Here’s the thing: You need a family emergency binder. We all do. How many times this week have you had your life flash before your eyes while driving around town and dealing with unpredictable traffic? Have you stopped to consider what would have happened to your partner and kids if that near-accident had been a real accident? It sounds dramatic and is dramatic, but that doesn't make it any less possible. In the wake of tragedy, many families are left scrambling over what to do next.
It's another stressor they just don't need while trying to deal with the loss or near loss of a beloved family member, and yet, it happens on every level. Without asking Mom for help, how do you sign in to pay the electric bill? Dad had life insurance for work, but where is all that paperwork now? Everyone is fine, but you need to leave because wildfires are heading your way — where is every important piece of paperwork you've ever needed?
Enter the family emergency binder (aka a “bug-out binder”). If you're on board with having one but don't know where to begin, that's OK. There are plenty of kits available for purchase online. Or you can start right here to DIY your own.
- Binder (1.5 inches is usually good, but some people feel bigger is better)
- 3-hole divider folders/sleeves
- 3-hole full-age envelopes
- Labels (or painter's tape and a marker)
- Paper and pen
Sections You Should Include:
Whether your entire family is bugging out during an emergency or you've passed and left your partner in charge, you need a place where you can find all your identification. This includes originals or copies of social security cards, IDs, passports, and your marriage license.
Your family will need this information for everything from registering at another school to filing death certificates. It can also be helpful to include a list of everyone's social security and driver's licenses at the front, as that can make your life easier if you're just on the hunt for it when changing insurance later on.
A great place to keep everything home-related, this folder could include warranties for appliances or repairs, your mortgage, homeowner's insurance/warranty paperwork, and other household information. Have an HOA? Include a paper with quick-reference contact info and maybe even a few of the most important rules your kids are likely to forget. You could also include the address and sign-in information for paying your mortgage, even though you'll also put them in another section.
In this folder, keep originals or copies of registrations/titles, purchase paperwork, warranty info, and financing information, including bill pay website and log-in details.
Start this section with a page where you list every bill you pay, the estimated payment/minimum payment, and when it's due. If you want to be extra helpful, list the accounts in order of due date. Your family may not have access to your phone alerts if you're gone or incapacitated. Having these listed will help them keep the house functioning and avoid further stress, like having the water turned off or a bill collector blowing up their phone over a late credit card payment.
Behind or inside of the pocket, include the following information for each bill:
- Account numbers
- Bill pay websites
- Due dates
- Minimum payments (potentially a payoff amount, too)
How do you access your money each month? For some people, it's as simple as a direct deposit. For others, it requires additional steps. If you're paid on a debit card or through an app, ensure all the info is available for your family. The last thing you want is for them to be unable to access the last of the money you earned from work.
Do you have savings, some stocks, or a CD? Include information for accessing any and all funds in this section. File the original paperwork for your investments and the usual log-in credentials here.
Note: Keep keys to safety deposit boxes here, with a special tab denoting "keys."
This part will seem redundant, but in a stressful or chaotic time, it never hurts to have multiple ways to get to the same information. If sign-on information is listed anywhere in your other folders, still put it here. Your list of passwords should include all bills, all bank accounts, school/grades for every kid, social media, email, your kids' locker combos, and Amazon (or anywhere you might order from regularly).
Got insurance? You lucky dog! Keep your insurance paperwork and copies of your cards here. Also include a quick breakdown of anything your family should know about those policies, like a short-claim window, how much they should expect, etc.
Wills/POA/Burial and Cemetery Information
You don't need to be rich to have a will — living wills ensure the proper procedure is taken in the hospital, should you choose to be put on life support or not. This is a place to mention if you want to donate your organs. But it's also a place to list who you want to raise your children if you and your partner pass, or to remind your partner not to cut ties with your parents.
You also don't need to be rich to have a burial plot already. Those are often purchased for the whole family by a grandparent and then divided among cousins. It's a relatively inexpensive investment many people buy on a payment plan. Include as much paperwork as possible.
Additional Binder Sections
Everyone's family and lifestyle look different, meaning everyone's binder will look slightly different. Here are other sections you might consider keeping:
Please don't keep your life savings in here. Do, however, consider squirreling away a bit of cash in case there is an emergency and bank accounts aren't accessible immediately. This could be used for anything from gas to get out of town to keeping the internet on during finals week.
Often, we don't know that something is going to happen to us beforehand. But whether you're prepping for a big medical procedure and feeling anxious or simply want to be prepared, there's no time like the present to write your damn letters. You know the type: letters telling your loved ones how you feel. They can be as simple as "I <3 U" to your three-year-old or "Please visit my kid and keep our babies close" to your bestie.
There's a good chance that your partner has no idea how to access your child's grades. There's even a better chance that they don't remember you applied for the prestigious private school or got approved for financial assistance at the one you're at. They'll need to check those things and have access to them — especially grades or financial assistance programs, where you have to reapply every year. The last thing you want is for your kiddo to lose their scholarship and be booted from a school they've been at for years.
Have you been paying (or dodging) school loan payments for ages? Rest easy knowing that now your family can send Nelnet a big fat middle finger in the mail because they're never getting that money now!
Somewhere in your kitchen is the generations-old Spritz cookie recipe you make every year around the holidays and devour before it’s actually Christmas. Your kiddo will want that. And, eventually, your family will find it in that disaster of a pantry. But why not also make it available in the place where they find everything else? This folder is also perfect for food reminders like: “Tilda likes garlic salt on her nuggies,” and “Go easy on the cheese packet when you make mac and cheese.”
Regardless of how many extra sections you add, having an emergency binder will go a long way in keeping your family afloat, no matter what emergency comes down the road.