In case you haven’t heard, you need an emergency fund, and you need it yesterday. In the good times, we could rely on home equity loans and credit cards to tide us through the bad times. Now, HELOCs are gone or shrinking and credit card issuers are reducing credit limits. Unless you want to borrow against your 401K (which has probably also shrunk), you need an emergency fund. But just how much should you save?

Three Month Emergency Fund vs. Six Month Emergency Fund
Most experts recommend six months of living expenses (not income). I generally agree with this assessment. However, there are situations where three months may be enough to get you by. If you or your spouse is a healthcare provider, K-12 teacher, or public safety officer, then you may only need three months of living expenses. Even in a deep recession, we’ll still need doctors, nurses, teachers, cops, and firefighters.

If you or your spouse work in a risky field, you might want to save nine months’ living expenses. By risky I mean: auto industry, financial services, real estate, and retail. If you haven’t already lost your job, chances are good you will soon. Even if you keep your job, you may have to take a pay cut. Can you live on less?

Some experts say that any family with two working spouses needs at least six months, on the theory that you need both incomes to survive and its harder to replace one of those jobs than it is for a non-working spouse to get a job for the first time. I don’t entirely see the logic in this argument. If you both work, hopefully one of you will keep your job. If only one of you works, then your sole source of income could vanish. It’s not easy for a non-working spouse to just jump back into the workforce in a severe downturn, or even if good times.

What’s the Minimum?
The bare minimum recommended by Dave Ramsey is $1,000, but that’s not even enough to cover the mortgage for many people. Save up at least one month’s living expenses right away. Stop contributing to your retirement fund and paying down debt if you have to, but make sure you can cover at least a month. Even if your job is safe, you never know when you’ll need to take family leave due to illness.

What If You Can’t Save?
You can. You can save up enough for basic living expenses. Take a look at your monthly spending and pare it down to the ultra-basics:

  • Housing (rent, mortgage)
  • Transportation (gas, insurance, metro card, car payments)
  • Healthcare (necessary prescriptions)
  • Utilities (water, power, gas, basic telephone)
  • Food (a minimalist diet, no frills)
  • Child support
  • Tuition

You can cancel subscriptions to cable, movie rental services, the gym, magazines, the newspaper, and anything else if the situation gets bad. Just make sure you can cover your “monthly nut” for one month. Once you’ve got that, try to save up two months, and then three.

It seems like a lot of money now, but it won’t seem like much if you suddenly need to live off of it. It’s also not just reserved for a job loss. I would avoid dipping into it in the current economy, but you can use it for emergency major car repairs, emergency medical bills, and other major emergencies that require a lot of cash, quickly when times are flush.

You have nothing to lose by saving an emergency fund in a nice, safe, boring savings account. Do it now to get your new year started right and give yourself a little financial peace of mind.

These days, your emergency fund sources are dwindling quickly. Credit card interest rates are skyrocketing, home equity loans are being drastically cut, and personal loans are going the way of the Dodo. If you don’t have an emergency fund, start one today. If you do have one, it’s important to spend the money properly to ensure that you don’t come up short when faced with a more serious situation.

What Is An Emergency?
Emergencies can be any number of things, so it’s almost easier to say what they’re not.

These things are not emergencies:

  • Routine home or auto maintenance
  • Expensive clothing/accessories
  • Personal care items
  • Cable TV, DSL, cable internet access
  • Entertainment (concerts, DVDs)
  • Online auctions
  • Collectibles

If your engine blows up, then that’s probably an emergency. If your tire goes out and it’s no longer under warranty, then you probably should have seen that coming and already built replacement tires into your budget.

If you see a really great collectible on eBay, that’s not an emergency. If you’re serious about collecting, then the cost of it should be built into your budget. If it’s not, you don’t need to buy it right now.

These events are emergencies:

  • Job loss
  • Major illness
  • Loss of housing
  • Natural disaster
  • Major housing repair
  • Major auto repair
  • Death

What to Spend Emergency Funds On
Once you experience an emergency, you still have to be careful spending your money. Depending on the length of the situation, you could need these funds for several months. Your first priorities should be:

  • Housing costs
  • Food
  • Fuel
  • Major automotive repair
  • Other transportation
  • Education/day care
  • Emergency medical expenses
  • Major home repair
  • Travel for family death or illness

Additional Sources of Emergency Funds
Alternative sources of funds depend on the type of emergency. For example, if it’s auto repairs and you have a Goodyear card, use that to spread the payments over a couple of months and hopefully fit them (or part of them) into your regular budget.

Sell Stuff: If you only need a little bit of money to get you by, consider selling some of your stuff like the refrigerator in the garage, your DVD or CD collection, old furniture you don’t need anymore. Not only will you get a little extra money, but you’ll reduce the clutter!

Credit Cards: You can use a credit card for travel, food, and education, but try to pay the bill with funds from your savings account, and then from your emergency fund. Avoid collecting interest if at all possible because those cards could be your saving grace in an extended situation. If you run through your savings completely, you can probably cover a few month’s most basic expenses with your cards by only paying the minimums. Develop a plan to replenish your savings and then pay off the cards as soon as the emergency is over.

Home Loans: Although home equity loans and HELOCs have been severely curtailed, you may still be able to tap some equity if you’ve built up a sizable stake in your house. Never borrow more than 90% of the current market value of your home, which is probably the most you can get now anyway. As soon as the emergency is over, make paying the loan back a priority. Yes, the interest is tax deductible, but it’s still interest.

Family Loans: Family loans can be tricky, but dire situations require dire solutions. If you’ve lost your home, you can’t work, and you’ve run through your savings, then it’s time to ask your parents or siblings for a loan or to consider moving in with them until you get back on your feet. Don’t live on the street or in a shelter because you’re too proud to ask for help. Once you’re on your feet, pay your family back first. Corporations can wait, family can’t.

We all hope an emergency won’t happen, but no one goes through life without at least one. People get sick, businesses close, disasters strike. It’s part of life. If you have an emergency fund and are prepared to spend it wisely, you can get through any situation.

Recently, a few economic naysayers have leaped ahead of those warning about a recession, and are now warning about a depression. They’re not talking about a situation akin to the Great Depression of the 1930s – current US banking and market regulations prevent that severe a disaster – but rather a depression similar to the one Japan suffered following the collapse of its real estate and credit speculation bubble of the 1980s. Their economy suffered deflation and falling wages throughout the 1990s and still hasn’t recovered.

I’m not sure things will get that bad – Congress and the Fed know what happened to Japan and they don’t want it to happen to us. However, they’re slow to act, so we can’t rely on them completely.

If you’re concerned about the possibility of a depression rather than a recession, here’s how to prepare for it:

Pay Off Debt
At the very least, pay off your high-interest debt. Personally, I wouldn’t focus on paying off a mortgage unless you’re meeting all of your other savings and retirement goals, but get those credit cards paid off now. As we’ve seen with the current credit crisis, when banks lose money one place, they try to make it up somewhere else, usually with variable interest credit products. Don’t let them milk you dry!

I wouldn’t worry too much about federally subsidized student loans, either. Those have very generous deferral terms if you lose your job or suffer an extreme financial hardship.

Shore Up Your Emergency Fund
If you don’t have an emergency fund, start one now. Aim to save at least three months’ living expenses if you work in an in-demand field like nursing, and up to six months’ living expenses if you work in a discretionary spending area, like retail or entertainment.

Build Your Network
Don’t just build a network of colleagues in your own field – in an extended depression, you may need to transfer your skills to a new area, so make friends with people in fields where you can use your skills. Especially concentrate on people-oriented businesses that can’t be outsourced.

You should also build your network of friends. During a depression, you’ll come to rely on each other for moral support and sharing goods and food. Make friends with your neighbors now so you’ll have access to their canned goods later (and vice versa.)

Learn to Prepare Food at Home
If you don’t like cooking or your idea of “dinner” is opening up a box of Hamburger Helper and adding some meat, it’s time to learn to cook. Once you start, you’ll discover that it’s really not that hard and usually it’s cheaper, too.

Learn to Shop Wisely
If you don’t already use coupons or look for bargains at the grocery store, learn to shop wisely. See my series on eating well for less for tips for doing just that. But in a depression, you may need to go further. Become friends with generics and store brands of comparable quality and safety. Visit your nearby 99-cent store. Although they’re also raising prices, you can still stock up on staples for much less.

Plant Some Food
If you have a garden, it’s time to make room for food. In addition to herbs that can add freshness to that 99-cent canned stew, plant hardy vegetables native to your region and native fruit trees. Although there are initial start-up costs, once your food is growing, you should see some savings.

Learn to Live Below Your Means
All of the above can be summed up as: learning to live on less. Even if you can spend more, that doesn’t mean you have to. Instead, send your raises directly to savings and learn to budget your money to have something left over every month. That will make it easier to cut back further if a depression occurs.

Keep Your Car in Good Condition
By this I mean a car you own, not a car you lease. A car you lease could quickly become a car you no longer have. But if you keep your paid-off car in good condition, it will serve you well during a serious downturn.

Buy Classic Clothing Styles and Keep Them in Good Condition
Don’t worry about buying the latest trendy thing and instead focus on high-quality classics, and then keep them in good condition. I have shirts and jeans that are more than five-years-old that are still in good condition and still in style. A classically-cut white shirt never goes out of style. A good men’s suit is always in fashion. When it comes to trends, stick to the affordable accessories to dress up your classics. Even high-quality clothing is affordable if you own it forever.

Avoid Super-Aggressive Portfolios
Unless you’re young and single, don’t put the bulk of your investments into a really aggressive portfolio or stock in the hope that you’ll hit it big. Instead, take a balanced approach with index funds, bond funds, and international funds. If you’re youngish and want to take more risk, you can also build a position in a growth fund.

Vote Wisely
Finally, vote for politicians who are more concerned with the needs of real people, not lobbyist groups and big corporations. If a depression comes, it’s the people who ultimately bear the brunt while hedge fund fat cats glide around the Mediterranean on yachts.

Now as you look at this list, you might be thinking: shouldn’t I be doing all of this anyway? Yes, yes you should. Being frugal is always a good idea, even when the economy is flush, because you never know when your personal economy might go down the tubes.

Do you have any other ideas for preparing for a depression? Tell me in the comments, or post it on your own blog and link back to it here.

Now that your emergency preparedness documents are in order, you need to create an emergency kit to ensure that you can survive a disaster for a few days. I first learned about these when my elementary school teacher sent us all home with gallon-size Ziploc bags and instructions to fill them with non-perishable foods, and then bring them back. Since then, I’ve made sure to keep a kit in my home. If you’re at risk for an earthquake, hurricane, flood, or tornado, you need to have one, too. Don’t waste money buying a kit for your home. You can make one yourself for much less.

Emergency Kit Contents
Your emergency kit should contain enough supplies to last three days. You may not have power or fresh water, prepare for that possibility, too. Your kit should contain a minimum of the following:

  • Enough food for each person or pet for three days
  • 1 gallon of water per person or pet per day
  • Toilet paper
  • Matches
  • Candles
  • Plastic plates, cups, utensils
  • Hand-crank or battery-powered radio
  • Hand-crank or battery-powered flashlight
  • Extra batteries
  • Small first aid kit
  • Necessary medications for three days (like insulin or heart medication)
  • Wrench or pliers
  • Can opener
  • $100+ in cash ($20s or smaller)
  • Bleach
  • Moist towelettes
  • Red file

    Depending on your family circumstances, you may need additional items like eyeglasses or diapers. You could keep shoes, socks, and warm clothes for everyone in the kit. We keep our shoes and a pair of socks under the bed so we can put them on if the earthquake strikes while we’re in bed.

    Storing the Kit
    Keep your kit somewhere easy to access during an emergency. It shouldn’t be inside a cabinet with a door that can jam. If you have a tornado or hurricane shelter, keep it in there. If you live in earthquake country, keep it in a backpack or duffle bag so you can grab it and go. Our food and other supplies are in a low cabinet with a swing door. We also have a camp stove and propane in the apartment in case we can stay there until the power returns. Our pet carriers are on top of the kit so we can attempt to stuff our cats into them.

    Tape a list of other things to grab and the person assigned to gather them to the top of the bag, even if they seem obvious. That includes:

    • Pets (list them all)
    • Children
    • Emergency box (if you may not be able to return to your home)
    • Wallet and keys
    • Eyeglasses

    Replenishing the Kit
    If you keep medications in the emergency kit, replace them with a fresh set each time you get a refill. The food and water should be replaced at least every year. I keep powdered soups, chili, peanut butter, protein drinks, canned cold food, and protein bars in ours. When choosing food, look for options that are high in protein, but that shouldn’t be your only criteria. If you wouldn’t eat it under normal circumstances, you won’t want to eat it during a disaster. If you have the ability to heat water and a small pan, then chili and stews are a great choice. Pack a small bottle of dish soap, a sponge, and a towel for quick washes.

    Although it might seem silly to do all of this in case of a “what if,” all you have to do is turn on the news to see the value. If you live in a disaster zone, it’s not an if, it’s a when. Be prepared now for that eventuality.

    The last item in the documents you need for an emergency series is the Red File. Now that you’ve compiled and stored all of your important documents, it’s time to take the last step of compiling the Red File and sending it to someone you trust. With that done, you can be confident that you’ve done everything you can to prepare for an emergency, a disaster, or your death.

    What is a Red File?
    Depending on your needs, it can be a box or an envelope. I recommend an envelope. Your friends or relatives might not want to store a whole box for you. It should be sealed and put away until you request it. In it, you’ll find your most important documents. Traditionally, it’s a red envelope, but it doesn’t have to be.

    What Goes In It?
    Your Red File should contain the following items, at a minimum:

    • List of accounts
    • Will/Trust
    • Advance directive
    • Color copies of your ID card, passport, green card, or other citizenship documents
    • Health insurance cards
    • Home inventory and backup photo CD
    • List of emergency contacts
    • Birth certificates

    Where to Keep Your Red File?
    You’ve already stored all of your personal copies of the documents you need for an emergency. This abbreviated file should be sent to a distant friend of relative. By distant I mean someone you’re emotionally close to, but physically distant from. For example, a trusted sibling who lives out of state. My parents live 400 miles away, so they have mine. My sister lives further away, but she already has enough trouble finding places to keep stuff in her teeny apartment.

    Seal the envelope, then tape a letter of instruction on top. If you plan to mail it, place it inside another envelope so they don’t have to open it. Send them an updated file once a year, or sooner if your circumstances change. If not much changes in your life, then every two years might be sufficient.

    And that’s it. All your documents are ready for an emergency. Tomorrow you’ll finish your emergency preparations with your disaster kit.

    Source: The Red File

    We’re in the home stretch for the emergency preparedness documents series. The second to last items you need to prepare your financial backups and tax forms. These are relatively easy to prepare and store.

    Financial Records Backup
    You should backup your important financial documents at least once a month. Statements are easy to order if you lose them, but it would take days to rebuild your money management system if you lost all the data it contained.

    If you use Quicken, it includes a simple back-up button. Back it up to a folder on your computer and then include it in your regular backup settings. If you manually track expenses in Excel or by some other method, then just include it in the regular backups, too. If you keep track of your expenses on paper, reconsider that. You could lose everything in a fire. It’s much better to store them on a computer.

    If you use an online program like Mint or Yodlee, you’re already backed up and don’t need to worry.

    If you have important financial documents like proof that you mortgage is paid off, keep those in the safe deposit box in case your bank makes an error and starts billing you again. (It happens.)

    Saving Tax Forms
    The good news is that the IRS can provide you with copies of your filed forms if you lose them. The bad news is that they don’t have your receipts. If you file a standard form with just a W-2, then you can keep the forms in a regular filing cabinet with your W-2s and other statements.

    If you have a business, then it’s vital that you keep your receipts and other paper documentation in your emergency box, a safe, or your safe deposit box. If you had a fire and were later audited, you’d have a difficult time proving your expenses. I make copies of the receipts printed on thermal paper because they fade with time and keep them in the emergency box. You don’t want to walk into an audit with a shiny piece of blank paper as proof of an expense.

    Keep your tax forms, receipts, stock trading receipts, property sale documents, and other supporting documents for at least three years.

    And that’s it. These are all the documents you need to assemble and store to be prepared for an emergency. Monday I’ll finish the series with instructions on using these documents to prepare your “red file.”

    A computer backup isn’t a document, per se, but it’s still something you should include in your emergency preparations. Once you get in the habit of backing up, it’s a quick and easy way to make sure that your data is safe in case your house burns down or your computer blows up.

    Set a Computer Backup Schedule
    No matter which method you use for your computer backup, you should set a regular schedule to do it. I backup my computer on Saturdays. It takes two minutes to update the files that have changed. You may want to backup more or less frequently, depending on how often you change data. For example, if you mainly use it for monitoring your finances and sending emails, once a month might be enough. If you’re a heavy business user, you might want to backup every night.

    Choose a schedule that works for you and you’ll remember. If you won’t remember, choose an automatic computer backup method to make sure you’re protected.

    Computer Backup Methods and Storage
    There are a few different backup methods. Choose the one that is best for your needs and then make a commitment to use it. The most common methods are:

    Manual DVD Backup
    Most people have CD or DVD burners in their computers. Before I got a thumb drive, I would back up onto a CD and then mail it to my parents, who live 400 miles away. I used to keep it in my emergency box, then a small plane crashed into a Los Angeles building. I realized that I was ready for an earthquake, but I would lose my data if there were a fire while I wasn’t home.

    Thumb Drive Backup
    Rather than a CD, you can also manually backup your computer onto a thumb drive. Mine came with backup software installed. All I have to do is click the backup button on my desktop and it adds any changed files to my thumb drive every week. I keep the drive in my emergency box, but you can also carry it with you.

    External Hard Drive
    If you have too many files to fit on either of those two options, then you could opt for an external hard drive. It may even come with automatic backup software. Just install it, set the backup time, and it goes. However, you’ll have to remember to grab it if your house is on fire and it’s not in your emergency box. It will be helpful in the more likely scenario that your computer’s hard drive fails.

    Online Backup
    If you’ve already decided to backup your photos at Carbonite, then you can also backup your files there. At only $49.95 a year, it costs just thirteen cents a day for automatic backups and the ability to access your data from anywhere. You don’t have to worry about grabbing a hard drive on your way out the door and you can store as much data as you want.

    What to Backup
    You don’t have to backup your entire computer. Software can be reinstalled. Instead, you should backup the following files:

    • Music not on your iPod (this may require a hard drive or online backup)
    • Videos (hard drive or online backup probably required)
    • Photos
    • Word processing documents
    • Email
    • Bookmarks
    • Financial data
    • Address Book (email and personal)
    • Calendar

    You could also have two computer backup strategies – once a month for your major media and every day or week for your financial data and documents. Whatever you do, make sure you backup somehow. I’ve had two hard drives fail. We were able to recover my data, but I had two nights of panic about whether or not we could.

    If you know of another computer backup method or tool, tell me in the comments. Tomorrow, the emergency preparedness series continues with your financial backups and your tax forms.

    If you’ve watched much disaster coverage, you know that people often mention losing their family photos. Either they didn’t get a chance to go home to collect them or there wasn’t enough time to get out of the house with them. It doesn’t take a disaster to lose your photos, though. My husband’s childhood photos were destroyed by an attic flood. Other people have lost photos to house fires or room fires. Time can also take a toll on photos. Rather than risk the loss, take a few steps now to protect all your photos.

    Digitize Your Photos
    Most people now have digital cameras, which means our new images are already digitized. You probably have a box or several albums of older photos, though. Set aside some time to scan your old photos into your computer. You don’t have to do them all – choose those that mean the most to you. If no one can remember the people in the photo, it’s not one you need to preserve. You can pay a service to preserve your photos, but setting aside an hour or two each weekend to do it yourself will save you a bundle of cash. Money Magazine rated the various digitizing services in December.

    If you do it yourself, the only concern is with some older photos that may have damage. I have a photo of my grandparents holding a newborn me. It had faded from the sun, so I took it to a local professional photo lab. They were able to restore the colors and give me a new print, as well as a CD of the restored photo. If you have photos like that, take them to a professional to ensure that they’re properly restored.

    Digital Photo Storage
    Once you have them digitized, it’s not enough to leave them on your computer. You have to back them up. There are a few options for doing this:

    • External hard drive
    • DVD
    • Online storage

    External Hard Drive
    If you have an external hard drive or a large thumb drive and are organized enough to back it up regularly, then this is the best option. You can buy two drives and keep one in your safe deposit box and one at home. Swap them out regularly. You could also keep the drive in a home safe or your emergency box.

    DVD
    A DVD is the next best option for photos. It has more storage space than a CD, so you can cram more photos onto it. It’s also slim enough to fit easily in a safe deposit box or emergency box. You could also mail it a relative in another area. If they’re photos of deceased family members, it might be a nice gift for several family members.

    Online Storage
    Many of the major photo printing services, like Snapfish and Shutterfly offer unlimited online photo storage. You can also load them on a site like Flickr, although that could expose them to the public if you don’t properly set your privacy settings.

    If you do opt for an online site like Snapfish or Shutterfly, I would order a few photos from them every year to be a good customer. You should also sign in to the service every month or so to avoid having the account deleted for inactivity.

    If you’re willing to pay for more secure storage, try XDrive. Five GB are free, but you can get 50GB for $9.95 a month. You could also use Carbonite, which costs $50 a year for unlimited storage.

    Once your photos are safely digitized and stored, you won’t have to worry about them. Yes, you may lose the actual albums themselves, but those can always be reproduced if you have the digital files. Tomorrow, computer backups are the next in the documents you need in an emergency series.

    Continuing with the series about the documents you need in an emergency, today I’m covering titles, deeds, high-value receipts, and loan documents. I’ll sum it up first in one line: keep them in the safe deposit box. If you want more info about obtaining copies of lost items or ensuring everything is secure, keep reading.

    Car Title, Boat Title, and other Title Documents
    Even if your car, boat, motorcycle, or other vehicle is technically owned by the bank, you’ll still receive a copy of the title reflecting you as the owner and the bank as the lien holder. Once the loan is paid off, you’ll receive a clear title. Regardless of what is stated on the title, you should keep a copy in your safe deposit box. If you don’t have one, keep it in the emergency box or a home safe. These documents rarely need to be accessed, so you don’t need to worry about instant access. Whatever you do, don’t keep it in the car.

    If you lost the title and need a replacement, you can order a new one through the DMV for a small fee. When you receive it, make sure the VIN and other details match those of the vehicle, and then put it in a safe place.

    Property Deed or Mortgage Deed
    A deed is actually the document that conveys title, but it isn’t usually called a title. If you have a mortgage, the deed may be a deed in trust held by the bank until the loan is paid off. Whichever type of document you have, you should also keep it in the safe deposit box, home safe, or emergency box. You’ll only rarely need to access the deed.

    If you lost your copy, you can order one from the county clerk, country recorder, county registrar, depending on the rules of your state/county. Deeds are public records, so you can also search for it yourself. There’s usually a small fee to order a certified copy.

    Loan Documents
    Loan documents rarely need to be accessed, so a safe deposit box is sufficient. You could also keep them in a safe or your emergency box. If you’re not terribly concerned about a disaster, then a home filing cabinet will even work.

    For many years, you could ask the lender for a copy of the documents if you lost yours. Most mortgages are now sold and resold so many times that many banks can’t find the documents anymore, so don’t count on them if you need a copy.

    Home Inventory
    Always keep your home inventory in a safe deposit box, emergency box, or with a friend or relative who lives out of the area. Your inventory should be a detailed list of your belongings, including make, model number, and original price if you can find it. You should also do a video or photo home walk-through to document your belongings. You could keep it in the emergency box, but a large fire could make it unreachable. The inventory is a valuable weapon in the battle with your insurance company, so take the extra step of getting it out of your house.

    High-Value Receipts
    Your home inventory may not be enough in the event of a major fire. For computers, electronics, fine jewelry, and art, you should also keep the original receipts. You may also need an insurance rider, so have the art or jewelry appraised and keep it with the receipts. Receipts for items outside of their warranty periods should be in a safe deposit box or safe. You could also mail them to a trusted friend or relative. Keep receipts within the warranty period in your emergency box in case you need to make a warranty claim.

    If you don’t have the receipts and the purchase was recent, you might be able to get a copy from the store or your credit card company.

    Your safe deposit box is probably getting pretty full by now, but it’s better to have too much in there than to realize you’ve lost an important document just when you need it. Tomorrow the series continue with more important documents: family photos and videos.

    Although you don’t need to use them regularly, you should have copies of all your vital records in a safe place in case you do need them. Vital records include your birth certificate, marriage certificate, and divorce decree. If your spouse or child died, you may also need their death certificates. If you’re the executor of an estate, you should also have the deceased’s death certificate, too. In case you don’t have them, or can’t find them, here are instructions for getting them and tips on storing them safely.

    Ordering Vital Records
    Vital records are recorded and stored in the county in which they occurred. Birth and death certificates can usually also be obtained from the state records office. If you’re not sure where the event occurred, start with the state office and then work down from there. In most cases, you’ll need a certified copy of the record, not a photocopy. Follow these steps to find the records you need:

    County Marriage, Death, Birth, and Divorce Records

    1. Visit the County Recorder’s website.
    2. Click the link for vital records or birth certificates.
    3. Follow the instructions for ordering your records online. Most states charge a processing fee. You’ll receive a certified copy by mail.

    State Birth, Marriage, and Death Records
    If the county can’t find your records, then follow these instructions for acquiring them from the state:

    1. Visit the official state website.
    2. Look for a section for residents or citizens.
    3. Look for a link to birth certificates or vital records.
    4. Follow the instructions to complete your online order. The certified records will come by mail. Some states require you to contact county health offices or request the certificate by mail.
    5. If you can’t find ordering information, call your county records office for further instructions.

    Some states have contracted with VitalChek to provide online record ordering.

    Storing Your Records
    Unlike the emergency documents I discussed last week, you have more flexibility in storing your records.

    Birth Certificate
    Unless you have a young child, you probably don’t need to keep birth certificates in your home. It’s find to keep them in a safe deposit box at a local bank. If you’re planning to apply for a new license, check the requirements a week or two in advance in case you need to visit the bank to pick up your certificate. If you don’t have a safe deposit box, store the certificate in your emergency box.

    Marriage Certificate
    If you’re a newlywed, then you need to have a few copies of your certificate. I didn’t change my name, so I only needed one copy, but women who change their names will need to mail them to the social security office, the DMV, credit card companies, and other locations in order to change the documents. We needed to show a copy to our auto insurance company to merge our policies, but we didn’t need to show any proof of marriage to merge our other accounts.

    Newlyweds should keep the certificates in their emergency box. Couples married more than a year or so can keep them in a safe deposit box.

    Death Certificate
    If you’re the executor of a recent estate, or a child or parent recently died, you’ll need a few copies of the death certificate to present to banks, insurance companies, and government agencies. After a year, or after all the affairs have been tied up, you can safely keep it in your safe deposit box.

    Divorce Decree
    The policy for divorce decrees is similar to that for marriage and death certificates. Once you’ve separated all your accounts and unmerged your lives, the decree should be kept in a safe deposit box.

    Although it’s easy to obtain copies of your records, repeatedly ordering them can add up quickly. Most cost more than $10 each. Rather than going to the trouble and expense, simply store them safely in a safe deposit box or your emergency box for the times when you do need them.

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