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