Your Essential Emergency Kit

These nine steps will protect your family and finances against disaster, whether natural or personal.

Stuff happens. And it often happens when you least expect it.

With storm season in full swing and the economy looking iffy, now is a good time to ask yourself how prepared you are against disasters, both personal and communal. For example, on an individual level, what if you lost your job, became ill or lost a loved one? On a broader level, what if a natural or man-made disaster struck your town? Are your finances and family prepared to withstand the shock?

Many people shy away from emergency planning because it seems like a downer. No one likes to think about bad things happening. But look at it this way: preparation means freedom. When you have an emergency strategy in place for whatever life throws at you, you free yourself from worry and have greater peace of mind. Plus, you'll increase your likelihood of coming out of the emergency with minimal damage and ease your transition to getting your life back to normal.

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Here are nine essential things to do to safeguard yourself against life's unpleasant surprises:

1. Build your emergency fund. Everyone should have enough cash on hand to cover at least three months' worth of living expenses. That means enough to cover your mortgage or rent, food, utilities, debt payments and other regular expenses you can't put off even in an emergency. That may seem a daunting task, but start out small. Make a goal to save at least $1,000. Then work your way toward one month's expenses. Stash your cash somewhere accessible, safe and profitable. See Why You Need an Emergency Fund (opens in new tab) for ideas.

2. Cover your assets. Make sure your homeowners and renters insurance is up-to-date. Keeping an inventory of your possessions will also help you get faster service if you need to file a claim. And make sure you know what your insurance covers. For example, most homeowners policies protect you if a major storm hits, but they won't provide flood or earthquake protection. See Fill the Holes in Your Homeowners Insurance and Why You Need Flood Coverage to learn more.

3. Protect your livelihood. If you have a family or someone else who relies on you for financial support, your untimely death could be financially devastating. Buying a life insurance policy is a good way to provide for your survivors after you're gone. See Life Insurance Made Simple to learn more.

You'll also want disability insurance, just in case something happened to you that prevented you from working for a time. Many people get some form of disability insurance through their job, but you'll want to make sure it's enough.

4. Make your wishes known. Everyone needs a will. There are two parts to the essential will. Part one handles end-of-life issues, such as who inherits your property and who gets custody of any children. Part two handles issues that may arise while you are alive but unable to speak for yourself, including medical and financial decisions. (Don't forget to share your opinion on organ donation, too.) See Wills for the Young, Single or Broke to learn more about both parts and what you need to do to make sure your wishes are carried out.

5. Safeguard important documents. Protect your finances by keeping essential documents in a fire-proof home safe, including birth certificates, adoption papers, passports, Social Security cards, insurance policies, property and automobile deeds. You might also include a backup CD of family photos or important computer files. It's a good idea to toss in some money, too, in case you need to evacuate your home in a hurry (stopping at an ATM mid-emergency will be the least of your worries).

6. Have a grab-and-go survival kit. There may come a time when you have to leave your home quickly. Creating a portable survival kit with food, water and supplies to last at least three days will help hold you over until your situation stabilizes or help arrives. You can pack your own, or you can buy a basic, pre-made kit for a family of four at The Red Cross Shop (opens in new tab) for $89.

More comprehensive kits cost between $55 and $100 per person at other online retailers, such as Emergency Essentials (opens in new tab) and Emergency Preparedness Center (opens in new tab). Make sure you personalize your kits with an extra set of house and car keys, a pair of prescription glasses or contact lenses, medications and other special items for pets, infants or elderly family members.

7. Keep your car tuned -- and gassed -- up. You'll want to make sure your getaway car is reliable. So keep up to date on maintenance and repairs, and get in the habit of never letting the fuel dip below half a tank before refilling. In fact, it's a good idea to keep a $20 or $50 bill under the mat of your car, just in case.

Because emergencies can strike on the road, too, make sure your car is stocked. In addition to jumper cables, flares, a flashlight and basic tools, include a first aid kit, blankets, a shovel, tissues, drinking water and nonperishable food like fruit juice and energy bars. In the glove box, make sure you have a map. And toss in an old cell phone -- even if it doesn't have a service carrier, you may still be able to use it to dial 911 (check with the phone manufacturer to make sure.)

8. Stock up. There's no need to stockpile supplies in your basement, but FEMA recommends that you keep enough food and water in your home to sustain your family at least two weeks. I recommend beefing that supply up to one month or more to help in case of a personal economic emergency, too. If something unexpected comes up, you don't want to have to worry about where you'll find the money to feed your family. Think of it as an emergency fund you can eat.

Buy canned goods, dry mixes and other foods that store well. (Don't forget a manual can opener and a camping stove, in case you lose electricity.) Collect food you normally eat, so you can rotate it into family meals instead of buying a 50-pound bag of oatmeal that may spoil before you ever use it. To build your stash, purchase a few extra items each time you go to the store, or buy a little more when favorites go on sale.

9. Get your family organized. Establish an evacuation plan and select a meeting place. Pick two locations for your family to meet: right outside your home and outside your neighborhood in case you can't return home. Get a copy of FEMA's "Are You Ready? A Guide to Citizen Preparedness (opens in new tab)." It details how to prepare for natural and man-made disasters. The American Red Cross's "Terrorism: Preparing for the Unexpected (opens in new tab)" also is helpful and includes a primer on first aid.

And it's always a good idea to learn basic emergency skills. Everyone in your home should know how to operate a fire extinguisher, turn off gas and electricity, and perform CPR and basic first aid.

Erin Burt
Contributing Editor,