AR-15s are often seen as high-dollar rifles, coming in at $1000, $1500 or more. This perception can lead the survivor on a budget to assume that an AR is out or their reach, and therefore exclude it from their survival rifle search, in favor of AK-47s, SKSs and Mini-14s. Fortunately, while there are certainly a number of very expensive ARs on the market, there are also a number of cost-effective solutions for those of us with tight firearms budgets.
The first thing to look at, obviously, is out-of-the-box budget rifles. Most decent gun dealers will have at least a few ARs that come in around the $700-$800 mark. CDNN has a S&W M&P rifle on sale now for $799. These will be totally serviceable, well made guns. Buy from a well-known manufacturer and you should be good to go. Make sure it has iron sights, or at least factor purchasing back up iron sights into your budget--DPMS sells several budget rifles at around the $650 mark, but these usually come without sights.
Another option is to build it yourself, which is what I did for my personal rifle. Assembling the rifle's "lower" isn't particularly difficult and can be done in about an hour with some very basic tools and instructions available online. The advantage here is that you learn the inner workings of the rifle and can also choose the components you want up front, vs. buying a factory assembled lower, stripping off the OEM parts and replacing them with the better stuff. You can also buy parts a bit at a time, allowing you to space purchases out. Finally, if you really want to try to go cheap, you can hit up message boards on places like AR-15 and look to buy lightly used parts at a discount.
The general advice is to build the lower receiver group and then buy an already assembled upper receiver group. The upper is not considered a firearm (the lower is), so you can easily purchase one via the internet. The upper is also supposed to be harder to assemble than the lower. I purchased a Stag upper for somewhere around $500, which has been great.
For the lower receiver group, expect to spend about $200 to $300, and the upper receiver will usually run you $450 to $550 with the bolt carrier group. You end up at about the same price range as buying an out-of-the-box AR-15, but again, you can pick the individual components and get some familiarity with the weapon by assembling it yourself. If you really watch for deals on forums or Gunbroker, you may be able to do better and get down to closer to $600.
All-in, my AR-15 ran me around $750. CMMG lower and parts kit, Stag upper. It's run flawlessly for over 1K rounds now, a good portion of which has been crappy steel cased Wolf.
Yes, compared to most com-bloc, slave-wage AK-47 rifles, you will spend more on an AR-15. It's not radically more though, only a few hundred bucks. It's not the budget-busting rifle that many often make it out to be. You can get an awesome AR for well under a grand, and, if needed, you can buy components and assemble as your budget allows. If money is really tight though, you will need to look at other options...I haven't heard of a $500 AR-15--at least one that shoots 5.56mm.
If anyone knows of great deals or sources for budget AR-15 components, post away in the comments section below.