While the best end result for any security system is that the criminal does not even attempt to break in to your home, the possibility exists that they will try, and they will succeed. Even looking past that hypothetical, though, house fires, floods, earthquakes, and other disasters can and frequently do destroy homes across America.
This is why a notion referred to as “off-site backups” is a fairly common concept in the commercial world, but it is also something you can apply to your personal life.
The easiest way is a safety deposit box – basically, this is a small box that you rent from a local, physical bank. You hold one key, the bank manager holds the other, and no one can open it without your permission. They are generally all about 12″ long, and range from 2″x5″ to 15″x22″. Here are a few things to consider when shopping for one:
- Do you have a local bank? If you have an account at a local bank, they will likely give you a discount on your safety deposit box rental. We use USAA almost exclusively, so we ended up opening a small account expressly for the box.
- What kind of disasters is your area known for? Safety deposit boxes typically live in bank vaults, so they are fairly secure, but if you are in an area known for earthquakes, it might be wise to have the box somewhere that is unlikely to be affected by a tectonic shift. Same goes for tornadoes, hurricanes, and so forth. Yeah, this might require a bit of a drive, but ideally it should not be somewhere you frequently visit.
- What do you plan on keeping in it? We will talk about this in more detail shortly, but this will determine how large your box needs to be, and how much it will cost. Depending on area, the smaller one can run $20-$40 a year, with the larger one costing $200 and beyond.
- Who should have access? If you are married, the list probably includes your spouse, but someone other than you should probably have access in general, in case you are incapacitated or inaccessible.
So what should you keep in the box? The basic rule of thumb is if you look at something and think, “Boy, I would be screwed if I lost this,” it should probably be somewhere secure. Here are a few examples:
- Birth certificates.
- Social Security cards.
- Marriage licenses / divorce decrees.
- Vehicle titles.
- House title / deed / appraisal / survey.
- Physical stock and bond certificates.
- Family heirlooms.
- Rarely-worn or high-value jewelry.
- Access information for your password database.
- Inventory of high-value items in your house.
- Copies of insurance policies. These can be hardcopy or on the drive mentioned below.
- Expired passports. You cannot travel internationally with them, but you probably want to keep your entry stamps, and they could potentially be used for corroborating identification. Depending on how frequently you use it, keeping your current passport in the box might be wise as well.
- Cash. Assuming worst-case scenario of your house burning down, having some spare would be nice.
- Items of intrinsic value. For example, platinum, palladium, gold, silver, etc. Both because keeping them at your house may not be the best idea ever, and for the same reason as “cash”.
- External hard drive. USB-powered hard drives with up to 4TB of storage are fairly affordable these days, and that much space can allow you to back up your family’s pictures, scans of all of the above documents, and possibly even more information depending on how many photos we are talking about. And, from personal observation, it is entirely possible to fit four to eight of those hard drives, depending on their specific dimensions, in one of the “small” safety deposit boxes. If you are backing up such things as personal photos, it helps to have two drives so you can make a clone, take it to the bank, take home the “old” drive, and still have one in the box.
There is some disagreement as to whether you should keep the original documents in the safety deposit box or just store copies and certified copies there – that is a decision you are going to have to make yourself. One important thing to keep in mind is that access to the box depends on your bank’s hours, so you should not store originals of things you may need at random hours there. This can include current passports, medical directives, durable powers of attorney, health care proxies, and revocable living wills.
And, finally, you should find a safe place to keep the key for the safety deposit box. If you can prove you are who you are, the bank can get into the box without your key, but they are going to rightly charge you an arm and a leg for it.