Safeguarding your valuables can be worrisome. There are many things you have to consider, including where you to put them and how much you want to pay for their safety. Sure, you can put hide your valuables under your mattress with all that cash you've been stashing away. But that's probably not a great idea.

You may consider buying a home safe or keep your valuables in a locked vault behind your uncle's portrait. Another option is a safe deposit box, which you can rent from a local financial institution. You may also hear them referred to as safety deposit boxes. Although you'll have to make a special trip to ensure your valuables are safe and retrieve them, you shouldn't keep everything in there. Read on for tips on what you should store in your safe deposit box and what you might need easy access to and should keep with you at home.

Key Takeaways

  • Safety deposit boxes are designed to withstand natural disasters such as fires, floods, hurricanes, and tornadoes.
  • Never store the only copy of an important document in a safe deposit box.
  • Safe deposit boxes are especially useful for people who aren’t comfortable with digital storage.
  • Although it's wise to have a co-lessor for your box, think carefully about assigning the best person.

How Safe Deposit Boxes Work

A safe deposit box is an individually secured container—usually a metal box—housed in the vault of a federally insured bank or credit union. They're one of a number of services beyond banking your institution may offer. You can rent a safe deposit box to keep your valuables, important documents, and sentimental keepsakes secure.

When you rent one, the bank gives you a key to use. You'll want to hold on to this key in a safe place because if you lose it, the bank will have to charge you to install a new lock. This key is used with a guard key held by the bank—if your bank uses a keyless system, though, you’ll scan your finger or hand instead. Either way, you’ll have to provide identification every time you visit the bank. You'll also have to sign in every time you want to access your box.

You can rent a box in your name only, or you can add other people to the lease. If you opt for co-lessors, they will have equal access and rights to the contents of the box, so think carefully about whom you're thinking of adding. For example, people who have addiction, financial, marriage, or judgment issues may not be ideal candidates—even if they’re family. Still, it’s usually a good idea to name someone else to the account, so they can access the box when and if you can’t.

Benefits of a Safe Deposit Box: Security for a Small Cost

Safe deposit boxes are a great option for people for a number of reasons. For starters, they're undoubtedly more secure than most people’s homes. So whatever valuables you own, whether that's gold coins, family jewelry, or stock certificates, banks are much harder to break into and located in secure areas with alarms, video cameras, and top-notch locks. The vaults that hold safety deposit boxes are also reinforced to withstand fire, floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, and other natural disasters.

What does all this security cost? When you rent a safe deposit box, you can expect to pay anywhere from $35 to $225 each year and up. The price depends on several factors including the size of the box you rent and the bank that holds your box.

But remember, just because you have a box doesn’t mean you should put all your valuables in it. Here are tips to help you decide what to keep in—and keep out of—a safe deposit box.

What to Store in a Safe Deposit Box

Safe deposit boxes are a good place to keep hard-to-replace documents such as contracts and business papers, military discharge papers, and physical stock and bond certificates, along with small collectibles and family heirlooms. Keep in mind that the largest safe deposit boxes are usually just 10 inches by 10 inches and two feet deep. This leaves plenty of room for irreplaceable photos and Grandma’s wedding ring, but not your antique doll collection.

Good things to store in your safe deposit box are important items you won’t need frequent access to, including:

  • Personal papers, such as original birth certificates, adoption papers, marriage licenses, and citizenship papers
  • Copies—but not the only copies—of wills and powers of attorney
  • Military records and discharge papers (e.g., DD 214s)
  • School transcripts and diplomas
  • Sensitive documents you wouldn’t want roommates, children, relatives, and visitors to find
  • The deed to your house, along with any car titles
  • Paper stock and bond certificates (though most are issued electronically these days), including U.S. savings bonds
  • An inventory of your home’s contents, in case you need to file a claim with your homeowner’s insurance policy
  • Important business papers, records, and contracts
  • Hard drives and flash drives with backups and important data
  • Financially or sentimentally valuable jewelry, collectibles, and family keepsakes
  • Other documents or small items that would be difficult or impossible to replace

Even though safe deposit boxes are designed to withstand natural disasters, it’s a good idea to put anything that could be damaged by water into a waterproof container such as a zippered plastic bag. This adds another layer of protection and can also help you keep your safe deposit box more organized. And before stashing those important papers and photos, make copies to store electronically on your computer or in the cloud. Just be sure your family knows how to access them.

Items You Shouldn't Keep In a Safety Deposit Box

You can access your safety deposit box during banking hours, which means you won't be able to get into it on holidays and, in some cases, on weekends. Store items you know you won't need in an emergency. Passports, medical directives, the only copies of wills and powers of attorney, and other documents that you may suddenly need are better kept in a secure spot at home, such as a fireproof home safe that’s bolted to the floor or wall.

Safe deposit boxes can’t be accessed 24/7, so don’t put anything in them that you might need in a hurry.

You’re better off keeping the following items out of your safe deposit box:

Passports

Even if you’re not a frequent international traveler, you never know when you’ll need your passport for business, a spontaneous trip, or to help a relative or friend overseas.

The only copies of important documents

The only copies of living wills, advanced medical directives, and durable powers of attorney are of little value if they are hidden away in a safe deposit box that no one can access. Tell your loved ones about the arrangements you’ve made and where they can find the documents.

The only copies of your will

This is especially true if you haven’t designated a cosigner to your safe deposit box. If you pass away or become incapacitated, it can be difficult for your loved ones to access your safe deposit box, and thus the only copy of your will. It’s better to keep wills, living wills, medical directives, and powers of attorney in a secure place at home (such as that fireproof home safe) and tell a trusted relative or friend where they are and how to access them. Remember to give your medical proxy and the person who has your power of attorney copies of relevant documents.

Valuables you haven’t insured

Even though items in a safe deposit box are secure, you should make sure they’re covered by your homeowner’s insurance policy or a special rider, just in case—there are even companies that specialize in insuring safe deposit box contents.

Keep in mind that the money you have on deposit in a federally insured bank or credit union is protected, but items in a safe deposit box are not. Tell your insurance company that the items will be kept in a safe deposit box. You might get away with a lower premium, as the items will be more secure than they would be in your home.

Cash

Again, the money you deposit in a federally insured bank or credit union is protected up to $250,000 per depositor per bank, but the cash in your safe deposit box is not. You’re much better off keeping your money in a savings, money market, or other type of bank account where it will be insured. You may also be able to earn a little interest, something that won’t happen if your cash is in a box.

Anything illegal

Firearms may or may not be permitted, so ask your bank for clarification if it’s relevant. Explosives, hazardous materials, and illicit drugs are a no-no, needless to say.

The Bottom Line

While safe deposit boxes have been offered by banks for about 150 years—with various other types of safekeeping offered long before that—fewer people today are renting safe deposit boxes, opting instead for digital storage and home safes. This can make it easier to find an available box—or more difficult if your bank no longer offers them. Betty Riess, a Bank of America spokeswoman, said demand for boxes has dropped “significantly,” especially among younger customers who are more likely to rely on digital storage, adding that fewer than half of its safe deposit boxes are rented.

Still, safe deposit boxes can be helpful, especially if you aren’t comfortable with the digital storage environment. Some banks offer the boxes for free if you have a certain type of account or a certain balance with the bank. If you’re interested in renting a box, start with your local bank or credit union. If it doesn’t offer the service, ask a representative if they know who does or look online to learn about the options in your area.