When it comes to putting together a disaster preparedness kit, most people think about stocking up on emergency must-haves such as canned goods, batteries, prescriptions, and bottled water.
But if you were displaced for a few days or even longer, would you know where to mail your child's tuition check? Or how to get in touch with that roofer who fixed your chimney years ago? Or the name of that mechanic whose business card is tucked in the drawer of the desk in your home office?
To minimize the damage, both financially and psychologically, take a cue from the foul-weather preparedness handbook and put together a special kind of emergency kit: one that will prevent a personal crisis from turning into a full-blown financial disaster.
Don't Leave Home Without This
We've had plenty of recent reminders underscore the importance of disaster-proofing our financial houses, as well as our physical ones. (My calendar this week is filling up with grim appointments. Tuesday afternoon: Earthquake. Weekend plans: Flash flooding and high winds. Next week: Tentatively, locusts; the plague of missing socks.) Even burst water pipes and medical emergencies can spell trouble for your finances if you're not prepared.
To keep your family finances running smoothly in the midst of chaos, you need a financial emergency kit.
Think of this financial "Command Central" as a road map to your daily life. It should contain everything you need to keep things humming along, as well as essential items to help speed along your financial recovery.
I call it the "Grab and Go" kit -- it should be small enough that you can literally run a mile with it tucked under your arm. (Or, OK, walk briskly around the block without having it feel overly cumbersome.) And while you might not be able to get to your Grab and Go kit right away because you're, say, in a company meeting when an earthquake strikes, at least you and family members will know what to grab when you are able to access it.
Financial Command Central Basics
There are pre-assembled kits for sale that help you organize and store your important papers. But if you don't want to spring for next-day shipping, you can easily pull most of the essentials you need on your own.
Your mobile emergency kit should contain copies (not the originals!) of some vital personal and financial information. Store it in a safe place, and tell everyone in the household, plus a trusted neighbor or friend, where it is. A fireproof locked box is advised. But in a pinch any old container will do.
Let's go over the vital items you will need. Start with at least the bare-bones items on this list -- those things that are essential to keeping your family finances on track. When time permits, fill out your financial Command Central and regularly update the items as your circumstances and service providers change.
8 essential items for your "Grab and Go" emergency kit
A list of contacts: Note the phone numbers, addresses, and email addresses for family, friends, schools, medical and financial advisors, utilities, and service providers -- even the cleaners and gardeners. Designate an out-of-town contact for everyone to call.
Identification: Assemble passports (or at least copies of them), a current picture of each family member and pets, and copies of birth and marriage certificates.
Emergency currency: Include in your kit enough cash to cover what you need to survive for a few days, just in case ATMs aren't operable or accessible. Also handy are prepaid phone and charge cards.
Medical information: Pull together health insurance policy information and blank claims forms, and make copies of insurance cards. Also handy is a contact list of hospitals, doctors, pharmacies, and current prescriptions; and medical histories.
Insurance recovery information: Make copies of your homeowner's (or renter's), auto, life, disability and health insurance policies and cards (and be sure there is legible contact information on each). Also print out some blank claims forms and a list of local insurance adjusters. If you don't already have one, make a current inventory of your possessions and include a copy in your financial emergency kit. (Use the Insurance Information Institute's free home inventory software at knowyourstuff.org.) Having an itemized list of your assets gives you a running head start if disaster strikes.
Monthly financial obligations: Online banking and bill payment is super-convenient in emergency situations. But it doesn't help if you can't get online or if your household's CEO is unable to perform his or her duties and other family members don't know whom to pay, how much, and when. So your kit should include a rundown of all of your payment obligations (mortgage, credit cards, utilities, and auto, student, and any other loans), as well as the due dates, minimum required payments, and any other payment information needed.
Long-term financial information: Create a rundown of account numbers, the branch locations, websites, phone numbers, and the passwords (only if kept secure) for your bank, credit card and investment accounts, and mortgage lender. If you have a safe-deposit box, be sure to include the location, spare key, and list of contents, and make sure a loved one or trusted advisor has been granted access.
Legal papers: Make sure you've included copies of your living will, health-care proxy or medical directive, will, durable power of attorney, and the deed to the house. If you don't have these legal documents in place, here's what you need and how to get them set up.
Add any items to this list that are essential to keeping your family finances on track.
For Added Peace of Mind
Personal safety is always first, of course. But after that, insurance companies and state and federal agencies bear the burden of helping families rebuild and replace material possessions. However, it's not the blender that brings most families comfort and joy. It's peace of mind.
Take this opportunity to check all of the locks on your insurance coverage and review your emergency plan with your family.
Share Your Survival Tips
Have you been through a crisis? What advice do you have for others as they prepare for disasters -- natural or manmade? Provide tips and insights in the comments area below.
Motley Fool columnist (and one-half of the band Addieville) Dayana Yochim's "Grab and Go" checklist includes: important papers, the dog, her glasses, and, if she can manage, her cello.