The advice may not necessarily be new, but it’s especially relevant at this time of the year. Financial planner and author Rick Rodgers offers the following five steps to help you effectively organize your finances:
1. Out with the old – Discard the records you no longer need: Tax returns older than seven years; bank records and credit card statements that are not related to the tax returns you’re keeping; brokerage statements that aren’t related to purchases of current holdings. Be sure to shred all your old documents before throwing them out.
2. Go digital – Convert the documents you plan to save into digital images that are stored on your hard drive. Invest in a good scanner and scan as you go through your paperwork, shredding and tossing the hard copies as you go. On your computer, file by tax year, so your 2011 folder will contain your tax return for 2011 and all pertinent bank records and receipts. Organize the previous six years the same way. Next year you can delete the oldest folder when you add the 2012 folder.
3. Save a forest – All of the financial institutions you deal with would prefer to send your statements electronically. Stop receiving paper statements. Instead, download your statements electronically and store them in your new filing system. Most banks and credit card companies keep at least a year’s worth of statements available. You need to download these files only once a year to complete the year’s file.
4. Save backups in case of emergency – Make backup copies of your files on a CD. Choose a CD-R (recordable) as opposed to a CD-RW (rewriteable), because CD-R cannot accidentally be overwritten. Depending on your computer operating system, you may be able to continue adding data to a CD-R each year, until the CD is full. However, some operating systems won’t allow that, so you’ll need a new CD for each year.
5. Go paperless – Your new electronic filing system can be expanded to include all your financial records, from car maintenance receipts to pay stubs. Wills and insurance policies can also be scanned and stored but, of course, keep the originals of those in a safe deposit box or fireproof safe.
Rogers is author of The New Three-Legged Stool: A Tax Efficient Approach to Retirement Planning.