NEW YORK (MainStreet)—Call me paranoid. I know we're supposed to save for retirement and our kids' college, but what about saving funds for the, er... apocalypse? Not necessarily the biblical "end times," a personal mini-apocalypse would do.
[Read: Get 'Floored' in Real Estate: What's wURKEN?]
"One never knows the kind of emergency in which you may find yourself," says Michelle Boykins of the National Crime Prevention Council—the folks behind the "Take A Bite Out Of Crime" McGruff Crime Dog. "Having clothes, food, blankets, batteries, flashlights and other non-cash items may help you barter or trade if the situation arises."
You know, like being trapped in the middle of a blackout, a hurricane, tornado or being forced out of your home during a terrorist attack— all of which has already happened to me. Suddenly the ATMs are dead. Online banking and shiny credit cards can't get you a bottle of water. You find yourself rummaging through the dusty corners of your closet frantically hoping you can trade in that forgotten coin collection, grandma's dingy jewels, or perhaps—again in my case—old teeth.
Yes. Very old, gross, human teeth. More on that later.
The point is, with the American Red Cross responding to 70,000 disasters in the United States every year and world-wide natural disasters on the rise according to an International Monetary Fund study, the chances are pretty good you'll face an emergency in your lifetime.
There's a helpful (and slightly depressing) list of emergencies and how to prepare for them on the Red Cross website—where I discovered I've personally experienced almost all of them except for a volcano. Plus, there's a "Red Cross Ready" video with Jamie Lee Curtis showing how to make an Emergency Preparedness Kit and a kit calculator to figure out how much stuff you'll need, including cash.
"It is a good idea to calculate your typical monthly living expenses and set that amount aside in cash," says Boykins.
[Read: Oklahoma Relief Efforts Feature Small Businesses and Local Heroes]
But what about when your cash runs out or becomes apocalyptically useless? That's when you'll need things with intrinsic value, called "commodity money." For Colonial Americans it was tobacco, beaver skins, and wampum. For prisoners of war, it was cigarettes. I'm been thinking about keeping a stack of good old-fashioned coins made of gold.
"Gold has been strong in the past few years, but can fluctuate pretty dramatically," says Jordan Tabach-Bank of the New York Loan Company, a.k.a., 'Pawnshop To The Stars.'"Items that seldom lose their value include large diamonds, fancy colored diamonds, signed jewelry and high-end complicated watches."
James Bond swapped his watch for a boat ride in the last movie, but to get more than a boat ride's worth, Tabach-Bank says not just any jewelry or watch will do. "I always recommend that clients purchase signed goods from reputable names such as Van Cleef & Arpels, Cartier, Graff, Audemars Piguet, Rolex, or Paneraim," he said.
You can even keep your emergency funds on the wall in the form of a canvas. "Household named artists with strong secondary markets that sell regularly at auction, such as Picasso and Warhol, carry the best value," says Tabach-Bank, "And can be easily converted into cash." Though, considering the last time I had to flee down 18 flights of stairs in the pitch black, I think I'd rather be wearing a Rolex than hauling a Warhol. The most valuable item I took was my cell phone—solely so I could use it as a flashlight. Maybe I should buy a nicer case to increase its trading value.
"I recently had a completely diamond studded cell phone case come in," Tabach-Bank said.
So once I get my diamond studded cell phone, Rolex, and a month of cash in my Red Cross Ready kit, I'm all set, right?
Squirreling it Away
But you need to protect your stash.
"If you choose to hide the money in your house," says Boykins, "remember to hide it in a place that is not obvious to others."
[Read: Generators Pose Hazard to Tornado Victims]
The National Crime Prevention Council has a lot of great tips for protecting your home on its website, but the best tip is remembering you're not as smart as you think.
"The places you think are clever hiding places – like the laundry, in a sock drawer, or taped to a mattress – are the first places a criminal will look," Boykins says. "Consider investing in 'dummy' safes such as safes made to look like wall sockets or hiding your cash and valuables in plain sight like a hollowed out book in a bookshelf of other books."
But for valuables such as gold, bonds, and other investment collectables, she recommends locking them in a real safe. Hopefully one you'll remember how to open in chaotic emergency. You'll want your emergency funds easy to find and easy to carry.
Which brings me back to the bag of teeth. Teeth my father-in-law apparently pulled during his career as an oral surgeon, stuck in a bag in the attic, and left for decades until my wife discovered them while cleaning out the house years after his death. At first we were going to throw them in the trash... but then saw the gold fillings. And because our funds were running low and we were in the midst of an expensive move, she spent several nights breaking up these old teeth with a hammer and nutcracker hoping the gold might be worth something.
Those fillings turned out to be worth several thousand dollars, enough to move us from Virginia to New York plus pizza! Come to think of it, they were also easy to carry, small and revolting enough to deter robbers.
So forget the art, the watches, and the cash. For my apocalyptic emergency kit, I'm packing teeth... and a nutcracker.
--Written by Jay Alan Zimmerman for MainStreet