7 low-cost ways to get financially organized
By Dana Dratch
Hey, you. Yes, you with the papers scattered, the checkbook out of balance and the credit card statement you're afraid to open.
You've thought about cutting through the chaos and putting order in your financial life. You know it can give you the gift of more time and less stress. It's also bound to save you some money.
With the new year, now's the time to get going. Every year, the top two New Year's resolutions are "to get fit, and to get organized," says clear-clutter guru Peter Walsh, author of "Lighten Up: Love What You Have, Have What You Need, Be Happier with Less" and host of the OWN TV network's "Enough Already!"
Don't know where to start? Not a problem. We've gathered top organization, design and money experts to share seven tips to help you bring order to your financial life -- without spending a bundle.
1. Don't pay as you go.
Resist the urge to pay bills as they arrive, says Ric Edelman, author of "The Truth About Money" and chairman and CEO of Edelman Financial Services.
Instead, collect them and pay them once a month. "Paying them all at once helps give you a better perspective of your total expenses," he says. Just be sure to leave at least a week for them to arrive "to help insure you don't incur any late charges," Edelman says.
Or simply set a regular time to pay bills and handle financial tasks, like every other Saturday, says Karen Altfest, principal adviser and executive vice president of client relations for New York-based Altfest Personal Wealth Management.
Unfortunately, for people who say 'I'll get to it,' it often doesn't happen," she says.
Select a time that will allow you to concentrate. "We have one client with a small child who uses a babysitter so that she is not disturbed," says Altfest.
Pick a specific place (preferably a room with a door), and use the same place each time, she advises.
Gather everything you're likely to need (like your calculator, stamps, checkbook, etc,) before you sit down, so that you don't have to interrupt your work to search for supplies, she says.
2. Don't worry about fancy containers or systems.
The secret to keeping finances organized? Make it easy.
Are you one of those people who spends the last two weeks of March digging through drawers and closets looking for the receipts you need to file your tax returns? Your inexpensive solution: a large, flat-pocket Manila file.
As you get those receipts throughout the year, stash them in the file. Receipts don't have to be organized, color-coded or filed, they just have to be in one central place, says Ed Slott, a CPA and author of "The Retirement Savings Time Bomb ... and How to Defuse It."
Another good way to start the new year: take the time to clear your desk, put away the old files and set up some new files for the new year, says Maxwell Gillingham-Ryan, author of the "Apartment Therapy's Big Book of Small, Cool Spaces" and founder of ApartmentTherapy.com and TheKitchn.com.
Also take stock of what you need. "It makes a huge difference. If you can't find stuff, you tend not to go there," says Gillingham-Ryan. And, when it comes to bills and finances, "out of sight, out of mind is the problem," he adds.
3. Have a central place for important papers.
Designate a centralized location for all your important papers.
First, create a place to store the papers that will be important this year. "We use this for our clients," says David Bendix, a CPA, financial planner and president of The Bendix Financial Group in Garden City, N.Y. "We send them a binder. They use it for their tax returns and most important financial papers." Some examples: lease agreements, life insurance bills and receipts, and current or annual mortgage documents.
Also to include: addresses and contact information for professionals you use, like CPAs, lawyers or doctors; your annual work benefits information; current statements for your bank and brokerage accounts, and your monthly or annual mortgage papers. This binder becomes "a place where someone could go to recreate their financial life," Bendix says. Don't be afraid to create an electronic backup, if you're comfortable with that, he says.
Second, have a separate similar binder or location for bigger life-related papers, he advises. This would hold things such as birth and marriage certificates, mortgage papers, deeds, passports, vaccination and doctor's records, life insurance policies and wills, he says.
These are the things you don't "file away in a box marked '2011,'" says Bendix.
4. Go paperless (or paper-light).
Tired of pawing through stacks of bills, messy mountains of receipts and piles of mail you haven't quite gotten around to reading? This year, think about banishing paper entirely and using a portable scanner to go digital, says Lynnette Khalfani Cox, author of "Zero Debt: The Ultimate Guide to Financial Freedom."
Portable scanners typically run between $50 and $200 at big-box retailers.
"Simply scan photos and paper documents to create electronic copies. By transferring all physical records into electronic format, you'll be able to later print the records," says Cox. And keep at least one backup copy on a CD or memory stick, she says.
Hand in hand with the scanner? A shredder. "It eliminates waste, and that's pretty crucial," says Bendix. "It's smart, and it'll help you get organized."
Price: Home shredders often range from $25 to $200, depending on capacity and features.
I know many people have little desks at home that are forsaken and forlorn. Making it an approachable, attractive space is the key.
|-- Maxwell Gillingham-Ryan
5. Make your work area attractive. (And size matters.)
Handling finances is often a pain. So at least make the space you're using uncluttered and inviting, says Gillingham-Ryan.
"I know many people have little desks at home that are forsaken and forlorn," he says. "Making it an approachable, attractive space is the key."
One secret: good lighting. "I'm a big fan of desk task lamps for working," says Gillingham-Ryan.
And make sure the work surface is large enough -- at least 2 feet by 3-1/2 feet, says Wayne Bogosian, president and managing director of the PFE Group, and co-author of "The Complete Idiot's Guide to 401(k) Plans."
"A small work space increases the chances you'll misplace or lose altogether those important papers," he says. And "with limited or no space for reference materials, office supplies (stapler, paperclips, tape, calculator, pens, reading glasses) or a printer, you're forced to constantly get out of your chair, sometimes searching in vain."
Bogosian says he learned this himself the hard way. "Two years ago, I bought a desk which looked great online." But not out of the box.
"It had a limited work area, especially after placing my large 21-inch monitor on it," says Bogosian.
6. Make your computer filing system user-friendly.
"A messy desk or filing drawer is only part of the problem," says Bogosian. "A messy computer filing system can be 10 times worse."
The key: Deep-six those general, catch-all categories. Instead, subdivide subjects to make it easy for you and family members to find what's needed, he advises.
"Think about those files you access the most and the reasons why," Bogosian says. "Rather than dumping everything into a general folder called 'documents' or 'photographs,' break it down into primary and secondary folders." Like: "recipes," then subcategories: "breakfast," "lunch" and "dinner." Or "financial documents" subdivided by "tax returns, "credit/debit cards," "estate planning," "insurance," "investments," etc.
"And don't be an 'e-pack rat,'" says Bogosian. "The new year is a good time to clean those e-files. Chances are that document you saved in 1997 isn't going to do you much good today."
7. Set some financial goals.
The new year is also a good time to set some financial goals, says Walsh. Ask yourself what you want from your money.
"We discuss what we want to get with our money," he says. "But we don't discuss what we want from our money."
Depending on your circumstances and goals, your answers could be things like security, peace of mind or just no money worries, he says.
"Set financial spending guidelines with your partner and your kids," he advises. And when you go to make a purchase, Walsh says, ask yourself, "Will buying this item give us what we want from our money or from our financial life?"
See related: 6 tips for organizing gift, debit and credit cards
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Published: December 29, 2011