Is Your Financial ‘Go Bag’ Packed and Ready?

October 29, 2020 Updated: November 3, 2020

Dear Carrie: I know I need an emergency fund, but with all the disasters happening these days, what should I have ready in terms of my finances if I have to pick up and leave in a hurry?—A Reader

Dear Reader: Between the pandemic, hurricanes, wildfires, and floods, these days you need to be as ready as possible for the unexpected. Being 100 percent prepared for every potential type of catastrophe is impossible, but there are definitely things you can do now to mitigate your stress and harm in the time of crisis. From packing an emergency bag with basic physical necessities to planning an escape route, being prepared in advance is essential—and that includes preparing a “go bag” for your finances.

What to put in your physical go bag is pretty clear—extra clothes, water, medicines, toiletries, flashlight and batteries, phone charger, items for your pets. Ready.gov has a great basic list.

But how do you prepare a financial go bag? That may not be as obvious and will probably differ from person to person. Many people are comfortable storing essential documents digitally, while others prefer having paper copies. Still others might want a combination. But whether your go bag is physical or digital, or a bit of both, there are several important documents to gather and steps to take.

Start With Cash on Hand

Establishing an emergency fund is the first to-do, ideally with enough cash or cash equivalents to cover three to six months of essential expenses. Of course, you have to be able to get to it quickly, so make sure to keep this money easily accessible in a savings or money market account.

Don’t have this much available? Look at your options. The CARES Act allows penalty-free, coronavirus-related withdrawals of up to $100,000 this year from a retirement account, but I think of this as a last resort. It may not seem like it when facing an emergency, but a withdrawal from your retirement nest egg now could leave you in an even worse spot down the road. Instead, focus on other ways to increase your cash, even if that means squeezing expenses or selling assets to fill up your emergency fund.

Next, be sure to keep some physical cash on hand. While we take ATMs and credit cards for granted, they may not work in a disaster. There’s no set amount to target, but having enough in your pocket to cover a few days of food, gas, or lodging for you and your family could be a lifesaver. Include a few checks and an extra credit card and ATM card just in case.

Organize Important Documents, From Passports to Passwords

As you assemble your go bag, start with information that can help you establish proof of identity and proof of ownership. This should include identification papers such as your driver’s license, passport, Social Security, Medicare and health insurance cards, birth and marriage certificates, and military papers.

Next, think about how best to access lengthier documents such as real estate titles, proof of insurance, estate plan documents, your most recent tax return, car title and registration (some of this might be available through electronic records with your service providers). Make lists of important phone numbers, account numbers and passwords, and prescriptions.

And, if you haven’t done so already, make sure your doctor and local hospital have copies of your advance health care directive on file.

If collecting all this information seems overwhelming, FEMA provides an Emergency Financial First Aid Kit with a checklist to help you itemize and organize your documents.

Keep It All Safe Yet Accessible

While you may have hard copies of your records safely tucked away in places like a fireproof and waterproof safe, a file cabinet at home or a bank safe deposit box, a severe disaster could make it impossible to access them for an extended period of time. Storing electronic documents in the “cloud”—a virtual location you can access anywhere with a secure username and password—is another way to keep your documents secure.

All you need are your documents and a scanner. If you don’t have a scanner, your library, workplace or neighborhood printing and mailing facility may have one. Taking photos on your phone or storing electronic copies of documents on a portable thumb drive that you can take with you is also an option.

Banking online and having online access to documents can also simplify things. Most financial services firms keep electronic records or images of documents such as statements and checks.

You might also choose to give copies of important papers such as estate plans, vehicle/home title, passports, etc., to an attorney, financial advisor, or a trusted friend or family member with the caveat that this information is only to be accessed with your approval or the approval of someone you’ve designated to make decisions for you if you’re unable to make them yourself.

Take a Picture

A great way to verify your possessions is to take photographs or videos of the rooms in your home and any valuable belongings. This simple act could save you hours of time in the event you have to itemize losses for an insurance claim. Depending on your preference, you can store these photos digitally or keep paper copies.

A Few Extra Precautions

As you prepare your financial go bag, make sure your documents are up to date. Review your insurance policies to verify you have the right kind and amount of coverage. Double check that your life insurance and account beneficiaries are accurate. Be sure the information on all your financial documents is current.

Now would also be a good time to check your FICO score. If it’s lower than you’d like, take action to improve it so you’re prepared for any emergency borrowing needs.

Once your financial go bag is ready, hopefully you’ll never have to use it. But just to be on the safe side, take the time to review and update it once a year or any time you have a major life event like a move, marriage, addition to the family or job change. You can’t prepare for everything, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take steps to be as prepared as possible.

Carrie Schwab-Pomerantz, a certified financial planner, is president of the Charles Schwab Foundation and author of “The Charles Schwab Guide to Finances After Fifty.”