Friday, February 18, 2011

A financial binder can help you cope with disaster

When I took our computer to be repaired last week, the technician confirmed my suspicions: the hard drive had gone caput. Thankfully, I’d sensed trouble, and was able to copy five year’s worth of pictures (and some important documents) before it stopped working completely.

Having our computer crash was a poignant reminder that technology can (and will) fail. It was also the motivation we needed to start working on one of our family goals for this year, which is to create a financial binder.

Although we have a fairly complete and comprehensive filing system, our documents are spread out in several places right now. With a financial binder, we will gain quick, easy access to our personal and financial information in the case of an emergency. Faced with a natural disaster, a fire or an unexpected death in the family, we will have the information we need to manage our financial affairs.

Though computers and other electronic devices can store and manage a tremendous amount of data, paperwork will truly be the key to disaster recovery. Our plan for pulling that paperwork together is simple. We’ll get a few inexpensive supplies—a large, three-ring binder and a few colored dividers—and spend a couple of hours making copies and assembling our information.

The first section in our binder will be labeled “Identity.” In it, we’ll include copies of each family member’s Social Security card and birth certificate, immunization records, and copies of our marriage license and driver’s licenses. In addition, we’ll make a list of people to contact in an emergency, including business, medical, religious and professional contacts.

Next, we’ll gather our financial records. The “Financial Records” section will include information about our checking and savings accounts, installment loans and credit card accounts. Social Security benefit statements, retirement account information, wills, life insurance, and tax and trust information will also go into this section.

A “Home” section in our binder will include copies of our home insurance policy, our mortgage, and an inventory of our personal property. Information about our vehicles, including titles and insurance policies, will be filed here, too.

Finally, we’ll include a section for “Medical” information, where we’ll make copies of our health, vision, and dental insurance cards and policies. If you take prescription medication or have other special medical needs, include that information here, too. For example, one of our children has a life-threatening food allergy. We’ll add the contact information for his allergist and include copies of his allergy tests, which detail the foods he must avoid.

While you’re gathering the information you need to file your taxes, you might want to copy your important documents and start your own financial binder. You can create it using the system I describe, or you can go online to find more detailed instructions about how to pull together your personal data. You can even buy complete kits that come with preprinted labels and contact sheets – although nothing that formal or expensive is necessary to create a financial binder.

When you’ve completed your financial binder, store it in a secure place, such as a safe deposit box or a fireproof safe. You need to tell a trusted family member or friend where to find the binder, and be sure to review the information once a year or when you’ve experienced a significant life change, such as a marriage, divorce, death, or relocation.

It will probably take a few hours to assemble your financial binder, but the time you spend now gathering these documents can help ease the stress and uncertainty if you need this information in an emergency or a disaster.

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