I finally did it.
I cleaned out my closet. It felt so good to get rid of clothes I haven’t worn in years. It took much longer than I expected, mostly because I just couldn’t let go of so many things. And isn’t this much the way many of us handle our personal finances?
We cling to old financial behaviors or we put off cleaning up our financial lives because it’s easier than doing the work it takes to get rid of stuff. Here are my five tips to get you started on spring cleaning your finances:
1. Get rid of at least one bad financial behavior. Every tax season, experts encourage people to change their withholding if they routinely get refunds without having a major change in their tax situation (marriage, children, buying a home). You can get that money in your paycheck during the year by increasing the withholding allowances on your W-4. The more allowances you take, the less money withheld for taxes. People often tell me they like getting a refund. It is a forced savings plan, they argue.
OK, I give up. With the interest rates paid on savings accounts so low, perhaps a refund is the only way you will save.
But if you have debt, please change your withholding. Otherwise, you will spend the year paying interest on debt you could be paying down with the money you are letting the government hold for free. To find the correct amount to withhold, go to www.irs.gov and search for “withholding calculator.’’ Use the results to help complete a new W-4, which you must submit to your employer.
2. Get rid of old financial documents. For a helpful guide on how long to keep certain documents, go to www.usa.gov and search for “Managing Household Records.’’ To start this purging process, pull out your financial documents and organize them into three piles: an active file, dead storage, and items to shred. Use the chart on the site to decide what can be discarded.
3. Get the right tools. Take advantage of financial literacy classes in your area, especially in April, which has been designated National Financial Literacy Month. Learn what it takes to change certain behaviors. A survey released this week by FINRA Investor Education Foundation found that female respondents with low levels of financial literacy are more likely to engage in costly credit card behaviors than male respondents with low financial literacy. You will find some good links on the group’s site at www.finrafoundation.org.
4. Embrace green. Now is a good time to have your financial documents delivered electronically rather than through the mail. But if you do go green, don’t get lazy and fail to review the statements when they are delivered to your e-mail inbox.
5. Do a credit report checkup. When was the last time you ordered your credit report? The only official site where you can get your report free is www.annualcreditreport.com.