Just In Case – How To Make Sure Your Spouse Knows Your Financial Passwords

Update: please also see my handy guide to the KeePass password manager.

crossed_fingers.jpgI take care of all the bills and other financial matters in my household. My wife is certainly capable of doing so, but is more than happy to let me manage it all due to my great interest in it.

My guess is that this situation is rather common. One member of a household actively pays the bills, manages the checkbook(s), and transfers extra money into some type of savings account, while other family members are more passively involved.

Are you the active manager? I know that it is not the easiest subject to breach, but what if something happens to you? Will your spouse/significant other know when the bills are due and how you typically pay them? Will he/she know how to pull cash from any on-line savings accounts or manage any other investments? Most importantly, will he/she remember the required user-names and passwords?

Even something not so morbid like an unexpected hospital stay can strain your financial system or at least throw it out of whack. In cases like this, there must be a contingency plan – how to easily ensure that your loved one(s) can find the information they need to keep the financial system afloat.

The List

I keep an up-to-date list of all the accounts we have, including their usernames, passwords, and security questions/answers. Many of my accounts have “paperless” statements, so I even specify in the document which e-mail address receives the statement notifications. Of course, I also provide the username and password for that e-mail address! Some may say this is foolish, but trying to remember all of this information, especially in a potential time of grief, is difficult to expect of anyone. Of course, this information is for our eyes only, so how can we best protect it?

Option 1 – A safe-deposit box

One possible option is to keep this written information in a safe-deposit box at a local bank. If you have any accounts there, you may be eligible for a free safe-deposit box. Otherwise, expect to pay a few extra dollars a year for this privilege.

The main benefit of this option is its inherent security – no one is getting in there without proper identification and a key! Just make sure your significant other knows where the key is located. 🙂 The downside of a safe-deposit box is that any changes you make to the list requires that you go to the bank and physically put a new copy in the box. Just be sure to shred/burn/mutilate any old copies.

Option 2 – A safe in your home

Another option is to put the list in a fire-proof safe somewhere in your home. Replacing any out-dated copies of the list is much easier than the safe-deposit box option, but there is one serious drawback.

A safe inside a home is a main target for thieves, and unless your safe is bolted to the floor, a thief can possibly steal it. If the safe is stolen and cracked, ALL of your financial data is at risk, so you’d better go on a serious password-changing spree!

Option 3 – Bury it

Perhaps a bit unorthodox way to hide the list is to put it in an airtight container and bury it in the backyard. I don’t recommend this option, as the only benefit it provides is security through obscurity. It lacks both the inherent security of a safe and ease of updating. If you choose this method, at least create a nifty pirate treasure map. 🙂

Option 4 – The Internet

Yes, that is correct – the Internet is an option. But how, you may ask, is a massive network of computers that connects people from all over the world a safe and secure place to store sensitive information?

It’s an excellent question, and I want to make sure one thing is clear: if you have an inherent mistrust of the Internet and of computers in general, please avoid this option. I do not want anyone blaming me for plastering their passwords in front of millions of people.

That said, not only do I feel like this option is quite safe, it is by far the most convenient of all the ones that I have mentioned. If you have not guessed, it is the option that I use (and have used for over a year now).

There are numerous possibilities on how to do this, but the rough plan is as follows:

Word processor password → Encrypt with archive password → Store in e-mail

Now, let me explain in more detail:

  • First, I password-protect the document in the word processor. I use OpenOffice for all my document writing, and putting a password on the file is as easy as checking a box when you save.

oo-password.png

  • Secondly, I stuff the file into an archive using software such as Winrar, 7-zip, or IZArc. All of these (Windows) programs offer the ability to protect the archive with a password. Choose a different password than the one you chose in the word processor.

winrar_pw.png

I have not found a good program for Mac OS X that provides an easy way to encrypt an archive (not just a disk image). If you know one, please comment below.

Instead of a password-protected archive, you can also try an encryption program such as Axcrypt or jFileCrypt. Both offer fantastic encryption settings. I like using Winrar because I know that I can open the resulting files on either my Mac or my PC.

No matter which programs you choose, create STRONG passwords. A wimpy, four-letter password is prone to being cracked, so beef it up with strange characters, numbers, and capital letters.

Once finished, I e-mail the doubly-encrypted file to my wife. There it sits in her webmail account, hopefully never to be used! 🙂

Of course, the catch here is that my wife must know the two passwords for the archive and the word processor, but she knows them well. We’ve even done a couple “dry runs” in which she must get the file open without my intervening. I’m confident that should anything happen to me, she would have full and immediate access to all of our financial information.

What’s your contingency plan? Do you have any tips or suggestions on how to make sure your significant other knows your banking, credit card, and investment information?

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17 thoughts on “Just In Case – How To Make Sure Your Spouse Knows Your Financial Passwords

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  3. I was just thinking about this the other day. It used to be all you needed was a safe combo or a bank box key. Now most of your personal financial info is hiding behind passwords. While the idea of creating a list like you suggest scares me, it’s something I need to do. I’m gonna make sure I get my parents to make one as well.

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  5. I thought banks locked down safe deposit boxes upon the death of the owner until probate underway or the IRS looks at them. So keeping passwords in the SDBox wouldn’t help the survivor.

  6. Frankly, all your proposed options are clunky and difficult to implement operationally CORRECTLY and CONSISTENTLY. Two suggestions:

    1. Use an open source program like Password Safe (http://passwordsafe.sourceforge.net/) from Bruce Schneier (http://www.schneier.com/passsafe.html) and his colleagues. It’s free, open-source, and uses strong encryption. You can store accounts (username, password, url, notes) and group them, and you can e-mail it yourself.

    2. For financial accouns specifically, you can add them to yodlee (www.yodlee.com). Not only will yodlee keep all the information (uid, pwd, security questions), but also help in your account management.

    E-mail the password safe database file to yourself and your wife periodically, and simply share with your wife the yodlee login credentials and password safe master combination.

  7. Anne – yes, I presume banks lock down safe deposit boxes in the event of a single account owner’s death. For a couple who has a joint account (with two safe deposit box keys), I can’t imagine that they would forbid the survivor from accessing the box. If I’m wrong, someone let me know. 🙂

    Computer Geek – thanks for the suggestions, though I fail to see why the method I describe is more cumbersome than what you suggest. First of all, both methods require that the survivor remember two passwords. Secondly, it looks like Password Safe can only be decrypted on a Windows machine. Mine is a mixed household, and my wife is much more comfortable with Mac OS X. My “encrypted archive” method can be decrypted on either platform.

    I use Yodlee as well, and my Yodlee information is stored in my master document.

    Keep up the suggestions. We can all benefit from this knowledge.

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  9. Sorry, but burying something in your backyard is neither sound nor sensible advice. You really think someone who wants to put your affairs in order, especially a loved one, is going to enjoy getting out a shovel after they just *buried* their loved one? Geez.

    The fourth option also stinks. People who are dealing with grief don’t want to have to go looking for a file on their computer somewhere. Or in a webmail box that they stopped using 10 years ago (as people rarely keep the same email address *their entire lives!*), or find the webmail provider had a data loss issue (happens all the time on webmail platforms), or find the webmail provider no longer exists. Nor do people keep the same computer. Nor the same computer technology or platform either. So then everytime you or your significant other makes a computer change, an email change, a software program change, you have to remember to update this information and change it all over.

    The upshot is if you’re serious about financial security for your significant other, keep a freakin’ simple paper and pencil list. Paper was made for a reason — it’s simple, it works, and it’s far easier to secure than bytes.

    And no, there’s no reason to put it in a safe, the target of a thief. Sorry, but that’s just more horrible advice!

    Put it in simple place within your files or in a book on your bookcase, and show your significant other where it is. Thieves don’t go rifling through dozens of files or your books in hopes of finding something good.

  10. Geez, Amy, who pissed in your cornflakes this morning? 🙂

    In case you didn’t actually read my commentary about the “bury it” option, I also think it’s a terrible idea. Still, you’d be surprised at what people do. Do you think I’m actually serious about an option in which I recommend that people create a nifty pirate treasure map? Aaargh!

    By the way, by creating this article, all I’m trying to do is get people to at least THINK about this issue. Most people are naturally uncomfortable thinking about their own mortality, and if by creating this article I get even a few people to create a contingency plan that works FOR THEM, then my time spent has been worthwhile.

    If a pencil-and-paper list works best for you, please use it! I don’t like that option at all because of the ease in which it can be lost/destroyed. If, say, your house is destroyed by flood, fire, or is ransacked by a herd of wild boars (that’s another joke Amy), all your information is gone. In my case, my information will only be lost if Google goes down – the likelihood of my house burning is significantly higher than Google going down.

    To each his/her own. By the way, I love you too! 🙂

  11. Let’s see… My house has been standing for 150 years. How long has Google been around? Technology changes significantly every 5-10 years — a piece of paper (which can easily survive a fire if you take the right precautions) doesn’t. You’re putting a lot of faith in a company with a very limited track record in terms of standing the tests of time (e.g., a lifetime).

    I dare you to try and show my anything created on a word processor 20 years ago that is easily read today. Much less anything with password protected encryption programs where the author doesn’t support any more.

    I agree, thinking about these things is an important topic. But I’m afraid over-thinking things is what is too-often done for something as simple as a few nuggets of information that you need to pass on from one person to another.

    While your heart is in the right place, I hate to read simplistic articles like this that actually give out worse advice than doing nothing at all, and then try and cover it up by saying, “Hey, I was only joking…”

  12. Comparing the age of your particular house to Google is a fallacious argument. Disasters happen, and the chance of data loss occurring right now within an individual home is exponentially higher than data loss occurring when stored on a farm of servers spread throughout the internet. Frankly, you can drop a bomb on my house and I will still have my crucial data.

    Also, your argument about file formats is only valid IF I decide to NEVER update my information. This goes against the very point of the entire article – finding an easy way to give loved ones access to the most current financial information. Every time my financial information changes, I update my master list, encrypt it, and send it to my wife. Done. It now waits patiently in Google’s server farm, hopefully never to be used.

    As a side note, I prefer to use open-source software programs and file formats. The OpenDocument format that I use is designed to avoid (or at least significantly delay) file obsolescence. I don’t use Microsoft Word, with its ever-changing “standards.”

    There’s no over-thinking done here. The method I describe works best for myself and my wife. If it doesn’t work for you, fine. It CAN work for other people.

    I fail to see why you’re so eager to attack me and my article. All I have done is provide a few options for a contingency plan, and then invite others to share suggestions and ideas. And yes, Amy, some of us actually have a sense of humor, even when dealing with difficult subjects.

    Oh, I’m not sure why you decided to post your first comment again, but I deleted it since it was an exact duplicate.

  13. How often is your financial information changing so often that you have to update it regularly? Neither me nor my husband have changed bank accounts or credit cards for years. I imagine we’re not out of the ordinary in that regard, that core financial account information is something that rarely changes.

    I’m not attacking you personally, I’m attacking most of your advice as ill-advised. You don’t even know that in many states, a shared safety deposit box is not opened to the surviving spouse until the state gives its okay.

    I guess what I was looking for that when someone writes an article, they have a little bit of knowledge on the subject they’re writing about. While obviously you know a lot about different programs and encryption options for data, I just think you might have stretched yourself a bit thin with your other suggestions.

    And while I applaud you for using open standards, I still suspect that if you’re not constantly updating your method for storing this information (along with the programs and document formats, and ensuring your significant other is constantly deleting the outdated files so there’s no confusion), you will find it very difficult 20 years from now to find something that will be able to open or read anything you create today.

    For relatively static information that changes rarely and has to last a lifetime, I’m not sure why you wouldn’t use the simplest technology available — you know, that thing that has withstood the test of time — ink and paper. Thousands of years old. No technology updates needed. Ever.

    So yes, I apologize… I think I’m eager to question anyone who puts so much effort into something that’s otherwise seems to be very simple to the rest of us.

  14. Obviously, we’re going nowhere fast with this discussion. Congratulations, you found a way that works for you. Great job. Fantastic. It won’t work for me. I understand that perfectly and am trying to be constructive. You have contributed almost nothing that’s positive or constructive to this conversation.

    In the last year alone, I have opened five bank accounts, two retirement accounts, and a dozen credit cards. That’s a lot of information. No, I don’t use the same username and password for every account. And no, I don’t feel like using ink and paper. Yes, my wife and I find our current method much more convenient.

    Okay, I admit that I don’t know every state’s details with regard to shared safety deposit boxes. So what? Is it still an option for storing financial information? Sure.

    You, obviously, know little about technology. Should I attack you for it? No. I also am willing to bet that due to the open-source nature of my OpenOffice files, in 20 years I’ll be able to find a program that will open my current documents. How can we know for sure? Ask me again in 20 years. 🙂

    As for the rest of it, this is not the New York Times or TIME magazine. It’s a personal web site, and I can write whatever I want. If you don’t like it, I’m willing to send you a full refund. I just need your bank account details…. 🙂

  15. I think you have a good point.

    Though we have made wills and all that, our financial situation changes as assets are added and spent. (the more of the latter, unfortunately…sigh)

    I keep track of all these in my laptop and have to find a way to make sure my wife or children can access it easily.

    Thank you for pointing this out and making me think.

  16. A piece of paper might be the easiest way to list your passwords but it can hardly be the best way to store them.I have to change mine sometimes but I would probably get lazy and forget to update the piece of paper.
    Or I would lose it.Or no oe else could find it.
    Would using a folder in your yahoo notepad be ok? as long as whoever needed it could remember the password to it?
    It’s definitely an issue that for which we should all find our best personal solution …so thank you for offering your ideas.
    PS I thought the bury it one was funny…

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