Among the ways to protect and preserve your valuables is to lease a safe-deposit box at your bank.

Safe-deposit boxes are relatively secure, relatively convenient and relatively cheap compared to personal property insurance. They have long been a place for families, not just the well-off, to preserve heirlooms and a handy repository for important documents.

The smallest boxes -- usually 3 inches by 5 inches, with enough room for some jewelry, coins and papers--cost from $15 a year at North Community Bank in Chicago to $50 at Commerce Bank in Manhattan.

Much larger boxes can cost several hundred dollars and may not be available at a convenient branch. You can likely earn a 5% or 10% discount if you're already a bank customer and link the annual box payment to your account.

Boxes are not indestructible and while it's exceedingly rare for robbers to make off with their contents, 250 banks containing boxes were inundated during Hurricane Katrina and 1,300 people lost their valuables when a Chase vault was incinerated at Ground Zero on 9/11, says David P. McGuinn, president of Safe Deposit Specialists, a consultancy in Houston.

If you do use a safe-deposit box, place all documents, stamps, baseball cards or anything else prone to water damage in a ziplock bag or Tupperware container. Don't store anything at the bank you'll need on short notice, like a passport, living will or medical directives as banks don't keep long hours.

Ken Little, author of "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Personal Financial Documents," says many of the papers you might once have stored in a box -- deeds, car titles, insurance policies -- are easily replaced nowadays and your will should be held by your attorney or executor.

So, aside from the increasingly rare stock certificate or bearer bond, Little suggests depositing only the irreplaceable, like families photos.

While most states no longer seal boxes upon an owner's death, you might consider joint ownership of the box with a spouse or relative so your heirs can get to its contents quickly.

Safe-deposit boxes are not insured by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation or by the bank itself, since no one but you knows what's inside. You can insure the contents privately, but expect to have to notify the insurer before you remove those expensive earrings from the vault and wear them out on the town.

One word of caution: avoid new "self-service boxes" that don't require a teller's assistance. They cost the same but aren't as secure.