Three tasks for three days
BY TERRY SAVAGE Sun-Times Columnist Dec 28, 2009
Now is the time of year to organize your financial records in time for tax season.
Updated: May 3, 2013 12:15PM
You're facing three lazy days ahead -- the gap time between Christmas and New Year's Eve when most businesses slow to a crawl, and the leftovers are growing stale. What a perfect time to accomplish a few things that are best done now -- at the end of the year. Here are three tasks for three days:
In April you'll be running around trying to find all your tax-related papers and receipts. Instead, do it now. You don't need a fancy system. Just take some large baggies and a shoebox if you don't want to buy one of those plastic file boxes and dividers.
Here's what you need to do:
*Put all those deductible receipts in separate baggies -- taxi receipts, dues and subscriptions, unreimbursed business expense receipts, and the letters you'll receive certifying your charitable donations.
*If you're banking online, print out your check register. Or download the year's banking into a Quicken file. Take all your monthly statements, put an elastic band around them and throw them in the shoebox as well. If you're still using a paper check register, ask your bank for a new one to start 2010. Put the old one in the shoebox.
*Prepare a file for your year-end investment statements, which will start arriving in January. The ones from your 40l(k) or IRA won't have an impact on your taxes, but it's nice to keep them all together. That's also where you'll stash your W-2 from work, and any 1099 forms that arrive in January, showing interest or dividends or capital gains.
Getting your files organized is a project you can do in minutes. If you clean out your desk drawers and briefcase now, you'll have the bonus benefit of starting the New Year well organized and in control of your money for the year ahead.
Get year-end financial help
Perhaps I should have put this task first. If you read the paragraphs above and thought that your financial life is too much of a mess to organize in a box, that your debts outweigh any possibility of paying future bills now to get deductions, then this next task is designed for you.
It's time to get the big picture -- the honest picture -- of your personal finances. And it's time to get help you can trust!
*Start by piling up all the bills.
*Then take a sheet of paper and make a list of the balance due on all your credit cards.
*Next to that huge number, write the current minimum monthly payment and the interest rate. ( If you used the card this past month and haven't yet received your bill, check the balance online or make a good estimate.)
This task doesn't take a computer or any math skills. Just stack the bills on the kitchen table and go to work.
At the same time, make an honest list of what you must spend every month -- rent or mortgage, utilities, food, gas, insurance. Try to divide annual expenses such as homeowners or renters or auto insurance by 12 months, to get a real estimate of how much money you need every month.
Then STOP. You don't have to do another thing. Just pick up the phone and call Consumer Credit Counseling Services -- 1- 800-388-2227. That will connect you to the nearest local office, where you can get honest, professional help from this national, non-profit agency. Make an appointment.
They'll offer a range of solutions, depending on your situation. If you're just behind a bit every month, they may help you reorganize -- or show you that if you could get a weekend job you could catch up. Or they can contact your creditors and help you work out a repayment plan. They might even advise bankruptcy, and direct you to an attorney who can help.
Just talking to a counselor at CCCS does not go on your credit report. So it's worth a try -- and this is the perfect time to start. The tasks above will give you everything you need to set up a successful meeting with your counselor.
Update Medicare Part D
And here's a reminder to seniors -- and their adult children, or teenage grandchildren, who could be their best helpers in this project. Every senior who is not covered by private or VA insurance for prescription drugs must sign up for Medicare Part D -- even if they're not currently taking prescription drugs.
And every year it's very important that you recheck your coverage to make sure that last year's plan is still the least expensive coverage for the coming year. Any change must be made by Dec. 31.
Many plans changed the prices for their prescriptions or dropped coverage for some drugs. That's why you should line up all your prescription bottles with the names and dosages of each medicine. Then go to www.Medicare.gov and follow instructions to the "plan finder" tool. That will automatically compare the plans available in your locale.
Or call 800-Medicare and they'll help you over the phone. Either way, you can connect directly to the plans you choose, so you can go through the required telephone interview and get signed up before year's end.
Get started today. This is the way to roll into a better financial year ahead. And that's the Savage Truth.
Terry Savage is a registered investment adviser.