. It’s about
finding a balance that’s not only comfortable for you but also makes sense. (I was amused,
however, when I overheard a guy in a gun shop say he’d tell his wife that his new rifle was for
Y3K preparedness.)

Again, it comes down to thinking and planning wisely. If you just run out and start buying
neat stuff, well, you’ll have neat stuff, but that’s not cost effective. You might have the wrong
stuff, or you might not have enough to cover what you truly need.

With preparedness, you are trying to assure water, food, shelter, security, and sanitation for
whatever period you believe you’ll need it, based on the problems in your area. So first find
out what you have on hand already to address those needs. No sense buying materials like
tarps, plastic sheeting, staple guns, firearms, ammunition, clothing, and flashlights if you have
those items in the garage or basement already. Unless you’re just starting out, you might be
surprised and pleased at how much material you do have.

PP: You talk a bit about the usefulness of a well-stocked reference library. What are some of
your recommended books for budget preparedness?
AJ: Mine, of course! After that, anything by Mel Tappan and Ragnar Benson top the list, but
books on homesteading, small-scale farming, old-time skills and other such topics are full of
good ideas on how to get things done with limited resources.

If you read a lot in general, you never know what you will come up with. For example,
nonfiction military history, especially contemporary accounts of foot soldiers in the field,
prove some of them to be masters of improvisation. Their experiences can be applied to
shoestring survivalism. If you adopt a mindset of “how do you do things with limited
resources,” you will get more useful information out a wide range of books, the Internet, and
discussions with people.

PP: The concept of “low-key” survivalism discussed in your book is unique. Have you had
particular experiences that convinced you that preparing under the radar was the best
AJ: A low-key approach to survivalism means allowing few people to know that you engage
in significant preparedness. Suppose everyone in the neighborhood knows you stockpile food.
If you save something that’s not currently scarce, you’ll probably just be seen as odd. But if
the item you’ve stockpiled became scarce, you’re suddenly seen as a “hoarder,” and now
you’re part of the problem. If it’s really scarce, you’re one of the bastards who knew it was
coming and perhaps created the problem. The final stage is that you’re seen not only as the
source of everyone else’s misery, but you’re a resource to be exploited. Having gone through
that progression of rationalization, they’ll feel justified in attacking you and taking the items
from you.

The best example I know is a true incident I call “firewood and fences.” Several years ago,
my then father-in-law had some firewood delivered right before a blackout hit. The firewood
was stacked in his carport, which was visible from the street out front. A neighbor, pleading
for his sick wife and cold child, asked for some firewood, which my father-in-law provided. It
started slow, but a feeding frenzy began. Someone else would ask, then another, with less
“ask” in his voice and more “demand.” Then he’d come home and find people he didn’t even
know taking wood away as if it was their right. In a short period, people went from being
grateful to resentful; he had it and they didn’t. Soon, the majority of the pile was gone. If the
firewood was on the other side of the fence rather than being visible to all who now felt
entitled to his property due to the blackout, he’d not have had the problem. We live in an age
of entitlement. Do you want to be everyone else’s resource?

There’s an even darker side of survivalism. There are people out there who believe that any
crisis justifies their actions, and they’re already inclined to do what they feel necessary and
take what they want if their needs become great. It’s easier and cheaper for them to write
down your name and address and remember that you told them you’ve got six months worth
of food stored than to stockpile it themselves. Do you want to be interesting to such a

PP: Many survivalists wouldn’t dream of bringing their families to a government evacuation
shelter given the horror stories that emerged after Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans,
but your book paints shelters in a more realistic light, arguing that they are a legitimate option
under some circumstances. Have you had much personal experience with government-run
shelters after disasters?
AJ: My direct plans don’t involve movement to a shelter, and we’ve avoided them by fortune
and planning. But I’ve had experience with government, and one reason I engage in
preparedness is to determine my own fate rather than having a detached bureaucrat, with his
family and home safe out of region, making decisions that directly affect my and my family’s
well being.

For us, the biggest threats are earthquake, volcano, and fire, and I’ve made arrangements to
move my family to other houses if need be. But that doesn’t preclude me from considering
shelters as an option. If any family member needed regular medical attention, such as insulin,
I’d consider shifting my planning for him or her, as a shelter is more likely to be the focus of
available medical assistance than any of tens of thousands of identical homes. Given that
circumstance, I’d definitely “shop” for the best-run government shelter, if possible, and I’d
follow the advice for shelter survival I discuss in the book. So, even though I don’t intend to
go to a government shelter, my sense of preparedness is such that I have plans for doing that,