What you should (and shouldn’t) store in a safe deposit box

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Renting a safe deposit box can help you keep important personal documents, collectibles and family heirlooms safe. But it’s important to make wise decisions about what items really belong in a safe deposit box. If you need to access your items quickly, or if lack of access will cause problems, don’t store those items in a safe deposit box.

Unfortunately, this has become too apparent for some as the coronavirus pandemic has shut down bank branches and left safe deposit boxes temporarily inaccessible.

If you want to be savvy with your safe deposit box, here’s what you should know.

What is a safe deposit box?

A safe deposit box is a secure container usually made of metal that’s used to store valuables at a bank or credit union. These boxes are often kept in vaults and can be rented throughout the lifetime of a customer for an annual fee.

Modern safe deposit boxes have been around since the mid-1800s. Some banks today consider them to be an outdated service and have stopped offering safe deposit boxes altogether. But there’s still a demand for them, says Dave McGuinn, president and founder of Safe Deposit Specialists.

Average cost of a safe deposit box

The price depends on the size of the box, your bank as well as your region. When you rent a box, expect to pay around as little as $18 per year to more than $140 per year.

The fee usually increases when you rent a larger safe deposit box. McGuinn recommends that banks charge you based on square inches. So, if the bank charges $1.00 per square inch, a 10 x 10 inch box would cost $100 per year.

Here is what three financial institutions charge to rent their safe deposit boxes:

  • Local Government Federal Credit Union in North Carolina

          Cost: Around $18 to $90 per year

          Size: For box sizes ranging from 3 x 5 inches to 10 x 15 inches.

  • First Bank & Trust Company in Virginia

          Cost: $18 to $61.75 per year

          Size: For box sizes ranging from 2 x 5 inches to 10 x 10 inches

  • Washington Federal Bank in Washington

          Cost: $15 to $150 per year

          Size: For box sizes ranging from 2 x 5 inches to 34 x 16 inches

Some banks will also give you breaks based on your relationship with the institution.

What should go in a safe deposit box

Antiques, documents and anything that’s difficult or impossible to replace that isn’t needed right away could be worth putting in a safe deposit box.

Good things to put in a safe deposit box include:

  • Personal papers
  • Stamp or coin collections
  • Jewelry or rare collectibles
  • Important contracts and business papers

Keep in mind that a bank may limit the amount of items you can keep in a safe deposit box, based on their value. There may be other restrictions as well, like rules against keeping explosives and anything illegal in the box you’re renting out.

What should not go in a safe deposit box

Avoid storing items you might need on short notice or in an emergency in your safe deposit box. You also avoid storing items that aren’t typically needed on short notice, but your inability to retrieve them would cause significant problems.

Some examples are:

  • passports
  • medical directives
  • revocable living wills

If your bank branch was (or still is) shut down, like so many have been during the pandemic, you may not be able to get your belongings when you need them.

Even if the item you are storing in a safe deposit box doesn’t typically need to be retrieved quickly, consider how simply not having access to the item might be troublesome. For example, Tara Unverzagt, CFP, founder of South Bay Financial Partners, knows that having the wrong things in a safe deposit box can create a lot of hassle. In one instance, a person she knew needed to get her passport from a safe deposit box but couldn’t because the location was closed due to COVID-19. “It was a nightmare,” Unverzagt says.

Some items, like a medical directive, shouldn’t be stored in a safe deposit box anyway: If you are incapacitated and need the items, you can’t go get them. Even if you think you have a workaround by having multiple owners with access to the box, you “would still be limited to bank hours to gain access,” says Chris Struckhoff, founder and CEO at Lionheart Capital Management. During a pandemic-driven closure, those hours and that access may be weeks away.

Why use a safe deposit box?

Safe deposit boxes can provide added safety beyond what you may have available at home. Safe Deposit Specialists’ McGuinn knows first-hand that keeping items in a safe deposit box can be safer than storing them in your own safe. Once while he was traveling, someone broke into his house and used the tools in his garage to get into his safe.

“A safe deposit box with the concrete or steel walls, the big, magnificent vault door with triple combinations on it and time clock and all that — that’s a much safer choice for consumers,” McGuinn says.

Are my belongings insured like my bank account?

A safe deposit box lives within the vault of a federally insured bank or credit union. But whatever you put inside that box is not insured by the institution or the government. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., for example, protects only the money in FDIC-insured checking, savings, CDs and money market accounts. Furthermore, there are no federal laws stating that customers must receive any form of payment when an item is damaged or stolen.

If you want insurance on the items within the box, you must purchase it yourself. Why might you consider this? You could lose valuables stored in a bank vault following a natural disaster.

Consider adding a special policy to your home insurance policy or contents insurance policy to cover valuable items. Whether it’s your diamond tiara or a collection of rare magazines, your home insurance agent can write a separate policy, called a rider. And insurers will often give you a discount for storing pricey items in a safe deposit box.

A personal articles floater can be added to your homeowners or renters insurance policy, McGuinn says. Another option is finding a company that specializes in providing policies for safe deposit box contents.

Bottom line

If you have a safe deposit box it’s a good idea to think about what you store there and consider how much trouble it would cause if you weren’t able to get your items for a lengthy period.

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Written by
Brandon Renfro, CFP®
Contributing writer
Brandon Renfro, CFP®, is a contributing writer for Bankrate. Brandon writes about banking and personal finance advice.
Edited by
Senior wealth editor