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Spring-clean your financial life with these 7 tips

1 month ago 28

I used to dread spring.

In Big Mama’s house, the Spring equinox meant weekends spent washing and packing away winter stuff — the living room drapes gave way to white sheers (no wrinkles allowed), and the furniture freed of its slipcovers for a deep clean. (When my grandmother wasn’t looking, we would sneak onto the sofa sans the thick plastic we hated from summers of it sticking to our legs.)

She also would make us sort through our clothes to remove what no longer fit. Every window and screen got washed, too.

Now that I have my own home, I spring-clean like my grandmother. But I’ve added something to this annual ritual: clearing the clutter in my financial life.

It’s interesting how we adopt practices we loathed as children.

So, is it time to clean your financial house? Here are seven tips to get you started:

1. Purge your paper clutter

Take a cue from Marie Kondo, author of the best-selling book “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing,” and discard what doesn’t spark joy. Or in the case of bank and investment statements, necessity.

Start by organizing your financial documents into two piles: save and shred.

Save: Of course, you’ll need to keep original birth certificates, military records and other vital documents. But there are other papers you need to keep. Let’s talk about past tax returns: The IRS says that you generally need to hold on to paperwork that supports information on your tax return until the period of limitations for that tax year runs out. To find those guidelines, go to irs.gov and search for “How long should I keep records?”

Shred: Even though so much of our financial lives is online, I have trouble throwing out files related to my finances. But I’m getting better about being a paper pack rat. I’ve been scanning more documents and keeping them in a file I’ve designated “personal finance.”

As you declutter, don’t toss your financial documents and statements in the trash. Shred them to prevent identity theft. If you don’t have a shredder, check with your local bank to see whether it offers the service free.

2. Reduce future paper clutter

If you’re overwhelmed with paper statements, now is a good time to have your financial documents delivered electronically.

If you’re worried about missing something, set up alerts. I get beeped all day with alerts I’ve set up, but I’m glad to have them. They remind me to pay attention to my accounts.

If you do go digital, don’t get lazy and ignore the statements delivered to your inbox.

3. Clean up your credit files

When was the last time you checked your credit report?

Go to the official site where you can get your report free — annualcreditreport.com — and make sure there isn’t something in your file that shouldn’t be there.

By law, the three major credit bureaus must give you a free copy of your file every 12 months.

At the onset of the pandemic, the three major bureaus — Equifax, Experian and TransUnion — made it easier for consumers to view their credit history by offering free weekly credit reports. Though the offer was supposed to sunset, last year the bureaus permanently extended it.

I get it. Creating and keeping track of passwords is a pain.

Data breaches have left us vulnerable. So get to scrubbing out passwords for financial accounts that may have been compromised.

Research password managers and online services that will backup your files and software. An external hard drive attached to your computer is still vulnerable to hackers. I’ve moved away from creating my own passwords and instead use a password generator.

Please set up two-factor authentication on every single financial account you have. Seriously! And download an authenticator app.

5. Clear out old beneficiary information

As a young adult, you may have designated your parents to receive retirement money. But if you’re now married or have children, you probably want to leave money to them instead.

Or maybe you’ve moved on from a relationship, but your last romantic partner is still on your life insurance policy.

As you look at what documents to save or shred, double-check that your beneficiary information is up to date.

Your mama set up a checking or savings account for you when you were in high school. You don’t use that account anymore, but you can’t bring yourself to close it down. Or maybe you got married, and you’re hanging on to accounts you no longer need.

Or you have way more credit cards than you need.

You may have been advised to keep a credit card you don’t want because closing it would remove the history from your credit file. This is one of the most misunderstood myths about credit scoring. An account in good standing with a history of on-time payments will remain in your credit files for up to 10 years from the date it was closed.

7. Get rid of at least one bad financial behavior

Here’s one you might consider since the tax filing deadline has passed: Stop getting a refund.

The average refund this filing season has been about $3,000, according to the IRS. People often tell me they like getting a refund. They argue that it is a forced savings plan.

If you have debt, please change your withholding. Otherwise, you will spend the year paying interest on debt that you could be paying down with the money you are letting the government hold all year free.

I know all this financial tidying up can be tedious, not unlike spring cleaning.

But Big Mama taught me that a good spring cleaning meant an orderly home and life. The same is true with your financial house.

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