smart spending

How to organize your financial paperwork

Not many people enjoy sorting bills and filing paperwork in a windowless home office or in the basement, she says. Pick a spot where you might be willing to spend some time filing. Your home-information center should be near your computer, especially if you pay bills electronically or balance your checkbook using a financial program.

Morgenstern has seen some clients successfully adopt a filing system by using a spare cabinet in a kitchen or pantry. "Clear out the old wedding gifts and the fondue pot that you never use and use it for your files instead," she says.

Consider going electronic

Have you thought about trading a paper storage system for one you can access on your computer's hard drive or on a CD? Generally it's easier to search for a document on a hard disk drive than by combing through file folders by hand, and it takes up less space.

Dana H. Korey, "chairman of order" at Away with Clutter, a professional organizing company based in Del Mar, Calif., is such a fan of computer storage that she not only recommends getting your bills and statements electronically, but using a computer scanner to scan in documents that only come in paper form.

Also, remember that much of what you get in paper form -- mail-order catalogs, owner's manuals, credit card statements -- can be found online. So, while you'll want to keep your passport or your birth certificate, you may want to toss all those mail-order catalogs.

Long-term or short-term storage?

Professional organizers classify storage into two categories: immediate-access and deep storage. Obviously, items you need constant access to belong in the former, while other information can be stored away and out of sight. For example, you need immediate access to monthly bills, but you don't need to get your birth certificate every day.

For immediate access storage, most experts recommend folders in a filing cabinet or, if space limitations apply, a spare drawer. However, some people can get along with a binder system or an accordion file.

Morgenstern usually doesn't recommend binders to her clients. "It's too labor-intensive for most people since you have to punch holes as well as file," she says. Choose a system that you'll most likely use.

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For long-term storage for important legal and business papers, such as wills, insurance policies, stock certificates and the like, consider paying for a safe-deposit box or buy a fire-proof box where these important records can be safely stored. If you choose the fire-proof box option, also consider keeping the papers in waterproof bags to protect against flooding.

Simple solutions work best

"The key to being organized is to set routines for yourself," says Jones.

That means no matter what type of filing system you settle on, develop routines for when and how you will file items. Try to spend a few minutes each day filing, and schedule a time to pay bills and review financial statements. Jones, for instance, pays bills two times a month and sets aside Saturday mornings for filing and other paperwork chores.

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