Evidence-Based Doomsday Prepping and Personal Finance

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I dug into the longread Doomsday prepping for less crazy folk today. The title pretty much says it all – I prefer to call it “evidence-based doomsday prepping”.

Effective preparedness can be simple, but it has to be rooted in an honest and systematic review of the risks you are likely to face. Plenty of excited newcomers begin by shopping for ballistic vests and night vision goggles; they would be better served by grabbing a fire extinguisher, some bottled water, and then putting the rest of their money in a rainy-day fund.

[…] I also found that to come up with a rational threat model, we need to think of “risk” as a product of both the probability and the consequences of a given event. By that metric, stubbed toes and zombie outbreaks are equally uninteresting; one of them has nearly zero significance, the other, nearly zero odds.

Strangely enough, my favorite part might have been the section on getting in shape and losing weight, as it very closely matched my own experiences and opinions on the topic. But since this is my money blog, I’ll talk about the personal finance aspects. If you’re going to build a resilient lifestyle, you’ll need some assets and figure out how to protect them.

Good ole’ emergency fund. The most likely “disaster” you’ll face is probably unemployment. Forget retiring at age 30, you’re just trying to survive having no income (or a severe cut) for 6 months. If you can figure out how to build a stash of 6 months of living expenses, you’ll already be way ahead of most people and have a rough blueprint for eventual financial freedom anyway.

Cash. You should be prepared to not have access to banks or ATMs for a short period of time. It could be a huge systemic crisis, or you might simply have a bad case of identity theft. Cash is still mighty handy for anything other than an extremely severe event – although it might be good to smaller bills.

For short-term survival, simple solutions work best: just keep about 2-4 weeks’ worth of cash somewhere at hand; have enough money on you to get you back home when traveling, too. Of course, be mindful of the risk of burglary, so if you’re keeping the funds at home, pick an unobvious location for the stash; more about that soon.

Break-ins are difficult to prevent, especially in suburban single-family homes with secluded backyards and street-level windows and doors; tall fences and window bars can work, but they are expensive and tend to draw the ire of your neighbors. The most cost-effective solution may be to keep your windows and doors closed when away, but beyond that, just optimize for hassle-free outcomes. You can leave some less important goodies in plain sight – say, some cheap jewelry, a modest amount of cash, and a beat-up phone – and put all the real valuables in a much less obvious or less accessible spot. A heavy safe will usually do; diversion safes fashioned into books, cans or clocks are pretty cool, too – if you trust yourself not to accidentally throw them away.

Banking. The author suggests splitting your money between two unrelated banks. This practice could easily extend to your brokerage accounts.

As for the remainder of your money, I suggest splitting it across two largely unrelated financial institutions with different risk profiles – say, a big national bank and a local credit union.

Gold. Before you follow the safety box suggestion, know that banks aren’t responsible if they lose the contents of safe deposit boxes. Serious preppers recommend paying for a reputable, international vault to store your gold – I imagine it to be dug deep into the mountains of Switzerland – but as noted that is expensive and reserved for those with a high net worth.

Because of its very high value-to-volume ratio, physical gold is stored and moved around very easily, but keeping substantial amounts at home can be ill-advised; theft is a very real risk, and most insurance policies will not adequately cover the loss. Safe deposit boxes at a local bank, available for around $20 a year, are usually a better alternative – although they come with some trade-offs; for example, the access to deposit boxes was restricted by the government during the Greek debt crisis in 2015. Non-bank storage services do not have that problem, but cost quite a bit more.

Bitcoin. Cryptocurrencies aren’t discussed at all, but they are meant to be independent of governments. If you put your keys into a hardware wallet, this is another store of value that could have an infinite “value-to-volume ratio” and possibly easier to move than gold or cash. Will Bitcoin be more or less valuable in a crisis? I don’t know. The answer also might change over time.

Stuff. Yes, yes, guns and ammo. But for the most likely scenarios the best thing you could have done was to take a bit of your money buy some everyday stuff: keeping your gas tank half full, keeping a full propane tank, packing a simple Go Bag with clothes/first aid kit/energy bars/extra prescription medicine, a few crates of water, and so forth. Fire extinguishers, fire ladders, smoke and CO detectors in every room could be the best money you ever spent. You might also throw in a will and an advanced health directive.

Insurance. I was surprised that there wasn’t a more detailed discussion of insurance. If we’re talking real-world life-altering disasters, either getting hit by a car or hitting someone else with your car has got to be one of the more likely ones. Do you have adequate health insurance? disability insurance? auto (liability) insurance? homeowners? flood? earthquake/hurricane add-on? Don’t forget these 11 reasons to buy an umbrella liability insurance policy.

Bottom line. There are many simple things that you can do to make your life more resilient that doesn’t involve building your own underground bunker, and many of it meshes with basic personal finance advice. Here’s a nice ending line to keep things in perspective:

In the end, ladders, cars, and space heaters are a much greater threat to your well-being than a gun-toting robber or an army of zombie marauders could ever be.

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