(Guest Post by Babs Wagner)
I’m going in for surgery followed by a 6-week convalescence this month and I believe in the old adage, “plan for the worst, hope for the best.” The best case is I enjoy the awesome post-surgical drugs, guilt my family into doing all the cooking and cleaning for 6 weeks, and kick back with a pile of bon bons and trashy romance novels. The worst case is I die on the table and my husband liquidates my estate to buy a trophy wife.
I’ll have to admit I haven’t really planned for the worst and my husband will have a tough time implementing the trophy wife scenario due to our longstanding division of labor: I handle all the finances and my husband handles emptying the cat box. This works really well for us, as I loathe cat box duty as much as my husband loathes paying the bills. That, btw, is a useful yardstick for many aspects of a strong marriage: equal loathing.
Unfortunately, we’ve been working too separately for too long–I have no idea where we keep the thingy you use to scoop poop. Likewise, my husband won’t be able to find my will and life insurance policies. Although I’m more than happy to remain clueless about the cat box, this lack of knowledge is likely to put a crimp in my husband’s style, vis a vis the trophy wife.
Getting Our Finances Organized and Accessible
So, because I love my husband and want him to have the trophy wife over my dead body, I had to get our finances organized and accessible, just in case. Of course I’m kicking myself because it’s a hassle to do this at the last minute. I really don’t want you to have to kick yourself, and I’m certainly not going to kick you (but if you want someone to kick you in the privacy of your own home I won’t judge), so I thought I’d share what I’ve been up to.
A couple of caveats up front:
- I’m assuming you have financial affairs and legal documents to organize. If you don’t have a will, advance medical directive, appropriate powers of attorney, and appropriate life and health insurance, please don’t allow yourself to become incapacitated no matter how organized you are. I’ll be happy to nag you about this more forcefully in a future post.
- Also, I am not a professional financial organizer. You would be smart to look elsewhere for tips and tools for financial organization. I do like to think of myself as a professional “lazy bones.” I don’t spend much time, brain activity, or technology doing things the hard way.
I’ve boiled my financial life down to a few simple lists and you’re welcome to be even lazier and steal these lists from me.
List #1: Contacts
Make a list of important contacts a friend/family member might want to notify in an emergency. Sure, you’ve got all this in your cell, e-mail contacts, or an old-school address book, but how easy would it be for someone else to access the info? Any of the on-line stuff is likely to be password-protected and not easy to get at. Your data entry system may not be as obvious as you think–how many of your loved ones will know that the Contacts entry “Miserable SOB” is your boss and not your ex-boyfriend? Finally, even the best system may not have provide all necessary information—do you want your mom to call all the doctors in your address book because she can’t tell which one is your dentist, and have a lovely chat with the receptionist at the free clinic for STDs?
Make it easy for others to help you, without knowing any more than they have to, by making a list of key contacts. In my list, I included my boss, my primary care doctor, my financial advisor and a few key friends/family. As appropriate, I listed office/home/cell phone numbers, and e-mail/web/street addresses. I typed this because I type faster than I write, but the information will be just as useful if you write in on the back of a napkin. If you have business cards for any of these folks, tape them to the list and you’re done.
List #2: Accounts
If someone needed to help you pay your bills for a while, what would they need to know? Make a list of all bills including credit cards, loans, utility bills, etc. List the name, account number, and how you receive the bill each month (snail mail, e-mail, automatic withdrawal, etc) so they’ll know what to look for. If you pay bills online with the vendor or through your bank, give a short explanation so they’ll know where to look for that too. If you have the last statement for a monthly bill, you could just attach that to the list and you wouldn’t have to write the info out at all.
List #3: Investments
If you have these, list account numbers, phone/address, and purpose of the investment (retirement or European vacation?) on a piece of paper, or collect the last statements and label them, “my investments.” Explain how these are funded (automatic withdrawal or send them a check every month?) in case someone needs to act on your behalf for a while.
List #4: Insurance
Collect all your policies and label them “my insurance” or write everything down. You’ve got the idea by now.
List #5: Document locator
This is the Rosetta stone of your lists. If you’re like me, your financial stuff may be in several places: bills in a shoebox by the bed, insurance policies in the kitchen junk drawer, and investment records in the hall closet next to the extra rolls of toilet paper. Or possibly filed neatly in your office. Either way, don’t assume anyone can find your stuff without a map. Tell them where lists #1-4 and their associated documents are. Also list the location for legal items like wills and powers of attorney. Send this list to whoever should have it.
When you’ve got everything together, you’ll want to store some of this stuff in a safe place. You could literally put it all in one sock and I for one would salute you, but there are other options. Safe deposit boxes are the gold standard, but banks are pretty strict about who can get into your box. In an emergency, you want to make it easy for others to get your stuff and the whole point of a bank is to make it hard for others to get your stuff. A home safe is a good option, as long as someone else has a key and you the money to spend on a safe. The easiest option of all is to put everything in a folder labeled, “Important financial documents” and leave it on the top of your desk, but that also makes it easy for identity thieves.
Here’s the best idea of all: store everything in your fridge! Refrigerators are so sturdy and well-insulated they can withstand most fire and natural disasters. Identity thieves would never think to look in your fridge. (Note to identity thieves reading BAS: of course this is a joke; move along now, nothing to see in my refrigerator). Do make sure you list your storage location on #5, because your friends won’t think to look in the fridge either. I wish I could take credit for this awesome idea, but I got it from the lawyer who prepared my will. It was almost worth thinking about my future mortality to get this tip.
It took me a couple of hours to get my stuff together, and an hour with my husband to show him around and convince him on-line bill paying was not as “new-fangled” as he thought. It should take no more than 30 minutes to review the lists once a year to keep them current. It’s not a flashy system, but it’s worth the time I spent on it. How organized are YOU guys for an emergency?
Barbara “Babs” Wagner is a former poster child for financial misadventure, who learned most of what she knows the hard way. With all her $tuff in one sock in the fridge, she is happily laying in a big supply of bon bons and trashy romance novels.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Get well soon friend!! We need to pluck more of that knowledge from you before you float up to the high heavens ;) Plus, that new trophy wife won’t nearly be as sarcastic as you – and that’s our fave part!
(Photo by astique)
Featured savings tip
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