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A consumer's guide to reading junk mail

7 tips for sorting the important from the trash

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Carving out just a few minutes to sort and read through your mail -- even those plain white envelopes that look like junk -- might just save you real money on your credit card bills.

A consumer's guide to reading junk mail
7 TIPS FOR CHECKING JUNK MAIL
  1. Reframe your brain.
  2. Make the time.
  3. Be vigilant.
  4. Don't be too hasty.
  5. Create an intake system.
  6. Scan, speed read and watch the numbers.
  7. Take advantage of the Web.
That's never been truer. As banks scramble for profits in the face of tougher regulations and the economic downturn, many issuers are hiking interest rates, raising annual fees and making other such moves. Banks tell cardholders of the changes through the mail, oftentimes in nondescript envelopes that look like junk mail and often end up in the trash.

Problem is that when you blithely toss that envelope, you may be throwing away your chance to, for example, opt out of an interest rate increase.

You may think you're already a pro at sorting out the debris, but today, with the stakes higher and the rules changing, you may need a refresher on recycling, a crash course on trash. We pulled together some of the country's top organizational and time management experts and culled their seven best tips for educating yourself and avoiding costly oversights in the long run.

1. Reframe your brain.
It's helpful to change your mindset about how important your credit card documents really are. For consumers who carry a monthly balance on their cards, increased interest rates, higher annual fees and increased minimum payments cost real money. For example, if you pay $150 a month toward a balance of $5,000, the difference between a 15 and 20 percent annual percentage rate (APR) is more than $800 total over the life of the debt.

As simple as it sounds, if you keep telling yourself that something's important -- rather than telling yourself that you just don't have time to deal with it -- you're much more likely to take action, said Susan Lannis, a professional organizer in Oregon. "When you change the language, you can begin to change the behavior," she says.

2. Make the time.
"The best way to carve out time for mail is to dedicate 15 to 30 minutes after dinner or the kids' bedtime when you start winding down," said New York professional organizer Sarit Clarke. "If you think about sorting through the mail in 15 minutes, it is less daunting."

Clarke recommends a priority system.

  • First priority: Pay bills.
  • Second priority: Go over important documents such as bank letters and credit card notices.
  • Third priority: Look through catalogs or magazines as time allows.

Time management consultant Christine Giri of California suggests creating a "to-read" file for bank and credit card documents and reading these items during small blocks of downtime, such as while you're waiting for an appointment.

"Whether they realize it or not, when people say, 'I don't have time for that,' they're really saying, 'It's not important enough,'" Lannis said.

Whether they realize it or not, when people say, 'I don't have time for that,' they're really saying, 'It's not important enough.'

-- Susan Lannis   
Professional organizer   

3. Be vigilant.
Credit card companies tend to inundate people's mailboxes with new offers and other marketing materials labeled as "important" to entice people to open them. This can create confusion in determining which pieces of mail are legitimate -- and many people mistakenly throw away important documents thinking they're junk mail.

To combat this, Arizona professional organizer Nancy Nemitz suggests that people open each piece of mail and highlight deadlines, rate changes and other account information.

"Review the information and make a decision on whether you want to continue using the credit card," she said. "Most people set it aside to think about later, and too many other things get in the way."

4. Don't be too hasty
Just as some "important" mail isn't, some unimportant-looking mail is. You'd expect your bank to put its logo on your bill, but that's not always the case. "We don't include the company logo on statement envelopes for security reasons," says Bank of America spokeswoman Betty Riess. "Our credit card statement envelopes include a notice in the upper left-hand corner -- 'Statement Enclosed' -- to alert customers."

Sondra Lowell of Los Angeles learned the hard way just how easy it can be to overlook those mailings. Recently, she scanned her junk mail that had been piling up for weeks, giving each piece a quick read before tossing it in the trash. She discovered her Bank of America credit card statement -- in a plain white envelope with no bank logo -- among the pile.

"I called [the bank] and told them why I was late," says Lowell. "Since I’d always been current until then, they agreed to drop the late fee and finance charge."

5. Create an intake system.
Do you have piles of mail stacked up in various parts of your house waiting for your attention? Business systems expert Ragen Chastain of Texas suggests that people create a simple paper-intake system with two receptacles labeled "To Do" and "To File" for mail and other papers.

"Put those receptacles wherever you typically drop your mail -- on the kitchen counter, on the coffee table, etc. -- and put a garbage can there as well. When you bring in the mail, open it all and either throw it away or put it in the receptacles," said Chastain.

"Each morning, 'open shop' by going through your ‘To Do' basket and pulling out anything that must be done today, including credit card bills that need to be paid."

She said the process takes less time than people think. "We have a big tendency to grossly overestimate how long it takes to do things we don't want to do."

6. Scan, speed read and watch the numbers.
Many experts weighed in with tips for processing the information in your credit card documents. Grab a highlighter, crack open that envelope and pay attention.

The best way to carve out time for mail is to dedicate 15 to 30 minutes after dinner or the kids' bedtime when you start winding down.

-- Sarit Clarke    
Professional organizer   

First, scan the outline of each document and note the headings, subheadings and the first sentence of every paragraph, said time management and speed reading expert Abby Marks Beale of Connecticut. Pay attention to changes in rates and penalties. "There is a lot of superfluous stuff in these documents, but there are some important pieces there that need to be uncovered," she said.

Expect to spend about five minutes per card. You're scanning for relevant information, not reading each item in full.

"Read with purpose," said Sue Becker, a professional organizer in Illinois. "What it really comes down to is finding out when you need to make your payment so it's on time, and what the annual percentage rate is on each card. Highlight the relevant information, document it and put it in a 'Credit Cards' file folder. When you've gathered information on all of the cards, you can compare the interest rates and have a visual reminder of which cards are due when."

And for a simplified approach, remember that the trick of the trade is to focus on the numbers, said Schreiber. "Of all the fine print, the numbers are the most important," she said. "Pick out the numbers, use them to compare products and you won't get snowed."

7. Take advantage of the Web.              
If you're tired of tiny print, head to the Web.

"The credit card issuer has an obligation to post the most important parts of the latest terms and conditions -- the fee schedules and grace periods, in particular," said Patrice Peyret, a personal finance blogger from California. "They are easier to read on screen than on paper, and they are more up to date."

You can also sign up for paperless billing. If you're an e-mail junkie, having your credit card statement sent directly to your inbox may help ensure that you'll never miss a bill.

"Most credit card companies are pushing for [paperless billing] -- and may even have an incentive for customers to switch to e-statements," explains Linsey Knerl, personal finance expert and co-author of "10,001 Ways to Live Large on a Small Budget."

Knerl advises cardholders who require paper statements for tax purposes to print them from their computers on a monthly or semiannual basis.

Autopayments and reminders may also help keep you organized. "Set up a calendar reminder on your computer," says Ethan Ewing, president of Bills.com. "Or, set up a minimum monthly auto payment through your online banking service so even if there is a missed bill, you do not completely miss the payment."

Ultimately, it all comes down to committing to make a change, and oftentimes, taking the first step can be the hardest.

"In the end, I was the one who had to change," Lowell says, "which I don't resent because it did solve the problem," she says.

Freelance writer Jodi Helmer also contributed to this report.

See related: Cardholders beware: The terms they are a-changing

Published: January 5, 2010


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