6 Ways to Spring Clean Your Finances
Just as your house needs a deep clean every now and then, so do your finances. Follow our tips to get organized, maximize your money and make plans for the future.
By Daniel Kurt / Illustration by Alessandro Gottardo
1. Get organized
Failing to maintain order in your finances is one of the surest ways to invite stress into your life. One of the best ways to get organized is to create a spreadsheet with your financial account numbers and passwords, says Thrivent’s Patty Boo-Pryor, a financial planning strategist. “So many things are password-protected these days,” she says. “I think creating one master copy of your passwords at home is a very good thing to do.” If you prefer to have a paper copy, make sure you keep the list in a safe or locked cabinet. If your file is digital, make sure the computer or electronic device where the file is stored requires a password or PIN and that it’s physically secure. If you store it on a hard drive, it should be password-protected, encrypted and stored in a secure place.
It’s equally important to organize the stream of financial documents that arrive in the mail. Having a good system in place makes life simpler not only for you, but also for the person who will eventually manage your affairs when you’re gone. “Often, people don’t realize how complicated these things can be for someone who is stepping in after a death,” says Deb Beck, a Thrivent Financial professional in Portage, Michigan.
Beck tells clients to store more important documents, such as power of attorney forms and insurance contracts, in a fireproof safe or safety deposit box. But she suggests putting newer bank and brokerage statements into a three-ring binder, so account numbers and contact information are readily available. The binder, however, should be stored in a safe or locked cabinet. She also recommends placing copies of any vehicle titles in a safe or safety deposit box. (See “Save It or Shred It?” for tips on when you should shred financial documents.)
Just as pruning your bushes and yanking crabgrass help keep your yard in top form, it’s also important to pay attention to the details when it comes to your finances. If it’s been a while since you’ve examined your budget to cancel unwanted subscriptions or memberships, for example, now’s a good time to do that maintenance.
Don’t forget to check your credit report, too. It’s a good way to spot errors and identify ways to increase your score. “Knowing what’s in there really does boost your confidence,” Boo-Pryor says.
Thrivent members have access to two products that can help you keep tabs on your credit rating: ProtectMyID® Select is free for two years and then available at a discount; ProtectMyID is more comprehensive than Select and is offered at a discounted cost. Learn more at Thrivent.com/identity.
2. Address your debt
If you have debt, it can be a constant strain on your budget, making it harder to pay other bills and save for the future. So it’s important to trim your balances, to help achieve financial freedom.
Beck believes the simplest approach is often the most successful. “You want to pick one form of debt and say, ‘We’re going to get this paid off this year,’” she says. That may be the account with the highest interest rate, or another account with a small enough balance that you can pay it off within the year. Eliminating even one loan balance can help build confidence.
If you’re having trouble keeping up with various loan due dates, consolidation may be another solution, says Boo-Pryor. By merging multiple loans into one, managing your debt becomes a simpler process. And with today’s low interest rates, you may end up with lower finance charges, too.
Thrivent Federal Credit Union helps members get creative when it comes to paying down debt, by looking at assets, restructuring loans and eliminating unnecessary spending. An exclusive guide, called Debt 101: How to Reduce Debt and Manage Spending, helps members be more intentional with their spending, saving and giving decisions. Get the guide at Thriventcu.com/debt101.
3. Plan for major expenses
Are you planning a mission trip or vacation later this year, or do you have your eye on a major purchase? Now’s the time to start putting money aside to cover the costs. “That way, you’re not caught off guard and forced to use credit cards or your emergency fund,” says Michael Buric, a Thrivent Financial professional in Scottsdale, Arizona.Buric suggests you avoid mingling spending money with an emergency fund. For example, you could open a second savings account that’s only used for planned expenses.
4. Anticipate life changes
It’s crucial to lay out your major goals for the year ahead. Do you want to start a family? Start a small business? Do you want to retire in two years’ time? Are you hoping to buy a car soon? Or do you want to fund an education savings account or a life insurance contract for a child or grandchild? By taking stock of life changes, you can take concrete steps toward meeting your goals.
Spring also is a good time to anticipate risks that could hinder your family financially. If you have young children, consider taking out a life insurance contract that protects your family in case the unthinkable happens. Disability income insurance can help with lost income should you become unable to work at some point. If you’re older, you should be thinking about how you will cover any care you might need at home or in assisted living or skilled nursing stays down the road.
“Often, you don’t know what you don’t know,” Beck says. “That’s where a financial professional can help you see if you’re missing anything.”
5. Mind your retirement accounts
With pension plans steadily declining in the workplace, more Americans are relying on self-directed accounts like 401(k)s and IRAs to supplement their Social Security income when they retire. The beginning of the year is a good time to review your contribution levels to make sure you’re putting enough money into these tax-advantaged vehicles. Keep in mind that you can still make IRA contributions that count for the 2018 tax year, as long as you do so before the April 15 filing deadline.
Retirees also should look at the required minimum distributions, or RMDs, from their employer-sponsored retirement plans, traditional IRAs, SIMPLE IRAs and SEP IRAs (but not Roth IRAs), says Buric. According to the IRS, if you’re 70 ½ or older, you must withdraw a certain amount of money each year or you may face stiff penalties.1 Get help from a tax professional to address any questions you may have.
6. Set charitable goals
One of the benefits of managing money well is that you might be able to be even more generous, suggests Boo-Pryor. Spring cleaning should include reviewing your goals for giving to your church or favorite charitable organizations throughout the year. “Look at organizations in your area that share your values,” she says.
Outside of a monetary goal, consider setting a target for how much volunteer time you can contribute to a special cause. “That makes it a more meaningful gift,” Boo-Pryor says.
Daniel Kurt is a freelance personal finance writer in Washington, D.C.