Ever feel like you are drowning in stacks of paperwork? Have you paid bills late because you lost track of them? Or worse yet, does your credit report show late payments due to those missed payments? Maybe it’s time to organize your finances.
But who has time for that?
Taylor Flanery says everyone does, and she should know. She’s a working mother with three young children who also created three websites in her “spare” time. One of them, Home Storage Solutions 101, is devoted to home organization. With no time to waste, she’s developed systems for everything, including one that allows her to stay on top of her finances in as little as two minutes a day.
Here, Flanery shares the strategies she uses.
Organization Saves Time and Money
With just a bit of work and consistent habits, the main three goals that can be accomplished when you’ve organized your finances include:
- Keep yourself from being buried under paper clutter;
- Keep yourself from missing financial deadlines; and
- Easily put your finger on a piece of financial information when you need it.
Make It a Habit
The best thing you can do to organize your finances is to deal with them consistently. This requires both daily and weekly action, but thankfully the time investment is small compared to the rewards for the time expended.
I suggest a weekly session to deal with your finances, including: banking as needed, monitoring your online bill payments and other financial accounts, paying paper bills, any miscellaneous financial to-do’s that crop up during the week, and filing of your financial documents. It may sound like a lot, but if you do this every week it doesn’t take that long since not much really happens in just one week’s time. I can typically accomplish this in about 30 minutes, including balancing the checkbook, and putting stamps on the envelopes to mail out anything as needed.
The daily work takes even less time. It requires you to have consistent habits in place to put paperwork, including bills, receipts and other items you accumulate and receive during the week, such as in the mail or as you make a purchase, in one place so that you can deal with it during your weekly session. This will typically take someone two minutes at the most daily, if you actually do it daily.
(Flanery offers a free printable bill organizer on her website that can help track due dates, to make sure you pay bills in plenty of time and avoid late fees, and to plan how much money you need in your account at various times of the month.)
Put Bills in Their Place
Sorting through stacks of stuff is what takes lots of time. Touching it once and putting it into the right place for later action takes hardly any time at all.
Have a designated place for all paper bills as they are received, and put them there right away. Don’t allow yourself to set them down somewhere absentmindedly. When you sort your mail daily, put bills in their designated place until you deal with them during your weekly session — during which you will pay them, or calendar them for payment during another weekly session if their due date allows (be sure to account for mailing time). Then file the paid bills and any other financial documents you received that week, once you’ve reviewed them and/or taken any needed actions on them.
Similarly, have a designated folder in your email for all pending electronic bills that you will review and deal with during your weekly finance session. When you receive the email move it to that pending weekly session folder immediately. During the weekly session, open those emails and deal with them one by one, then move them from the pending folder to a different folder for record-keeping (in case you need to reference them later). Similarly, during the weekly session log into your online bill paying system and review what has happened, to confirm payments have been made for the right amount, and that you have adequate money in your account for paying these bills.
Taming the Paper Trail
For receipts, keep an envelope or two in your purse or wallet and place all receipts, as you receive them, into the envelopes. I use two envelopes because I have both personal and business expenses and I find it easier to separate those immediately, but for many people one envelope will be enough. During your weekly paperwork session you can pull out all those receipts and quickly deal with them. For business receipts add the information from them, as necessary, for your bookkeeping and tax needs into a program like QuickBooks, and then separate out any receipts you need for business or tax purposes and file them accordingly. Most personal receipts, except for large-ticket purchases, can almost immediately be tossed, and should be.
The same idea should be used for tax documents, many of which come right at the beginning of the year. As you receive tax documents, just place them immediately in the correct pending tax file folder so you have them together when you are ready to work on your taxes. Once you’ve filed your returns, all the information is already together and ready to be filed for your records.
Receipts: Keep or Toss?
When filing paid bills I find a simple system works best because realistically there are few instances that you need to reference paid bills again. If you need to keep certain bills for business or tax records, separate those out from those that are purely personal, so that you can save them for as long as needed.
Otherwise, get a 12-pocket January-December accordion folder and place paid bills in the appropriate month in which you paid them — do this at the end of each weekly financial organization sessions. When the same month rolls back around the next year, empty the last year’s bills from the accordion file and toss them (you may want to shred them, depending on what financial information is included on them), and put the current month’s bills in its place. That way you always have a rolling file of the last year’s paid bills, but not excess paper clutter. You can see photos of Flanery’s “tickler files” – and examples from her readers – here.
The weekly session, supplemented with the daily habits mentioned, will allow you to accomplish all three goals of financial organization without much time input. It allows you to keep on top of all the paper you receive, so you never get buried under piles of it. You will not miss deadlines, since you will review everything weekly, calendar as appropriate, and deal with items as the time comes. And finally, when you file as you go, at the end of each of these sessions, you’ll be able to find whatever financial information you need easily, without searching for hours upon hours for the proverbial needle in the haystack of your paper piles.
Organize Your Credit Too
Everyone should be checking their credit report consistently, because errors on your report can cost you a lot of money in higher interest charges; not to mention you need to be monitoring for identity theft.
You can get one free credit report a year from each of the three major credit reporting companies on AnnualCreditReport.com. You can choose to get all three reports at once, but I suggest spacing them out approximately four months apart to monitor your credit throughout the year in regularly timed intervals.
Obviously, if you need to deal with an issue it will take you more time, but you’ll be happy to know you’ve got something that needs to be cleared up instead of living in the dark until some negative consequence occurs because of it. This method ends up taking just a few minutes and costs you nothing except the time necessary to set up your reminders to do it at regular intervals.
The Step You Can Take Today
Reviewing Flanery’s steps, I see things I am doing well — I have one of those accordion folders for receipts already, for example. I also see others I can improve upon — namely setting aside a few minutes a day to deal with these tasks so the papers don’t pile up.
And after hearing from so many consumers who have dealt with credit mistakes or problems, I can’t agree more that finding and fixing credit mistakes now is a lot less stressful when you’re not dealing with loan rejection or other setbacks. In addition to checking your credit reports for free, as Flanery suggested above, you can also get your credit scores for free along with an action plan for your credit at Credit.com.
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