Exactly one month ago today, I closed TradeSmith’s Florida offices as Hurricane Ian was barreling toward Tampa — the first such storm expected to hit the area in over a century.
While Ian ultimately made landfall further south than initially anticipated, the experience was a stark reminder that disaster can strike any of us without warning. And whether it’s hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, blizzards, floods, fires, or something else, chances are most of us will have to deal with a similar emergency at some point in our lives.
Fortunately, you can take some simple steps in advance to help protect yourself and your family should a disaster occur.
One of the most important is to ensure you have a basic emergency kit — or “go bag” — containing essential items you may need to survive, whether at home or following an evacuation. These typically include at least a few days of nonperishable food and water, a radio, flashlights, phone chargers, extra batteries, first aid supplies, medications, toiletries, etc.
However, there’s another aspect to disasters that many folks don’t consider until it’s too late: In addition to the toll they can take on our physical health, they can also wreak havoc on our financial and emotional well-being.
Even if you’re fortunate enough to avoid serious harm, losses of essential records, documents, and valuables can make it much more challenging to return to your “normal” life even after the immediate danger has passed.
So, I also recommend preparing a “financial go bag” to keep alongside your standard emergency kit. While the specific contents may vary depending on your circumstances, there are some common categories everyone should consider.
- Physical cash (at least a few hundred dollars up to a week or two of everyday expenses for your family, ideally in smaller denominations)
- Checkbook (if applicable)
- Credit cards (with an expiration date greater than one year in the future)
- Small physical valuables from your home (gold and silver bullion, jewelry, etc.)
- Driver’s licenses
- Social Security cards
- Birth certificates
- Adoption records
- School registration forms/identification cards
- Life, health, and long-term care insurance policies (with a 24-hour emergency assistance number and a local office number, if applicable)
- Medical records
- Marriage certificates
- Tax returns for the prior three years or tax preparer contact information
- Employment records (offer letters, pay stubs, etc.) and workplace contact information
- Estate documents (will/living will, durable power of attorney, advanced medical directives, trust documents, and name of the executor, if applicable)
- Military records
- Government benefits documentation (Social Security, veterans’ benefits, etc.)
- Alimony agreements and payment receipts
- Child support agreements and payment receipts
- Elder care agreements and payment receipts
- Deeds or rental leases
- Mortgage or home equity line of credit agreements
- Home or renter’s insurance policies (with a 24-hour emergency assistance number and a local office number, if applicable)
- Flood insurance policies (with a 24-hour emergency assistance number and a local office number, if applicable)
- Photos of your property, as well as those of valuables included in insurance coverage
- Property tax statements
- Utilities account numbers, login information, and contact information
- Titles or loan agreements
- Insurance policies (with a 24-hour emergency assistance number and a local office number, if applicable)
Banking, Investing, and Credit Documents
- Bank account and routing numbers, login/verification information, and contact information
- Brokerage/retirement account numbers, login information, and contact information
- Credit card account numbers, login information, and contact information
- Student or personal loan agreements, account number, login information, and contact information
- Stocks, bonds, and other physical certificates
- A list of emergency contacts, including family, friends, and neighbors
- A list of login information for any other critical websites or accounts you may need to access (or for your password management service, if applicable)
- Physical or digital copies of prized photos and non-financial documents
To minimize the risk of loss, any documents in your financial go-bag should generally be physical copies, with the originals kept in a secure location such as a fireproof safe in your home or a safe deposit box at a bank. (You might also consider saving digital copies of these documents in the “cloud” and on a physical device like a USB flash drive.)
To protect these items from physical damage, I recommend keeping them in a durable and waterproof container or bag at a minimum. But a portable waterproof/fireproof safe or lockbox would be an even better choice.
You could also consider writing down hints or personal questions in place of your actual passwords and login information, wherever possible. This step will help minimize the risk of sensitive information falling into the wrong hands.
This list covers most of the critical financial items and information you could need to resume your life after a disaster or other emergency. But it’s not exhaustive, so I would encourage you to think about any additional documents that may be useful to you.
Finally, once you’ve built your financial go bag, you’ll want to review it periodically — at least once per year — to ensure all documents are up to date and everything is in order.
That’s all there is to it. And while it does require a little work upfront, it could save you weeks or even months of stress and worry trying to recover this critical information following a disaster.