smart spending

How to organize your financial paperwork

Home-entertainment centers are all the rage, but maybe what your family needs is a "home-information center" -- a place and a system for organizing all the stray bits of paper that get tucked into the first convenient spot and then seem to take up permanent residence.

Stuff gets tossed on the dining room table or in a spare drawer, where it remains unloved, unsorted and neglected. Among the missing-in-action paperwork: bank statements, warranties for household appliances, manuals for all the electronic gear your family got at Christmas, financial information you need for taxes, credit card statements, bills and so on.

Most people tend to fall into one of two categories: pack rat or purger. Either they save too much or they toss out everything in a relentless mission to eradicate clutter. The end result is the same -- the inability to find information when it's needed.

It's a good time to do some spring cleaning and learn how to sort things out. Below are some general tips from the experts on how to get and stay organized by following one of several filing systems.

What to keep

"The beginning of organization is exploration," says John E. Sestina, a certified financial planner and president of John E. Sestina and Company in Columbus, Ohio. That means gauging the importance of information as it comes in and deciding whether to keep or toss.

Take time to read through documents to figure out what they mean. Then ask yourself, "What's the worst thing that can happen if I throw it out? Can I get another copy? Is it something that I'll need later on?"

"People are so afraid of losing something or needing a piece of information," says Julie Morgenstern, a professional organizer based in New York City and author of "Organizing from the Inside Out." "What I try and do is not convince them to throw everything out, but to determine what they truly need to hold onto and then devise a system so they can find what they need, when they need it."

"Don't pile, just file," is the mantra of Chris Jones, an accountant and president of Progressive Solutions in New York City and White Plains, N.Y. It's one you may wish to adopt. If you start opening mail, finish the job. File bills appropriately -- perhaps in a "bills to be paid" folder. If you need a timely reminder, jot down on the calendar when payments are due to ensure you won't incur any late fees.

Keep the most up-to-date copy of information. For example, when you get a new homeowner's insurance policy, toss out the old one, or when you get a new stereo, discard the manual for the one you've just given to the Salvation Army.

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Also, keep in mind your space limitations. People blessed with large homes can stand to keep more papers than someone living in a studio apartment in New York City.

Where to keep it

A common mistake that people make when storing important papers at home is to squirrel it away in various spots around the house. Instead, choose a central location so you're not scavenger hunting every time you need to find something. Make sure your storage spot is convenient.

"I would say that 75 percent to 80 percent of the clients I work with choose the wrong place for their files," says Morgenstern. "They tuck it away in some remote location like a spare bedroom or in a basement."

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