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Why a safe deposit box. And what to put in it

You tend not to think about personal documents — until they’re lost. Jean Chatzky has tips on what pieces of paper to keep where.

Part of organizing your documents — a vital step toward getting your financial affairs in order — means deciding which should go in the safe deposit box (yes, a safe deposit box) and which you can keep in a drawer at home.

First, don’t underestimate the importance of an away-from-home place to keep important documents. The safe deposit box is, in fact, the safest place you have — it’s free of risk from at-home fires and also from tampering. If cost or inconvenience is an issue, consider a fire-retardant safe. (There’s no such thing as a fireproof one.)

There are also certain documents you may need to keep nearby. By and large, they're the ones that are reasonably easy to replace; in the event of a fire, you could get copies.

Here’s our guide to where your documents should go. Note: Some of the items are on both lists. That’s not a mistake.

In a safe deposit box (or, as a second choice, a fire-retardant safe):

  • Deeds and titles
  • Marriage licenses and divorce decrees
  • Birth certificates
  • Home inventory
  • Social Security cards
  • Stock certificates
  • List of bank accounts, brokerage accounts, certificates of deposit, and credit cards (with account numbers and branch locations).

In a drawer at home:

  • Insurance policies
  • Passport
  • Tax returns (past seven years)
  • Wills and trusts
  • Power of attorney
  • Medical directives
  • Funeral and burial instructions
  • List of bank accounts, brokerage accounts, certificates of deposit, and credit cards (with account numbers and branch locations).

Jean Chatzky’s Bottom Line
This week: The late payment factor
Making just one late credit card payment can cost you a lot.

In nearly every case it means you'll get hit with a late-payment charge, sometimes as much as $50 a pop. And more and more credit card companies are increasing those fees.

On top of that fee, the interest rate you pay on your balance could soar. To make matters worse, according to, an increasing number of credit-card companies are writing "universal default" clauses into their agreements with customers. This allows them to raise your interest rate if you make a late payment to someone else.

The only way to avoid getting hit by the late factor is to pay all of your bills on time. Aim to pay them at least one week ahead of your due date. An even better way to keep on top of your bills is to pay them as soon as they come in.

Fix the problem: If you make a late payment, it never hurts to call your credit card issuer. Sometimes, if you have only one mark against you, they may give you a break — refunding the late fee or lowering your interest rate if they've bumped it up.

Jean Chatzky is the financial editor for “Today,” editor-at-large at Money magazine and the author of “Talking Money: Everything You Need to Know About Your Finances and Your Future.” Her latest book, "Pay It Down: From Debt to Wealth on $10 a Day," is now in bookstores. Copyright ©2004. For more information, go to her Web site, .