8/20/2012 2:15 PM ET|
Fix your finances in a day
Financial chores can pile up like dust bunnies under the bed.
When I asked my Facebook fans what money tasks they were putting off, they cited a laundry list of duties that were time-consuming and often grim:
● "I need to write an 'in case I'm dead' instruction sheet, but it's so boring I just can't make myself sit down and do it."
● "Updating our wills. We move frequently with the Navy and it somehow never makes the short list."
● "Our monthly budget . . . takes us a week into the month (sometimes longer) to get it done!"
● "Figuring out the magic number for retirement."
● "I've been putting off setting up a Roth IRA."
● "Review and redo family's financial plan now that we've satisfied one of our major objectives. Really don't know which 'back burner' item to bring forward first."
A personal money day
It's no wonder we procrastinate. Most of us live busy lives, and difficult or mundane tasks often fall to the bottom of our to-do lists. If something isn't actually on fire, we ignore it -- which can have serious repercussions for our finances or our families. You don't want to die without a will, screw up your retirement savings or waste money because you weren't paying attention.
I know the consequences -- and yet my own list of undone money chores continued to grow. Then, about five years ago, blogger J.D. Roth offered a solution: a "personal money day." Instead of trying to squeeze these chores around everything else, he suggested setting aside a weekday -- using a vacation day, if necessary -- to tackle the stuff that wasn't getting done.
Now, at least once a year, I take a day to do just that. I do it during the week, when banks are open, customer-service lines are fully staffed and my family is busy doing something else and doesn't need my attention.
Here's what I accomplished during my most recent fix-it day:
- Negotiated a $50 monthly reduction in our bundled Internet, phone and television bill.
- Rebalanced all of our retirement funds.
- Moved our daughter's college savings fund to a better 529 plan.
- Pulled my free credit reports from AnnualCreditReport.com.
- Reviewed our spending over the previous six months.
- Identified and eliminated $35 in monthly subscription charges for services we were no longer using.
On previous money days, I converted an individual retirement account to a Roth, saved hundreds of dollars a year by switching payroll tax companies and scheduled a bunch of free trips by cashing in frequent-traveler rewards.
Resources that will help
If you're ready to fix your finances in a day, here are some resources that could help you:
- Do a spending "autopsy." That's what Jeff Yeager, also known as the "Ultimate Cheapskate," calls the spending reviews he does occasionally to see where his money's going -- and how he might want to redeploy it. You can do it the old-school way, gathering up the last three months' worth of bank and credit card statements. Or you can use an account-tracking service such as Mint.com, which automatically categorizes your transactions.
- Find a better bank and switch. Getting fee'd to death? You can call around to local banks and credit unions to see who offers a better deal, or you can use NerdWallet's checking account comparison feature, which picks good choices based on how you use your account. Once you find a better option, "5 steps to switch your bank" will walk you through the process of changing over.
- Check your credit scores. You can get your free credit reports at AnnualCreditReport.com, but the scores pitched on that site -- and most other sites around the Web -- aren't the FICO scores most lenders use. To get your FICOs, you'll need to visit myFICO and cough up $20 per score. The scores come with detailed information about how you can make your numbers better. Knowing your FICOs will help you gauge what interest rates and rewards credit cards you might qualify for.
- Review your rewards programs. Most credit cards these days come with some kind of rewards, and you're probably a member of a few frequent-traveler programs. The problem is that programs change over time, and you might not realize it. Your rewards could be losing value as programs increase the number of points needed to score free travel and other goodies. Or maybe other programs would reward you more richly. Sites such as AwardWallet.com, Points.com, MileTracker and TripIt Pro (my favorite) can help you see how many points or miles you have in each program. Points.com allows you to trade, exchange or buy rewards to grow your balances faster. If you have rewards orphaned in a program you no longer use, WebFlyer's mileage converter can help you rescue them.
- Get a better credit card. If you carry a balance, a lower interest rate can help you get your debt paid off faster. If you don't carry a balance, a rewards card can score you cash rebates or free travel. Cruise the latest offers at sites such as CardRatings.com, CreditCards.com, IndexCreditCards, LowCards.com and NerdWallet.
- Find out what others are saying about you. The credit bureaus aren't the only companies compiling data about you. The CLUE, or Comprehensive Loss Underwriters Exchange, database tracks auto and homeowners insurance claims. Errors there can affect your rates, so you'll want to request your reports from LexisNexis, the company that maintains the database. LexisNexis also maintains employment and tenant history databases, so check those as well. If you've ever applied for an individual health, life or disability plan, you should see what the Medical Information Bureau is reporting about you, too, because that can affect your future rates and ability to get coverage.
- Figure out what you should be saving for retirement. Even if you can't save the ideal amount right now, you should at least know the number you're shooting for. MSN Money's retirement calculator is easy and quick. If you want something more detailed, check out AARP's version. Then call your human resources department and boost your 401k or 403b contribution by at least 1 percentage point. No workplace plan? Open an IRA or Roth IRA at a discount brokerage and start an automatic transfer to contribute every month.
- Find a financial planner. Maybe you're not procrastinating. Perhaps you're stuck because you're overwhelmed, and what you really need is a helping hand. If that's the case, consider hiring a fee-only financial planner on an hourly basis to review your financial situation and offer advice. You can do this a la carte -- by having the planner just look over your retirement portfolio -- or opt for a full financial plan. Find referrals to hourly planners at the Garrett Planning Network.
- Shop your insurance. Your state's insurance department may provide an annual or semiannual survey to help you compare premiums for homeowners and auto insurance. (Enter your state's name and "insurance survey" into a search engine to find it.) Follow up with a few companies to get a quote. Or use a site such as CarInsurance.com to get quotes from several companies at once. Insure.com offers quotes for home, auto, health and several other types of coverage.
- Make a home inventory. Speaking of insurance, if your place is destroyed, you'll want documentation of your stuff so you can make an accurate claim. Take pictures or, better yet, shoot video of each room in your house, focusing in on the good stuff and recording a narrative that includes relevant details, such as serial numbers and how much you paid. Then store that documentation in a secure place away from home, such as in a safe-deposit box. Know Your Stuff, a home inventory site run by an insurance trade group, can help.
- Make a will. Even more important than declaring who gets what is deciding who will make financial and health decisions for you, should you become incapacitated. If your situation is relatively simple, Quicken WillMaker can help you draft those documents as well as a will. Even if you decide to go to a lawyer -- which you should do if your estate is worth more than a few hundred thousand bucks, you have minor children or your relatives are contentious -- WillMaker can help you clarify what you want to happen when you die. You'll also want to leave behind a list of relevant account passwords.
Liz Weston is the Web's most-read personal-finance writer. She is the author of several books, most recently "The 10 Commandments of Money: Survive and Thrive in the New Economy" (find it on Bing). Weston's award-winning columns appear every Monday and Thursday, exclusively on MSN Money. Join the conversation and send in your financial questions on Liz Weston's Facebook fan page.
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