Storing Personal Information: Tech Tools for Storing Records

(Page 2 of 2 of Disaster-Proofing Your Documents )

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Here are a few tech tools to consider when deciding how to store and access your important information:

Cellular phone or PDA. Keep your most important phone numbers with you at all times by programming them into your cellular phone or personal digital assistant (PDA), or by keeping them on a flash drive you keep with you.

Online bill-pay. Receiving and paying your bills online makes it possible to stay current even if you can't receive your mail and don't have your checkbook. All the major banks, credit unions, and other financial institutions offer this service. You can also set up an auto-payment arrangement directly with many merchants and service providers, and set up direct deposit for your paycheck.

Digital camera and photo website. For insurance purposes, use a digital camera or camcorder to take photos or video of your cars, home, furnishings, and valuables. In addition to making any copies you want on CD or DVD, you can also upload your photos or video to one of the many photo storage websites, such as Flickr, at www.flickr.com. Online storage is often free.

Scanner. Instead of making multiple paper copies of each important document, you could convert them (and photos) to PDFs ( portable document format, a type of electronic file) using a scanner. Then upload the files so that they're accessible from any computer. You can also burn the files to a CD or DVD and store them, or copy them onto a USB flash drive.

Personal Web space. Some online storage is provided free with many email accounts. Use your space to upload PDFs of important documents you've scanned. You can also pay for personal Web space if you need more. Make sure access requires a password.

USB flash drive. Also known as thumb drives for their small size, these portable hard drives offer a lot of storage space in a little package. Copy all your important computer files onto the flash drive and keep it with you. They're inexpensive, so you could buy a second one to keep in your safe deposit box or with a friend or relative. Be sure to get one that allows password protection, in case you lose the flash drive.

Online fax service. These services allow you to fax yourself important records. The faxes arrive as email attachments that you can burn to disc, upload, or copy onto a flash drive. 

Online password manager. Various sites and software allow you to store your usernames and passwords. You have to remember only one master password to access the list. To find such tools, do a Google search for "online password management." Or create a master list using a word processing or spreadsheet program that allows you to password-protect the document. Then store that document on your password-protected flash drive. If you want to, you can keep a copy of your list in your safe deposit box. Or you can give the list, or the password to access it online, to a trusted friend or relative.

Checklist of Documents to Safeguard

Here is a general list of the kinds documents and records you will want to keep safe.

  • birth certificates, Social Security cards, passports, citizenship papers
  • military discharge papers (DD Form 214)
  • your personal address book
  • your pets' recent prescription and vaccination records
  • a list of usernames and passwords for online accounts
  • marriage licenses, divorce decrees, child custody papers, adoption papers
  • insurance policies
  • proof of ownership for real estate, vehicles, and other major purchases
  • photo or video records of furnishings and other property
  • appraisals of jewelry, collectibles, antiques, artwork, and other valuables
  • receipts for home improvements (necessary to reduce your capital gain when you sell the home)
  • contracts (employment, lease or rental, business, and so on)
  • estate planning documents (wills, trusts, funeral instructions, powers-of-attorney, and so on)
  • employment and government benefits documents
  • financial records, including recent federal and state tax returns, stock and bond certificates, investment records, brokerage and retirement account information, and a list of credit and bank account numbers
  • business records, including recent tax and payroll returns, and a backup of your accounting software
  • backups of important computer files
  • fingerprints and dental records for each member of the household, if you have them
  • photos, letters, and other personal papers, and
  • anything else you would not want to lose.

For more information on organizing your important information and documents, check out Get It Together: Organize Your Records So Your Family Won't Have To , by Melanie Cullen and Shae Irving (Nolo).

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