FORCED TO SHELTER in place, I’ve used the time at home to organize my finances. I’d already read Marie Kondo’s Tidying Up. But I needed her new book, Joy at Work, to motivate me to organize my digital life. Sometimes, it helps to have a step-by-step guide to prod you to deal with such drudgery. Here are four tips I used to get myself organized:
1. Consolidate fixed costs. One way to simplify your finances is to put all fixed expenses on one credit card. True, not every bill can be put on a credit card. But I was able to charge a majority of my monthly bills to a single card, including electric and water utilities, phone, Netflix, internet, cable, electronic toll road pass, gym membership, auto insurance and home security.
Result: I have one bill monthly that’s easy to pay, plus it allows me to track my fixed monthly expenses, so I can gauge how much income I need to cover those costs. Earning credit card rewards is a nice bonus. I leave my “essentials” credit card out of my wallet, so it only gets used for this one category of expenses. Meanwhile, I use a different credit card for discretionary expenses, where I also earn rewards.
2. Simplify investment accounts. For the past few years, I’ve had multiple brokerage accounts, so I can compare their research and ease of us, and also to diversify financial institutions, just in case 2008 returned. But the elimination of stock trading commissions has triggered a consolidation among brokerage firms, leaving us with a handful of stronger financial entities that aren’t dependent on commissions. That’s prompted me to move my holdings to one firm. By consolidating, I even received a discount when I recently refinanced my mortgage through that firm—and it means I can monitor the mortgage and my investments through a single website.
3. Organize financial emails. I set up a separate email account to receive all financial correspondence, including monthly utility bills, credit card bills, loans statements, health savings account reports, bank statements and investment account information. My new email address also has the advantage of being spam-free—so far.
Like the idea of a separate email address for financial information? You might give the password to your spouse or children in case you’re incapacitated or die suddenly. I’ve heard too many times that a deceased relative had unknown financial accounts, as well as bills that kept getting paid automatically, because the children had no idea about the deceased’s finances.
4. Track the mail. I still like to get copies of my various bills through the mail. But if I don’t feel like walking to the mailbox—or if I want to know if an important piece of mail has arrived—I check my “informed delivery” account at USPS.com. The post office takes a photograph of every letter and package for law enforcement purposes. Result: I can preview if a bill has arrived, rather than waste a trip to the mailbox. The service is free.
James McGlynn, CFA, RICP, is chief executive of Next Quarter Century LLC in Fort Worth, Texas, a firm focused on helping clients make smarter decisions about long-term-care insurance, Social Security and other retirement planning issues. He was a mutual fund manager for 30 years. James is the author of Retirement Planning Tips for Baby Boomers. His previous articles include Filling the Gap, Four Opportunities and Gifts That Give Back.