When power went out in 2003 in several states, Gabriella Bartlow, a Detroit-based financial advisor, was ready. She had enough money to buy food for herself and her two young children, as well as fill up the car with gasoline in case they needed to leave home.
“I was so happy that I had this money,” she recalls. Now Bartlow encourages his clients to also be prepared for the unexpected. Power outages, weather disruptions, and other natural disasters can wreak havoc and result in financial loss—often without warning—but preparation can help minimize the damage.
Here are the steps you can take to make sure you’re prepared for your next emergency.
Set aside physical money
As Bartlow discovered, cash can be crucial when you’re dealing with an extended power outage, as machines that accept debit and credit cards may not work. Bernie Carr, author of The Prepper’s Pocket Guide and founder of apartmentprepper.com, says you want to have enough cash to pay for gas and food for a few days and carry at least some of it with you.
“I like to keep $40 cash in my car or in my purse so I can always get home if the cash registers are closed,” says Carr.
This money is in addition to an emergency savings fund held in a savings account to help you get through periods of unexpected hardship or loss of income. Financial experts often recommend that you accumulate three to six months worth of expenses in this account, but even much smaller amounts will help stabilize your finances.
Stock up slowly
Carr suggests gradually acquiring supplies that will help you weather temporary power, water, and other utility outages that can occur during natural disasters.
“The next time you go grocery shopping, save $10 and buy bottled water, a jar of your favorite food, or instant oatmeal,” she suggests. At your next visit, pack a first aid kit with items such as bandages and antibacterial wipes or flashlights and spare batteries. Other types of equipment, such as a water filter, camping stove, and solar lights, may also be helpful.
“Most emergency gear is also camping gear, so there are a lot of sales right before and right after summer,” Carr says.
Gather Important Documents
Bartlow offers to collect the necessary documents – contact numbers; insurance information; recent bank statements; identity cards; any marriage, birth or divorce certificates – and put them in a waterproof, fireproof box, and scanned and stored online in a password-protected account or on a flash drive.
“I also ask people to get their lives in order, because if you save a lot of paperwork, you can’t find what you need,” says Bartlow.
With this streamlined approach, she says, “I could be out of the house in an hour or less and find out where all the key documents are.”
January could be the perfect time to tackle this challenge, says Paul Golden, spokesman for the National Foundation for Financial Education, a nonprofit organization that promotes financial education and well-being. “The New Year can be a good time to do some prep work. It’s the time of year when people take stock, clean up paperwork, and decide to be better in every way.”
Protect your credit
Golden warns that it’s easy to miss a bill or credit card payment during an emergency, which can damage your credit history.
“If you foresee a disruption in timely settlements with creditors, contact each of them and inform them of your situation. Maybe ask for an extension,” he suggests.
In the event of a massive disruption, such as the COVID-19 pandemic or power outages, companies may offer adjusted payment plans to those affected, but you may have to ask for or agree to this.
Scammers also often target victims of natural disasters, so be on the lookout. “Be vigilant with emails or phone calls sent to you and check who you’re talking to before sharing any account information,” says Golden.
If someone pretending to be your insurance company or financial institution calls you, they suggest hanging up and calling customer service to make sure you’re really talking to them.
Start recovery process
Once the emergency is over, it’s time to pick up the pieces: file any insurance claims, recover spent emergency savings, and replace depleted supplies. Golden offers to keep detailed records of all customer support interactions to make it easier to track down and track your refund. The DisasterAssistance.gov website provides information about local recovery efforts, and 211.org can connect you to community resources such as food banks.
Surviving an emergency can inspire you to prepare for the next one. Hurricane Ike in 2008 prompted Carr, who was living in Houston at the time, to focus more on preparation.
Carr says everyone should review their emergency supplies at least once a year. “It should be a normal part of life, like car insurance. An emergency is bound to happen and most people are not prepared because they haven’t thought about it.”
This article was written by NerdWallet and originally published by The Associated Press.