investing

Spring clean your home finances

Once you've consolidated the accounts, you may find you've got more cash in your account, so you should check in with your bank to see if you qualify for better deals. You may find that you have better options for online bill payment services, monthly fees or interest rates.

Move your banking life online to cut clutter. You can generally get monthly statements online, and many banks also offer a service that allows you to see your canceled checks online as well. Toss old checks and old statements because you can get copies of them from your bank.

You'll benefit by paying as many bills as possible electronically. Not only will you save the price of a stamp, but you also can have payments deducted automatically to ensure you never incur a late charge again.

Credit cards/debt

  • What to do: Check your credit report; shop around for lower interest rates; come up with a payment strategy.
  • Time involved: 30 minutes or longer.
  • Cost: None.
  • Details: A 50- or 100-point change in your credit score can mean the difference between great loan terms and terrible ones, and inaccuracies in your credit report can drag that score down at least that much. Do yourself a favor and double-check it, says Liz Weston, author of "Easy Money." "You should pull your credit reports from the three credit bureaus, which you can do at www.annualcreditreport.com," she says. See a problem? Dispute it, in writing, and you should have a resolution in about a month.

Once you have an accurate credit report, check the interest rates you pay on balances and compare the rates with other cards. You may be able to use that as leverage to improve your credit card terms. Credit card companies are happy to use any opportunity to hike your rates, and many have done just that since the credit crunch started many months ago. But that doesn't mean you should just accept it. If you have a history of making your payments on time, it might make sense to give your credit card companies a call and ask if they can do better with their rates. However, in this age of rising defaults and jumpy creditors, exercise caution and don't expect too much. Some companies may flatly refuse; others may jack up your interest rate just for asking based upon a re-evaluation of your risk. Be sure before you call that you truly have stellar credit and a backup card to move your balance to should your quest for a lower rate go sour.

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Finally, develop a plan to pay off any debt. Tackle high-interest credit-card debt first to guarantee the best bang for your buck, says Kim Lankford, a contributing editor at Kiplinger's Personal Finance magazine. Any tax return you've got coming can help you make a big dent in your debt, so consider paying it off before blowing it on the latest gadget or a luxury vacation.

Estate planning

  • What to do: Create or update a will or trust; consider a living will and financial power of attorney; toss old documents.
  • Time involved: If you're starting from scratch, plan for at least an hour.
  • Cost: Do-it-yourself programs, such as WillMaker or Will Creator, can help you create a simple will for as little as $20. If you have a more complex situation, a will drawn up by an attorney starts at about $300.
  • Details: First things first, says Mary Randolph, author of "The Executor's Guide." If you don't yet have a will, it's time to buckle down and draw one up. "It drops to the bottom of people's to-do list for obvious reasons," she says. "But the good news is not that hard to do." Step-by-step software and online programs can guide you through the process fairly easily and inexpensively.

If you've got any property at all -- a home, a car, a flat-screen TV, or jewelry with real or sentimental value -- a will can help make sure it gets to the right person upon your passing, and it can help prevent a lengthy probate process.

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