By Catherine Ryan for Life & Beauty Weekly


You do a lot to keep your family safe: You lock the doors at night, make sure the kids buckle their seatbelts, and keep potentially harmful things out of reach. Protecting your family is, after all, your first priority.

And with so many family responsibilities demanding your immediate attention, it’s no surprise when some stuff is just put off for a rainy day. But there’s one family project that’s a lot more important than you may think: securing your family’s vital documents. And the good news is that it’s a lot easier to accomplish than you think.

“People just don’t like to think about the types of events that may necessitate having these important documents at hand — a lost wallet, death of a loved one, catastrophic illness or natural disaster,” says Kristie Demke, president of Professional Organizers in Canada. Fortunately, it takes just 10 simple steps to organize and store your very important personal documents, papers, photos and files. The trick is to do one step a day. Here’s how:

Step 1: Collect VIP documents
Sort through file drawers, junk drawers, shoe boxes and other nooks and crannies, pulling out documents that merit special care. For most families, that means originals of marriage and birth certificates, passports, financial statements, SIN cards, insurance policies, automobile titles, house deeds, immunization records, wills and household inventories and appraisals, says Demke. If you come across something you’re unsure of, ask yourself: What would happen if it were lost forever? Does the mere thought strike fear in your heart? If the answer is yes, then that item is a VIP document.

Step 2: Clear the clutter
If you’re like most of Demke’s clients, you probably have piles of unnecessary papers floating around. That clutter can prevent you from finding and keeping track of what’s truly important. So grab those old utility statements and cancelled checks, and rev up the shredder. If you’re uneasy about destroying anything, contact the bank or utility and ask if they keep records online. These days, most information is archived and accessible from websites.

Step 3: Store rarely used documents
When was the last time you needed your baptism certificate? It’s best to keep items you haven’t used in years that still qualify as VIP in a safe-deposit box or fireproof home safe. Just be sure not to lock anything away at the bank that you may need unexpectedly — such as notarized medical directives or passports — since you’ll be at the mercy of banking hours, explains Demke. If you choose to use an at-home safe, keep it out of plain sight and in a non-floodable area (the back of an upstairs closet if possible), and bolt it to the floor.

Step 4: Hit the copy shop
Photocopy documents you reference often and use the copies instead of originals. These documents include SIN cards and immunization records, which you may need to provide to schools and new doctors. For each photocopy, make notations about where the original is located — such as in your safety-deposit box.

Step 5: File away
The ideal organizer for frequently used VIP info is an expandable accordion file. In such a folder, you can designate one slot for each category — credit cards, home insurance, bank account information, medical records and so on. Then, in an emergency, you need only grab one thing and go, saving precious time as well as your vital papers. If you can, store the file in a locked cabinet.

Step 6: Create a master list
Rifling through files to find one account number or phone number wastes a lot of time. Instead, spend a little time typing out important account and contact numbers for insurance policies, credit cards, investments and the like. Print and tape the sheet to the back of your accordion file, and either store the original on your hard drive in a password-protected document or delete it altogether.

Step 7: Scan family photos
Your health may not hinge on grandma’s wedding portrait, but your happiness could. Scan pre-digital snapshots you treasure most at a high resolution of at least 300 dpi and label them descriptively on your computer. Store negatives in archival sleeves and put those in your safe-deposit box or fireproof safe. Return the originals to their frames.

Step 8: Back it up
Most of us use computers every day for essential business and pleasure. Yet people often neglect to back up all those vital files. There are a number of ways to back up computer files: You may want to use a physical option (such as backing up to a CD, USB stick or external drive) or a company that specializes in off-site storage of data (often referred to as “the cloud”).

“Each option has its pros and cons: cost, convenience, location, security,” says Demke. “You need to do your homework before committing your sensitive information. And always, always assume that it’s not a matter of if you will have a computer failure, but when. Most of us learn this lesson after a crash.”

Step 9: Share your secrets
In the event that you can’t retrieve your files and documents personally, tell two people — your husband and your mom, best friend, sister or lawyer — where to find everything.

Step 10: Keep up the good work
Enjoy a month of blissful organization, then think about how to maintain your system when you switch doctors, insurance or banks. Try designating a few minutes each month — after paying bills, for example — to ensure your files stay current so you, the family lifeguard, are always prepared!

Catherine Ryan
is a freelance writer and editor who writes on health, nutrition, beauty and green living for such magazines as
Self, Ode and
Parents. She is a frequent contributor to
Life & Beauty Weekly.

Loading Facebook Comments ...