Unclutterer now appearing on Women and Co.

Last month, I started writing articles for the financial advice website Women and Co. I’m not one of their regular bloggers (they have a full-time staff), but someone who will have featured articles from time-to-time on their site’s homepage. The focus of my writing is to provide tips on how being organized and uncluttered may help to improve your money management.

Once the technical aspects are settled, we’ll put a widget in the middle column of our homepage linking to my articles as they appear on the Women and Co. site. In the meantime, these are the articles I’ve written so far:

How to Create Emergency Binders
In this piece, I provide directions for making two binders — a Basic Emergency Binder and a Worst-Case Scenario Emergency Binder. There are checklists for what to include so your loved ones can find all the important documents and information needed to help you and your family in all types of emergency situations.

Make Some Extra Spending Money: De-Clutter Your Home
Without much effort, you can likely find some cash in your clutter — and not just an unexpected $5 in the pocket of your old coat. In this article, I provide detailed steps for how and where to sell your clutter.

How to Pack a Cooler (and Save Money) for Your Next Road Trip
If wanderlust has set in and you’re looking to hit the open road, this post may help you save some money when you head out of your driveway. Even though gas prices are high, it doesn’t mean you have to skip out on some of the treats that make road trips fun.

Tax time: Three basic steps to get you closer to filing your taxes on time

If you’re good at procrastinating and do it often, putting off doing your 2011 tax returns would be a very simple thing to do. I know it’s even easier to procrastinate doing them when you suspect you owe the government money.

There’s no need to let stress about completing your taxes take its toll on you, though. Getting started with just a few easy tasks right now can alleviate some of your anxiety, help you to be better organized, and assist you with meeting the federal and your state’s tax deadlines. The federal deadline is Tuesday, April 17, 2012, and most states have the same deadline — but pay attention if you live in Nebraska, Louisiana, or West Virginia as your state deadline is earlier in the month. (And lucky are those of you who live in the seven states without an income tax and who only have to file federal forms.)

Make life easier on yourself and try these basic tasks this week:

  1. Per U.S. law, you should have already received copies of your tax statements from your employer and investment/banking entities. If you haven’t already done so, grab a large Kraft envelope or file folder and place all of these tax documents into one place. Label the exterior of the envelope or the top tab of the folder as “2011 Tax Statements.” If you have numerous statements, list them on the front of the envelope or folder.
  2. If you are filing complex tax returns — listing deductions, credits, claiming expenses, etc. — group all of your supporting tax receipts and paperwork and place them into another large envelope or file folder. Don’t worry about sorting or grouping these documents at this stage of the game, simply gather. Label the exterior of the envelope or the top tab of the folder “2011 Supporting Tax Documents.”
  3. Call and make an appointment with an accountant or tax preparer if you are filing complex tax returns. Look up the number right now and pick up the phone. If you don’t know an accountant or preparer, ask for recommendations for people you trust, or consult a review service like Angie’s List. If you have no deductions, credits or other items to claim on your tax form, learn more about e-filing through the federal government and your state (do a Google search for “e-file state of X” with X being your state), or download “ez” forms from the federal government and your state.

My hope is that you have already filed your taxes and the information in this post is completely irrelevant to you. However, if you haven’t, stop procrastinating and take these first steps to getting your taxes done on time.

Now back to your regularly scheduled appointments

As much as I dislike going to see my dentist and doctors, I go for all of my preventative care appointments (every six months or once a year or whenever is recommended) to keep my medical costs low. I know from experience that regular checkups are less expensive than emergency care, which sincerely plays the largest part in all of it. These regular appointments are also there for early detection, so small problems don’t become large ones (also saving me money).

The easiest way to stay on top of these appointments is to schedule your next visit before you leave your dentist or doctor’s office. The same is true for hair appointments, car maintenance, and your pet’s veterinarian visits. Along similar lines, appointments for annual servicing of your heater, chimney, and other house work can be scheduled for the next year before the technician leaves your home (assuming you liked the work that was done). If your family enjoys going skiing every winter and you have a favorite place to stay, make your reservation for next year when you settle up your account for this year’s trip. Even though you have no idea what you’ll be doing 12 months in the future, it’s better to get an appointment on both of your schedules early. You may have to move the appointment, but you at least have one to move if you need to.

Regularly scheduling appointments will free up your time (you don’t have to call multiple times to try to get squeezed into someone’s schedule or call multiple providers hunting for someone who can help), alleviate stress (you don’t have to worry about your heater not turning on the first cold day of fall), and likely save you money over the long-term.

Eight year-end tasks to keep you organized

The presents have been unwrapped, turkey leftovers fill the refrigerator, and we’re back at our desks finishing year-end responsibilities. Whether at work or at home, there are tasks that we complete before December 31 that help to keep us organized in the new year.

Even though it’s difficult to get back to work after a few days vacation, the last week of the year can often be extremely productive because so few people are in the office. There usually are fewer disruptions and it’s easier to work for longer blocks of time. If you’re taking time off from work, now is also a good time to focus on year-end responsibilities at home.

The following are tasks we complete at the end of the year, but you might tackle different tasks to wrap up 2010 and prepare for 2011. Share your end-of-the-year processes in the comments, as they might be something we all should be doing, too:

At Work:

  • Year-end fiscal reports. Pay all bills, submit all receipts, reconcile all accounts, and complete all fiscal reports the accounting department requires.
  • Year-end professional goal reports. Review annual goals and accomplishments, and write performance reports the human resources department requires.
  • Review benefit package and changes. Many changes in insurance plans and other benefits occur at the change of the calendar year. Make note of these changes so you aren’t surprised by the differences.

At Home:

  • Reconcile financial accounts. Now is the time to get all of your financial paperwork for the year completed so you’re ready to file your taxes when your forms arrive.
  • Year-end personal goal and resolution review. Review all you accomplished over the course of the year and create goals and resolutions for 2011.
  • Back-up all digital data. Even if you do this daily, it’s good to take a final snapshot of the digital year.
  • Review beneficiary information on all investments and policies. If your family has grown or changed in the last year, now is the time to make sure your beneficiary information is current. Additionally, it’s a good time to do a general review of these investments and policies.
  • Review systems and routines. Are the systems and routines you follow meeting your family’s and home’s needs? If not, now is a good time to create new practices to implement in the new year.

Holiday season perfect time to sell or donate items

Does your son have a Thomas Train set he ignores? Is your daughter’s Radio Flyer wagon gathering dust in the garage? Are you storing golf clubs you never use? Do you have a formal gown you wore once and don’t plan to wear again?

All of these lightly used items — and thousands of others — are in high demand on Craigslist and eBay right now. Buyers are looking to save a few dollars, and sellers are hoping to make a little money. With the economy sloshing around in stagnant water, there is increased activity on resale sites during the holiday season.

If you’re interested in getting unused items out of your home and selling them on Craigslist or eBay, I highly recommend checking out the extremely thorough article “Sell It Now — how to make hundreds of dollars in 37 minutes” by Ramit Sethi. The article is targeted toward eBay, but works just as well for Craigslist. It’s especially helpful if you haven’t ever sold anything on a site like this.

If you aren’t interested in taking the time and energy to sell your lightly used items, now is also a great time to donate them to charity. Remember, charities aren’t dumping grounds for used stuff, so only consider donating goods that are still in excellent condition. Also, give your local charity a call before making a donation to confirm they have a need for your specific items.

Specialized saving accounts

Last winter, when one of our cats was diagnosed with a rare cancer, my husband and I took the cat to a renowned pet oncologist. Some of our friends, the pet lovers in our group, said they would have done the same thing to help a member of their family. Other friends, mostly people who don’t have pets, called us fools for considering the thousands of dollars in cancer treatments the oncologist might have recommended.

We ended up not having to make a treatment decision because the cancer was untreatable, and Basie cat passed away a few days later.

A couple weeks after that, my husband and I sat down and talked about setting up a medical saving account for our cat Charlie and any future pets we might adopt. We put $500 into savings and have been depositing $20 per month ($10 each) into the account since that time. Commercial pet insurance can be more expensive than what we’re doing, and, like traditional health insurance for people, it doesn’t cover all medical procedures and treatments. And, if we never need the insurance, we wouldn’t get the money we paid the pet insurance company back or with interest or be able to apply the premiums to another pet.

Simply, we created the specialized saving account for our pet because we never want to be in a position again where money has to be strongly considered along with treatment options.

After making this decision to create a medical saving account for our pet, we started to realize how this way of budgeting could help alleviate stress associated with other areas of our finances. We immediately created a specialized saving account for our automobile — $20 a month now goes into an account to cover service needs for our aging car. We also made a window replacement fund since we have a house mostly made of glass and a toddler with an amazingly strong throwing arm.

How to create a specialized saving account: When you acquire a new responsibility, you deposit an eighth or a quarter of your saving goal into a dedicated saving account as the account’s start-up fund (or a multi-use account that you keep records for what money in the account is for what purpose). Once the saving account is open and initially funded, you set up an automatic transfer through your bank to put $10 or $20 (or whatever amount you choose) into the new saving account from your checking account every month. This automatic deposit removes the temptation to spend the money on something else.

These specialized saving accounts reduce your stress, allow you to cover large expenses when they arise, and help you to live with an uncluttered budget (a budget where you spend less than you earn). Do you have specialized saving accounts? Would setting one up help you to prepare for an emergency expense? What reasons do you have to create a specialized saving account?

The science of buying: Women are at the wheel

The website She-Conomy (a site that focuses on the business of marketing to women) recently published the article “Men, Women Lead 4 Out of 5 Stages of the Buying Process.” This interesting article discusses Marti Barletta’s research in the book Marketing to Women and how when “men and women buy as partners, women control at least four out of five stages of the purchasing process.”

The five stages of the buying process are Kick-off, Research, Purchase, Ownership, and Word-of-Mouth. Barletta’s research found that the only stage of the purchasing process men dominate is the actual laying down of the cash, and that women are in control of the other four. Then, she implies that men don’t actually control the buying, even though they think they do.

The explanation about the Research stage of the buying process is eerily similar to how we plan purchases in our home, except it isn’t always me taking on this role:

Once the decision has been made to make a purchase, it is the woman who does research to develop the short list. She may begin with numerous options, but she is very detail oriented as she narrows the field … They consult with close friends and family, as well as experts, Web social networking, local news and magazines. Once she feels she has investigated all of her options thoroughly, she compiles the short list or makes a final decision.

It is this list or choice that she shares with the man. So if your product or service doesn’t make it on this list, it is very unlikely it will be considered when it comes time to make the purchase. After all of the research and time she has put into it, she typically knows exactly what she wants.

In my relationship with my husband, we usually alternate who is the researcher and who is the buyer based upon who is interested in the purchase. Having the researcher not being the person who is putting down the money for the product usually means that we’re spending more wisely than we do independently. We’re smarter consumers because there are two of us involved in the process.

Even if the research is true and the majority of women in relationships do control the five stages of the buying process, it doesn’t always have to be this way in your home. You can mix things up as a way to keep your spending in check and be smarter consumers. If you’re not in a relationship, you can use these five stages as a checklist to ensure that you’re being a smart consumer and not simply purchasing things on impulse.

Overall, I found this article to be a fascinating analysis on the buying process and how products find their way into our homes. The more we know about the science of buying, the better, more informed consumers we can be.

Thanks to reader Deb for introducing us to this research.

US recession changes spending priorities, doesn’t reduce spending

Michael Mandel, former chief economist at Business Week and current editor of Visible Economy, wrote yesterday about US consumer spending trends in a post on his website titled “Where Americans Are Spending More.” The post explains that since the recession began in 2007, personal consumption expenditures have actually increased:

Right there up at the top is America’s love affair with mobile devices, where spending has soared almost 17% since the recession started. Also supporting my thesis of a communications boom-spending on wired, wireless, and cable services have risen by 5%.

In addition, Americans still care about their pets, their children, their hair, and their guns.

Mandel’s post has a couple charts that show the actual numbers and percentage increases in spending as reported by the Bureau of Economic Analysis, so I highly recommend checking out the original article. In contrast to the areas of growth, it is interesting to note what segments of the market have experienced decreases:

Americans are spending a little bit less on clothing and hotels; a lot less on foreign travel, video and audio equipment (think televisions), and furniture. The big drop, though, has come in motor vehicles and associated goods and services, like gasoline.

During this recession, it’s not that consumers have stopped buying, it’s that they have stopped buying large, conspicuous, luxury goods, and have instead bought smaller, less flashy items. As a nation, we’re not really cutting back, we’re just giving the outward impression we are.

From a simple living perspective, I have mixed feelings about this report. I’m encouraged that the personal consumption increases seem to be on things that bring people together — communication, food, and caring for the people you love (child care, education, health care). However, it’s still an increase in spending. The media speaks incessantly about American society tightening their belts, but that is not really the case. Instead, it appears our consumer priorities have merely changed to smaller, less obvious purchases.

Assorted links for June 30, 2010

Articles we’ve been reading this week:

  • In the comments to “Programs for reading online content off-line” a number of readers highly recommended Read It Later to the list of Evernote, Instapaper, and ToRead off-line viewers.
  • J.D. Roth of GetRichSlowly.org has a thought-provoking piece on “The Rewards of Frugality and Thrift (or, Why We Scrimp and Save)” that I really enjoyed. It gets to the heart of what I believe is uncluttered spending.
  • The London Times (a site you have to register to read) has an article in today’s issue about the Butter by Nadia dress. The dress is one piece of fabric that can be styled to wear 15 different ways. At the very least, I’m extremely curious!
  • DIYlife has an inspiring post on “10 Uses for Leftover House Paint.”
  • When money got tight, writer Kevin Mims found that uncluttering his home and selling the items at an antiques co-op made for good money. Check out his story “Out With The Old, In With The New Beginnings” on NPR.
  • Reader Megan tipped us off to an article in this week’s Chronicle of Higher Education that discusses how to prevent feeling overwhelmed and overloaded by your work. Like so many things in life, you need to “always keep in mind what it is that you want to do, to build, to create in the world, whether that’s through a course, an article, or a new administrative structure.” The article is written for college professors and administrators, but is easily adaptable to any profession.
  • Lifehacker linked to a terrific post on Stepcase Lifehack discussing “How To Stay Organized When Life Throws You a Curveball.” It’s uncomfortable to read about what to do during a crisis, but very important if you’re in the situation.

One last thing, I accidentally switched the post order today and put up the Unitasker Wednesday post as the first one and this post in the 10:30 a.m. spot. I think this is a sign I need more coffee. Check out our 7:30 a.m. piece if you’re looking for today’s Unitasker.

Four tips to unclutter your family finances

Today’s guest post is from reader Alban Guillemot who writes in Australia for a personal finance and credit card advice site, creditcardfinder.com.au.

Families come in many shapes and sizes, but most of them have one thing in common — they want financial security. Simply adjusting your perspectives on money and spending and openly talking about your goals as a family can help to ensure successful and uncluttered finances:

  1. Be clear on your goals as a family. Open and honest communication with all family members is important because if one person is not convinced of the family’s financial plan, those plans can be sabotaged by overspending and ignoring the budget.
  2. Avoid social competition. As you make your budget for the extras your family would like, consider why you want what you want. Make sure you are not making spending choices based on what you think someone in your income bracket and your neighborhood should have, but choose extras you want and would enjoy. As soon as you start spending to keep up with your friends and neighbors, you have stopped focusing on your family’s needs and wants
  3. Consider your family before making a purchase. Always keep your family budget in mind before you make a purchase that has not been accommodated for in the budgeted. This also goes back to the previous point about why you are making the purchase — is it a purchase that is good for the whole family? Consider the impact of an impulse off-budget purchase on your family’s savings and goals.
  4. Hold regular family budget meetings. It is not enough to create a family budget, you have to also maintain and monitor it to make sure it is achievable and accurate. This can be done at a regular family meeting, where you also discuss how each member feels about the budget and the spending, and whether they can see room for improvement, or suggest a change of direction.

Discussing finances with your family with honesty and respect is the key to successful family finances, but while discussions are important, you also need to be able to implement the systems to follow through. Once you’ve completed the four tips from above, you’ll find ways to customize each system to your family’s needs and find a way to ensure your family is financially secure now and into the future.

The price of using self storage

A friend recently sent me the following confession in an e-mail:

I just cleaned out my storage unit that I have had for 7 years. (I think I opened it when I moved from the townhouse to my apartment.) What a bunch of crap! I saved a couple boxes of books I’d been missing, and some high school stuff I pulled out — medals, trophies and plaques.

So, I did the calculations on what this storage unit cost me. 7 years = 84 months times approximately $120 a month = over $10,000!!!!! I am flabbergasted I spent so much on storing what was basically crap. It’s just so easy when it’s $120 a month. Think of what I could have done with $10,000! That’s a costly uncluttering lesson!

I think that self storage is a good idea when used temporarily, such as for a few months when settling someone’s estate or if you’ve sold your house and are staying in a hotel while you’re waiting to settle on a new house. Once the word years is involved, though, it’s no longer temporary and uncluttering is in order.

Had she tossed out all of what was in her self storage unit seven years ago, my friend could have repurchased the box of books and even commissioned someone to remake her medals, trophies and plaques, and still had more than $9,000 left in her bank account. (I doubt my friend would have had someone remake her medals, though, I’m just saying she could have and it still would have been far less expensive.)

If you have a self-storage unit, consider taking the time to clear it out and save yourself a good amount of money. If the idea of cleaning out the space overwhelms you, hire a professional organizer to help you. The fee you’ll pay to the professional organizer will be less than what you would pay to continue storing your stuff.

More facts about self-storage:

  1. The state of self-storage in the U.S.
  2. Organization facts from Mother Jones

Review of Your Money: The missing manual

J.D. Roth, who writes the educational and extremely valuable personal finance blog GetRichSlowly.org, just published Your Money: The missing manual with O’Reilly books. The book is filled with charts, graphs, checklists, guides, and explanations that explore the basics and advanced methods of personal finance — all with Roth’s simple ease and charm.

The book begins with a quote from George Mallory that aptly reflects the focus of the text:

“We do not live to eat and make money. We eat and make money to be able to live. That is what life means and what life is for.”

Roth’s financial philosophy is based on the premise that you have to spend less than you earn. Regular readers of this website know that this is also a fundamental rule of being an Unclutterer. If you spend more than you earn, your thoughts will consistently be focused on anxieties (clutter) about money instead of on what matters to you most. Roth details how to get out of debt, spend less than you earn, and save money for the future (saving also means that you alleviate worries about your financial future).

One of the highlights for me is on page 95 of Your Money: The missing manual. Here, Roth presents a flowchart created by April Dykman that she “created to help her stay on track while shopping.” I think all Unclutterers should have this chart tattooed on their forearms (I jest. Please don’t get a tattoo of this.):

I’m also fond of the section titled “The Tyranny of Stuff,” which is perfectly suited for Unclutterers. In short, Roth’s premise in this section is if you “own less stuff” you will spend less on new acquisitions as well as maintaining the stuff you choose to own — less clutter, less storage space, less to clean, and less wasted money on unnecessary purchases.

In addition to the book, if you aren’t familiar with Roth’s blog GetRichSlowly.org, I also recommend you check it out. Money Magazine named it one of the top two financial advice sites on the internet. Roth knows very well how to get rid of cluttered finances. I give his new book two thumbs up.