Matt Springer has been giving presentations around San Francisco about home earthquake preparedness since 2008 (for more information about the presentation, go to his earthquake preparedness website). This Quaketips blog is devoted to posts ranging from technical "how-to" articles to more philosophical "should-you" topics. New articles will be posted at most about once a month, so people who subscribe won't be subjected to lots of e-mail.

Monday, January 2, 2017

New Year’s resolution: put some cash in your emergency kit

How many of you have cash in your emergency kits?  Wait, how many of you have emergency kits?  Hopefully if you are reading this blog, you all do; if not, please assemble one... and while you are at it, I strongly suggest that you include some cash.  You know, cash, remember that stuff?  Paper and metal money, not plastic or electronic money, that can be used even when the power is out and credit cards aren’t being accepted.

A cash reserve is an important part of any emergency kit, regardless of whether your own local likely disaster of choice is an earthquake or anything else.  In the aftermath of a regional disaster, it's unclear whether stores will be open, but even if most are closed, some stores might be doing limited business.  If stores are open but the bank systems aren't working and credit cards/ATM cards are not useful, the stores will probably work on a cash-only basis.  That's happened before after some disasters, with inventory being tracked using pen and paper, and also during some extended power outages not related to disasters.  Even if no stores are open, people might be willing to sell each other spare supplies and will probably prefer cash to chickens, goats, and bags of salt or spices.  For all of these reasons, I do suggest having spare cash, and keeping it in your portable kit.  You might want to also keep some spare cash in your car (hopefully not in a spot clearly marked “EMERGENCY CASH”).

You might be wondering, if you have responsibly stocked an emergency kit anyway, what else would you need to purchase?  Perhaps you find you are going through batteries faster than you expected.  Perhaps that 1/4 gas tank that you always keep in reserve turned out not to be enough.  Perhaps you were just about to run out of toothpaste before the quake and now need to buy some.  Maybe you could really use something for an upset stomach and don’t typically keep things like that around.  Or perhaps the toy designed to keep your 2-year-old satisfied as you stay in a Red Cross shelter turns out to not be very useful for the current 6-year-old who mysteriously replaced the 2-year-old some time in the past four years.

One thing I like to emphasize in my talks is that having cash is good, but having it in small denominations is even better.  Assume whoever is selling you something won’t be able to make change.  I’ve been using the same example in my talks for years now: If you need to buy a battery and someone can sell you a battery but they don’t have change, having an envelope of $20 bills means you’ll pay $20 for a battery.  That’s an expensive battery, and also a poor use of what would probably be a sizable chunk of your emergency cash.

How much money to have is debatable.  I started off years ago with $100, and then years elapsed, and I realized that I might need to bump that up.  A transition from being single to married or having kids means more people in the household and more money that might be needed.  It's really hard to judge how much to keep handy.  I am very prepared with supplies, so in that respect, needing to purchase them is a low probability for me, but one never knows.  I saw one blurb about emergency kits that mentioned $1000 in cash.  I don't plan to do that.  However, if space aliens invade the Western United States and I have to bribe a corrupt military official for safe passage to Canada, I might regret it!

(Also check out my earlier post about where to keep emergency kits.)

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  1. I stored cash in a kit in my apartment in LA (fairly dry climate) and one day I needed cash and went to raid my kit (bad) and the cash had all started to mildew or something. It made me think I should give it an alcohol bath before storage. Any thoughts?

  2. That's something that never occurred to me... I have not had any mildew problems with things in my kit over the years, but depending on storage conditions, it is possible. I don't know how paper currency responds to being soaked in alcohol; I would think keeping the stored supplies dry is the important factor so I guess one would need to check to ensure there isn't a source of moisture. I'm really not sure what that would be! One could keep desiccant with the cash but it would need to then be replaced periodically or put in a moisture proof bag. This is a really interesting extra dimension and I think I will look into it further. When I do, I'll post another comment here. Thanks for the comment!

    1. I check my emergency cash today, opening the envelope that had been sealed although not perfectly sealed, and stored in a zippered side pocket of my emergency kit bag. I'm relieved to say that it was in excellent shape, no mildew at all and no unusual odors. And I'm in a building right near the water. I'm not sure what conditions in your storage led to the mildew, but it would be worthwhile trying to figure it out; and if you can't avoid it, then sealing the cash with some silica desiccant might be necessary.

  3. Right before I sold our daily ride, I found a $20 dollar bill in a magnet box stuck to the lid of the engine compartment(combustion gas engine). Despite the extreme temperature swings with dirt, engine and road dust, the bill was fine: we figured it had been there for 21 years.

    1. Those bills are made to last; too bad the value isn't as time-stable as the paper!


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