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10 financial spring cleaning tips

Take these steps to renew, review, refresh and regrow your finances

By Dana Dratch

You probably have a little money stashed around the house and don't even know it.

But forget turning over those couch cushions and going through old coat pockets. Instead, try a little financial spring cleaning.

Here are 10 ways you can find a little extra cash and get more mileage out of the money you do have. And you don't even have to battle the dust bunnies:

1. Get rid of clutter. Just as spring is a good time to clean out your closets, it's also a good time to go through your finances and toss out the things that no longer fit your life, says Gary Foreman, editor of frugality-minded website The Dollar Stretcher.

Foreman and his family were using one of the inexpensive movie download services so much that they dropped one of their expensive cable subscriptions. "It was rare that we were watching it," Foreman says.

His tip: "I go through the financial statements and look at them like they're closets," he says. Ask: What am I not really using anymore?

2. Sweep away those winter bills.  Warmer weather is here, so if you're still shoveling those leftover Christmas bills, it's a good time to get rid of them, says Foreman.

One way to handle them is to strategize a one-time idea to make some extra money, such as a garage sale, online sale or even volunteering for overtime at work, he says.

Or just put yourself on a more stringent payment plan. And you can use an online credit card calculator to see how quickly you can deep-six that debt. What you gain financially: peace of mind and a huge amount of interest that you won't be paying every month.

3. Organize for next year's taxes. One task to make it easier: create a folder (paper or on computer), to hold all of the charitable deductions you make throughout the year, says Linda Sherry, director of national priorities for Consumer Action, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group.  Those deductions add up fast, "and it can be difficult to follow up later," she says.

You can do the same for other spending categories that you need to track throughout the year. And some banks offer software that makes the task easy, she says.

And don't forget your withholdings. If you were substantially over or under for 2009, this is also a great time to adjust your withholdings for next year.

4. Play with the techno-toys. One thing that can make your life easier: alerts to tell you when you're approaching your preset limits on credit and debit cards, says Sherry. Often you have the choice of setting them to reach you by e-mail or text message, and they are "tremendously helpful," she says. By avoiding going over your limits, you bypass having to pay extra fees.

5. Put your savings on autopilot. Set up an automatic draft to your savings account, "even if it's just $10 a month," says Barbara Stanny, author of "Overcoming Underearning: A Five-Step Plan to a Richer Life."

It's as easy as going to your bank's website and arranging to have the money automatically transferred every month from your checking account or payroll deposit, she says.

Don't worry about interest rates -- they're pitiful today -- but look for a savings account "that has no charges," Stanny advises.

Planning something special in your future, such as a vacation or new car? Open an account just for that, says Stanny, who says a friend of hers is doing this to save for a dream purchase: a boat. Even saving just a little at a time, "it's amazing how fast it adds up," she says.

6 . Scope out your credit cards and credit report. You're entitled to at least three free copies each year -- one from each of the three major credit reporting agencies -- TransUnion, Experian and Equifax. Get them for free at AnnualCreditReport.com, the government-mandated site. If you want your credit score, expect to pay for it. Don't fall for gimmicks from companies that require you to buy a service before getting your so-called free score.

These days, credit reports are being used for everything from setting insurance rates to evaluating job candidates. So making sure your report is accurate can save you some money.

Also, 2009 was a tumultuous year for credit cards. Check the interest rates, credit limits and any rewards programs tied to your plastic. While canceling credit cards can hurt your credit score, you may want to shelve the cards with high APRs and pay down balances on cards with low credit limits to increase your credit utilization ratio. The lower your ratio, the better your credit score. Cash in your rewards, or if your rewards program isn't working for you, check out other rewards cards that better suit your lifestyle.

7. Check those beneficiaries. Some financial accounts (insurance policies, too) don't pass through your will, even if you have one. Instead, the assets go directly to the beneficiaries you named when you opened the account or bought the policy.

Over the years, life changes. You get married, divorced, have kids, etc. But too often, you forget to revisit those beneficiary selections. That means if the worst happens, the money in that bank account you opened in college, pre-spouse and kids, could still go to Aunt Edna or your ex.

So take a look at each of your financial accounts and insurance policies to make sure that the money will go where you need it to go now -- not where you wanted it to go years ago.

8. Revisit your insurance. The past few years have been a bumpy financial ride for everyone. If your circumstances have changed (cars, job, home or home value), have you changed your insurance too? If not, you could be carrying too much (too expensive) or too little (risky if you have to make a claim). Spring is a great time to take a quick look and make sure that your coverage is, as Goldilocks said, "just right."

9. Clean house. You know those old household white elephants that have been around so long you don't even see them anymore? Bad financial habits or outdated decisions are just like that. Lurking on the edge of your life, they take up space and resources without offering much in return. But spring is a great time to examine your financial "big picture" and clear out what isn't working for you.

Look at the reasons behind your current financial situation, says Foreman. For instance, "is there a reason you're always carrying $3,000 on your credit cards?" he asks. Or do you need to be a two-car family? And are those family cars you bought then the best ones to meet your needs now?

With this step, you might find that you want to cut spending, increase your income or some combination of the two.  

The secret to getting the most out of this one: take off the blinders and really look at everything to find out what is (and isn't) working for you financially.

10. Think about getting outside. Just as physical spring cleaning gives you a chance to bring the outside in and vice versa, financial spring cleaning has a fun side, too, says Foreman.

"Now's a good time to start thinking, 'What are you going to do for a vacation this year?'" he says. And from "stay-cations" to weekend and long-weekend getaways, there are plenty of economical alternatives to the old standard 14-day sojourn.

And a little advance planning can give you a financial advantage. Says Foreman, "You can get information on the Internet, send for a brochure," and salt away a little money for whatever you choose.

See related: Credit not right? Time to schedule a credit card checkup, 7 simple ways to create an emergency savings fund, How to clean up a holiday credit card mess

Published: March 24, 2010


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