Dear Readers: With the first hint of spring, you may be inspired to do a bit of cleaning, so why not apply this same energy to your financial house? It's the perfect time to see how well you're keeping your financial resolutions and clear out clutter that may be preventing you from reaching your goals. Here's a list of ideas to help you get going.
CLEAN UP YOUR PAPERWORK
To me, you can't be in control of your finances unless you know where everything is. So now — as you prepare your 2013 taxes — is an ideal time to take a look at how well your organization system is working.
To keep financial clutter under control:
—File your records in easily accessible categories, with separate files for things like bank and investment accounts, tax information, credit and loan statements, and insurance.
—Get rid of unnecessary paper that can clutter your files, such as old sales receipts that have no tax purpose, utility bills unless you need them for a home office deduction, and monthly account statements once you have a quarterly or annual statement.
—Create a backup system for all electronic files.
—Keep up with your filing system at least monthly.
CHECK YOUR CREDIT RATING
It's always a good idea to know exactly how your financial profile is being reported to others. If you haven't checked your credit rating recently, do it now at annualcreditreport.com. Better yet, request a free report from each of the three credit agencies on a rotating basis. And while you're at it, review the terms and perks of your credit cards to make sure you have the best fit.
FRESHEN YOUR BUDGET
Businesses usually do a quarterly review of expenses, and I think it's a good idea for individuals, too. So at the end of March, when you've had a good three months to test out your budget, honestly evaluate how well it's working.
Where are you consistently over budget? Do you spend more or less than you planned in some areas? It's not uncommon for expenses to vary month to month, but if you're considerably off the mark, or covering shortfalls with credit, make adjustments now before things get too far out of control.
POLISH YOUR SAVINGS PLAN, ESPECIALLY FOR RETIREMENT
It's easy for savings plans to fall to the bottom of the pile when other expenses start to add up. But recommit now to paying yourself first.
Retirement should be your No. 1 focus. Make sure you're contributing enough to your employer-sponsored retirement plan to at least get any company match. If at all possible, contribute even more, ideally up to the maximum allowed. Consider opening an IRA.
To me, saving regularly — especially for retirement — isn't just a nice-to-have; it's a must. As you refresh your budget, make sure that saving is a line item on your list of necessary expenses. And put savings contributions on automatic so you're not tempted to spend the money somewhere else.
RENEW YOUR SHORTER-TERM GOALS
Once you have a handle on these things, focus on the next three months. What do you want to accomplish? Whether you're saving for a child's future, a new car or a summer vacation, what changes might you need to make to meet these goals?
SIMPLIFY WHERE YOU CAN
Whether you want to increase savings, control debt or simply be more efficient, you can make it easier to stay on top of things by simplifying wherever possible.
For instance, you can:
—Use direct deposit if available — for your pay, pension and Social Security benefits
—Have one primary bank account and only one or two credit cards
—Set up automatic payments for recurring bills
—Consolidate brokerage accounts
—Use online banking tools
—Set up automatic deposits to your savings and retirement accounts
UPDATE YOUR CALENDAR
As a final sweep, put important financial dates on your calendar to avoid late fees and penalties.
These might include due dates for:
—Estimated taxes, both federal and state
—Taking required minimum distributions (if you're at least 70.5)
—Making contributions to IRAs, health savings accounts and Coverdell Education Savings Accounts
Consider adding year-end reminders for things like charitable contributions, annual tax-loss harvesting and portfolio rebalancing.
ENJOY A FRESH FINANCIAL START
Even if you've allowed the dust to grow on your financial resolutions this winter, some focused spring cleaning now will make it easier to keep your financial house in order for the rest of this year. You may even find that clearing out the cobwebs gives you fresh ideas on how to keep your finances on target this spring — and helps you build a more secure financial foundation for seasons to come.
Carrie Schwab-Pomerantz, CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER(tm), is president of Charles Schwab Foundation and author of the forthcoming book, "The Charles Schwab Guide to Finances After Fifty," available in bookstores in April 2014. Read more at http://schwab.com/book.You can email Carrie at [email protected] This column is no substitute for an individualized recommendation, tax, legal or personalized investment advice. Where specific advice is necessary or appropriate, consult with a qualified tax advisor, CPA, financial planner or investment manager. To find out more about Carrie Schwab-Pomerantz and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.