Tax season is in full bloom and Americans are up to their elbows in statements, receipts and 1099s, but it may be a good time for people to clean up their finances while they’re doing their spring cleaning and taking their taxes to their accountants.
The IRS tells us it will only take an hour or so to fill out our 1040s, but they clearly have not factored in the time it takes us to sort through – let alone find – our financial information. Thoughts of a giant post–April 15th bonfire may come to mind, but before you light the match, consider another, more sensible way to handle your finances.
Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards Consumer Advocate Eleanor Blayney, CFP, recommends that while you are cleaning up your house after a long winter celebrate spring by cleaning up your finances as well.
"Your goal should be to get into those forgotten corners, deal with the clutter, recycle the stuff that has value and throw out the rest," said Blayney.
Here are 10 ways to freshen up your finances:
1. Store it. Set up a three–tier storage system: get hanging files for information you will need within the next year, such as receipts or transaction confirmations; storage bins for documents you need to save for more than one year, such as tax returns (3 years after filing) or real estate records (for as long as you own the property, plus 3 years); and a fireproof, lockable box for difficult–to–replace items such as your Social Security card, wills and other estate planning documents.
2. Review your beneficiaries. Make a clean sweep of your estate plan by checking that the correct beneficiaries are designated on your insurance policies and qualified retirement accounts. For example, minor children cannot inherit assets outright without a trust or custodian.
3. Double check your estate plan. While you have your hands on those estate planning documents, reread them to see if anything in your life has changed that would make revisions necessary.
4. Get your free credit report. It's available annually (www.annualcreditreport.com). Get a copy and be sure to read it closely. That way, you can clean up any entries made by creditors that are incorrect.
5. Save automatically. Set up a regular transfer from your paycheck or checking account to a savings account and begin building an emergency reserve. Then forget about those savings. Just like that dust accumulating on the top of the fridge, it's out of sight, out of mind and most importantly, out of your easy reach.
6. Go digital. Don't ever again trip over the clutter of your busy life and forget to pay a bill or a credit card account on time. Use your mobile phone or computer to send yourself reminders of payments due and thereby avoid those dirty, rotten late fees!
7. Protect what you own. While you are changing your clocks and checking your smoke detectors, check your home or renter's insurance as well. Make sure you have the necessary amount of coverage to avoid any major out–of–pocket losses in the event of fire, theft or other disaster.
8. Consolidate. Make your next spring cleaning a much easier job by consolidating your investment accounts with one provider. Often, custodians will provide a single statement on your accounts, even if the accounts must be separately titled. Having a single source for your investment information makes the job of monitoring and rebalancing your accounts more efficient. Be aware, however, that holding all your accounts with a single custodian can limit the amount of SIPC or FDIC coverage available to you.
9. Take a deep dive into your finances. When those spring showers keep you cooped up for a long afternoon, review all your checks, credit card statements and debit transactions from the year before. If you have online banking, you can usually export a year's worth of transactions into a spreadsheet, which you can then sort and classify. You'll see where you are spending the most money and can therefore focus your budgeting and cost–saving efforts accordingly. This review should also provide the basis for a workable budget going forward – a must for anyone wanting to clean up his or her finances.
10. Get help from a CFP professional. Once your financial information is in order, take it to a Certified Financial Planner professional who can then develop a comprehensive financial plan for getting you to your lifetime goals. To find a CFP professional in your area, go to www.cfp.net.
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