Prolonged travel, illness, death or divorce—any significant event can cause one partner to be out of the daily loop. Knowing what it takes to keep the household humming is relieves much stress and worry.
Households still generally run on principles of “separation of labor.” In the past, it might have been gender roles. She did inside housework. He tackled outside housework. Today, with new tools, the tasks might be shared in different ways, but partners generally claim household jobs by abilities, interests, or trade-offs. With experience, the “task master” knows the subtleties of each task. The intention is to work together to make life flow efficiently.
Managing Life During Life Turbulence
And then something happens to disrupt this working system of household harmony. The disruption might be prolonged illness, death, divorce, lengthy business travel, disastrous weather, or out-of-town caregiving. When the information provider is unavailable, a flood of questions begins that revolve around details. What’s that account number? Who’s the plumber? When is our insurance due? What does our homeowners' insurance cover? How does our health insurance work? How do I interact with the business professionals who are part of our household infrastructure?
Life presents enough disruptive challenges. Building a support system that allows for the sharing of jobs but also provides swapping of responsibilities is about having family/household process that can be implemented by either partner.
The heart of a process can be a household notebook made up of current statements, contact information grouped in sections. Storing that information online sounds smart, efficient and intelligent, until one’s mental capabilities are diminished when life is upended and feels unpredictable.
One man repeated to us regularly, “I give her all the passwords!” However, when stressed or grief-stricken, even technology-savvy people often need revert to concrete, organized, paper-based resources. Not having the information readily available is likely to cause a bigger problem. It’s the stress of “Where do I find this?” The real payoff occurs when danger lurks. It is admirable, reassuring, loving to provide a support system should life shift in unexpected ways.
How to Get Started with a Household Notebook
Start by recognizing the value of this loving, caring tool. Get a notebook, dividers, and hole punch. Get a box or basket as a collection spot/holding tank. Decide on a place to keep them that’s easily accessed. It helps if it’s visible in a routine work spot where incoming household mail is processed.
This notebook will not likely leave the house, so don’t worry about privacy or identity theft. If you have outsiders in your home regularly in the short-term (painters, plumbers, etc.) or long-term (house cleaners, etc.), consider at least putting it out of sight.
This can be finessed to an amazing system over time that keeps goals in focus and future expenditures in view. Most people don’t have the mental energy at the end of a busy day to implement this to the nth degree. It’s easy to just do what’s needed with good intention for better organization later. Find a rhythm that works for you.
An Example: Our Household Notebook
We use a two-inch-thick, three-ring binder with tabbed dividers. Keep the notebook, a hole punch, the shredder, and a thick black marker nearby.
As you come across materials at home, in the mail, or online, collect, punch, and sort them into the binder. The collections will build over time. Make a trip to the car to find vehicle documents. Search out more as you think of them or need them.
Sort the mail. Punch holes in the most recent statement. Shred the old statement. Block out personal information. If you have notes that you will likely need later, keep them. You do not want to accumulate every monthly statement through the year. In today’s world, you can retrieve past statements readily online or from service agents. Having single files for every group of statements never seems to work well. You end up with cabinets full of paper that eventually get purged as a very big, messy project.
If you live at a fast pace and “Let’s do it later” fits your flow. Have a box/basket near where mail comes into your home with the hole punch and marker in it. Toss the item(s) here (after you’ve processed the request for action). Organize the papers later as you watch a movie or have a low-key evening once a quarter. Be sure to set up a folder to collect tax information all year long and then during tax season. Collect receipts and other deduction items in that folder as they appear.
As you flip through the notebook, you will have frequent reminders of the business side of your household. Touching these papers help keep goals in focus and expenditures in view.
Sample Notebook Categories
Here are our notebook categories that reflect the infrastructure of our life.
- Mortgage info
- Property taxes, check stubs
- Insurance: Property and casualty, liability; life, home, auto
- Utilities: We including cellphone with electric, water, etc.
- Home/vehicle insurance and agent
- Car info: Copies of registrations, copies of driver licenses
- Copies of business cards or receipts for support services: plumber, tree service, snow plow service, mowing service
- Annual expenses listed by month (listing/spreadsheet)
- January: School taxes (estimate $), car insurance, property insurance (estimate %)
- April: AAA renewal
- May: Timeshare week used
- June: Car inspection, etc. with an accompanying sheet that includes hints and tips for getting it done.
- Health insurance: Statements; insurance cards
- Life insurance: Statements, due dates
- Long-term care insurance: Statements, due dates
- Eye and other prescriptions
- Medications: Also keep photos of your medications on your phone for reference. There are mobile apps that structure this information that are handy as well. Your mobile app doesn’t help your spouse answer the question of dosage when your phone is left elsewhere.
- Doctor contact information: Primary care physician, dentist, ophthalmologist, specialists
- Vaccination status
- Travel inoculation status
- Attorney: Location of will, powers of attorney, health proxies
- Funeral home contact and plans
- Resources you think you might need (cards, flyers, internet page)
- Income information: Pay stubs, contacts
- Bank info – statement, online access
- Credit cards – statements, online access
- Vehicle loans - statements
- 401K – statement, online access
- Social Security statements printed from online access
- Investments – an aggregate page for an overview, quarterly reports, instructions for online access, contact information for financial advisor
- Copies of Power of attorney, health care proxy/ health care directive
- A list of Passwords: Okay, this might violate the concepts of “security” but this notebook is not likely to leave the house. Remember, under duress, abilities diminish!
- Frequent flyer info (digital file with physical sample and instructions where to find it)
- Copy of passports
- Checklist for closing up your home, arranging pet care (if applicable) before travel.
- Timeshare overview: contract numbers, contacts, fees, reservation sites, maintenance fees
- Timeshare usage history…year, location, guests
- Spreadsheet of timeshare scheduled ahead
- Timeshare annual statements, confirmations
PostScript: Manage Your Passwords/Two-Factor Authentication
Many online services now require "two-factor authentication" in the login process. The first "factor" is most often the account userid and password. Then they ask to send a unique code to either the cell phone or email address on file. You access the phone or email account to get the code. Then you type that code into the box provided to gain entry. They can give you as little as 10 minutes to locate the code and type it in before they cancel the login process.
To gain access to online accounts (especially banks and credit companies) owned by your partner, this means you must:
- Know how to access and use your partner's cell phone.
- Have their cell phone with you when you are taking care of family business while they are getting the medical care they need.
Still need a dose of motivation? Here’s our story in a nutshell
Maintaining a conscientious lifestyle, including an annual physical and other routine tests, indicated my husband, Fred, had a rare and aggressive form of leukemia with a dim prognosis for his age. We are reasonably smart, generally organized, and usually in control of our choices and habits, but this was a chaotic path not chosen.
We had the division of labor as many couples do. We have lots of moving parts to our lives. They were scattered in logical places…but they were scattered. Making sure all of this was organized was part of Fred’s peace of mind. I could have brushed this off as something we could do later, not during the crisis, but it was important to him to do it now during the time of great threat.
Then Fred goes into the hospital for 93 days. I had to complete our tax preparation (already on extension!) for the accountant, keep the bills paid, cancel upcoming travel (timeshare and airlines), have the plumber come to unclog BOTH bathroom sinks, call AAA to jump start the car because I left the inside light on, keep the house clean (more than tidy as he requires a very clean environment when he returns), maintain Fred’s laundry (no hospital garb for him!), grocery shop--all while I embraced the daily role of caregiver during a dangerous time.
We have no kids or pets to complicate the schedule. Having information easily available brought a sense of organization, calm, and control when one more thing popped up on our radar. I called the plumber and AAA, sent the materials to the accountant with 2 weeks to spare, cancelled travel reservations with refunds rather than credit, and navigated insurances and Social Security resources.
I knew what to pay, when to pay it. I remained clothed, sheltered, and fed as we worked our way through this scary time. This system did give him and me peace of mind.
May this all be a good exercise in organization, and your own life proceeds happily ever after. Best wishes for your good life ahead.
PS You can read more about our journey here: Fred's Guide to Stem Cell Transplants.