How To

Not Leaving Her in the Lurch

A few years ago, someone I know got arrested and ended up out of communication for several weeks. There were lots of ways that this situation was tragic for him and his family, but there was one specific way that the situation scared me and changed the way I provide for my family: his wife’s panic about the bills.

This friend (let’s call him Tim) and I shared in common that both he and I managed the finances in our families. Yes, some traditional gender roles can be found even in the lives of bloggers on the Skepchick network. Anyway, when Tim disappeared for a few weeks, his wife was completely left in the dark about their finances.

When is the cable bill due? Is it automatically paid? What’s the account number in case something needs to be changed? What’s the website? What’s the website’s password? How about the garbage bill? The telephone? The internet? The credit cards? The mortgage? You get the idea.

When this happened to Tim’s wife, I realized that it could happen to my wife, too. Ever since we got married 12 years ago, I’ve been the one to take care of the finances. J is completely capable of handling our finances (in fact, her debt level and credit rating were better than mine when we married), but I enjoy doing it and am much more anal about it. I get a satisfaction she never would from entering receipts into GnuCash (a personal finance program, kinda like Quicken), so she just left it to me. After a few years and new house, that meant that J didn’t really know how or when we pay our bills.

Of course, I have no intention of being arrested any time soon, but I could be incapacitated by a stroke or hit by a beer truck any day. So, I needed to change things so that J wouldn’t be left in the lurch if something happened to me (to be clear, I have no intention of having a stroke or a car accident either, but those seem more plausible).

Ever since Tim’s sudden disappearance left his wife scrambling, I’ve had a monthly process that I use to keep our finances transparent to J, but still secure. I view this as a sort of insurance policy for my family’s protection that requires no premium, but it takes an investment of time that I consider worthwhile. By no means am I a financial expert, so I bring no credentials to this description, but I describe what I do because may a similar practice could give you some peace of mind. YMMV.

This is what I do every month:

  1. We have a spreadsheet online that is accessible to only J and I. It has a listing of our regular payments and the methods we use to pay them (automatically every four weeks, by check every quarter, manually on a website every month, etc.). If I were to disappear, J could use this information to track our payments and make sure not to fall behind. I update this if there are changes.
  2. I update a record of the values of our investments in the same spreadsheet. The need for this information wouldn’t be as urgent were something to happen to me, but it would be good for her to have that information.
  3. Our shared cloud location also gets a copy of my latest information from GnuCash.
  4. I put a copy of the information from the cloud on a thumb drive that we keep in strongbox that should be safe in case of a house fire.
  5. Finally, I also download the latest PDF statements from our checking, savings, and credit card accounts and put them on that thumb drive.

I recognize that not everyone is in the position to have investments to track, as I do in the second point above. However, I really think that’s the least important part of this process – it’s really about making sure that J wouldn’t have to scramble to figure out not just how to pay the bills, but also what bills there are to be paid.

These steps won’t help her pay the bills if I and my salary disappear – it takes other types of savings and insurance to provide that coverage. And like insurance, I hope that J never has to make use of this information in an emergency. Despite that, I feel better knowing that J will know what files to download from our shared cloud location or from the thumb drive in case something happens to me. She might not have the most up-to-date set of bills, but at least she would have no more than a month of our financial life to reconstruct.

Featured Image credit: slightly everything on Flickr. The image was cropped.


Lance is the father of two boys, a software developer, and an occasional world traveler. Now an active member of the Ethical Society of St. Louis, he grew up in an Evangelical Lutheran home in which he took Christianity very seriously. Fortunately, going to college helped him break through to see that he believed because he thought he was supposed to, not because it makes sense. Now he's glad to be more than just a SIWOTI skeptic. @LMFinney

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  1. I appreciate your thoughtful and proactive take on finances, and I admit to worrying about this too. Spouse and I split the financial responsibilities in two; I’m responsible for day-to-day bills/money and he’s responsible for future planning/investments. My solution was to switch everything over to automatic online billing so that my family’s financial world would continue without me, if needed, and I have a username/password listing in a secure place. If something were to happen to me, the last thing my family would want to worry about is whether the credit card bill was paid on time, so this is my paying it forward just a bit.
    I have similar concerns if something were to happen to BOTH spouse and me …. but I cannot determine if that is really just my worrying unnecessarily.

    1. Most of our bills are automated, and J knows that. So that does relieve some of the concern, as you mention.

      One risk with that, though, is that grocery stores and department stores keep leaking credit card numbers, forcing us to update our automatic billing settings with all of those services. Odds are, of course, that such a disruption wouldn’t happen concurrently with my sudden disappearance, but that’s a possibility. And it’s a reason for keeping passwords in a secure place.

      Of course, when things like that happen, I get a twinge of guilt about not using LastPass or OnePassword or one of the other advanced password systems. I’ll get around to that… someday…

      1. I was going to mention that. We have a joint LastPass account, and all of our bills are paid through our credit union’s billpay site. The only thing that’s odd is that reminder emails about new bills showing up there come to my email. They could go to a joint account that forwards to both of us. But she could also log in and change the email in once place (the credit union’s site) in the event I’m indisposed.

  2. Thanks for this kick in the pants! We’ve spoken about this but haven’t actually done anything about it. I have just now brain dumped our financial info onto a shared password protected spreadsheet stored offsite (so fire safe). I will also be putting electronic copies of insurance documents, wills etc in the same virtual safe space and come up with a better plan for storing the originals.

    1. I had thought of it before Tim’s problems, but hadn’t done anything about it, either. Tim’s mistake was the kick in my pants then, and now Rich’s suggestion above might be another kick for me 🙂

  3. Thanks, Rich.

    After Heartbleed, I took the plunge and signed up for LastPass. I share all our financial passwords with J through LastPass, so we no longer use the shared cloud we used before.

    Thanks for the suggestion.

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