I am a pretty tidy person. I like things to be neat, organized, and easily accessible. But running my own business, working, and being a mom to two teenage boys means sometimes the days get away from me and cleaning chores pile up.
The same thing tends to happen with finances. Unless you’re constantly checking in on updates to your credit score or changes in credit card interest rates, you and your finances will benefit from a financial clean sweep.
Start with the paperwork
If you want organized finances, you need organized financial paperwork. It’s that simple. If you already have a system going, take some time to sit down and work through any new additions. If you don’t, now is the time to establish one.
Lay all your financial paperwork out and organize it into categories, such as insurance policies, individual credit card statements, medical bills, mortgage payments, and tax returns. Place each category into a folder or, if you really loathe paper, scan them into your computer and store them there (and get a backup drive, of course). If all your credit card statements are sent to you electronically, keep them on a folder in your computer. Whatever you don’t need, shred.
Once you have your paperwork organized, make sure everything is up to date. If you owe any debt, write it down on a master list. You’ll come back to this.
Check your credit
If you haven’t checked your credit report and credit score in at least the last year, now is the time. Go to AnnualCreditReport.com and pull your free report from all three bureaus. (After this first time, I like to check one credit report every four months.)
Carefully go through each report and check for any issues or discrepancies in your accounts. Make sure all of your personal information is accurate and current. Compare your financial records with what is on your credit report. You are basically looking for anything that could potentially hurt your score, from errors to unpaid bills. In addition, do the following:
- Make sure all your accounts are in good standing, meaning you have paid at least the minimum on every account.
- Make sure there are no inaccuracies. Errors could be as big as potential identity theft or as minimal as a credit company not accurately reporting your payments.
- Make sure negative accounts have fallen off your report after the appropriate period of time. Here’s a comprehensive list of when this should happen.
Clean up inaccuracies and outdated information
The process of correcting your credit report can seem intimidating, but it’s relatively simple. Start by filing a dispute online or by mail. The dispute will kick off an investigation that must take place within 30 days of your dispute. The credit reporting agency will then notify you of the outcome.
If you need to talk with a credit reporting agency or a lender during this time, remember to take notes, get the names of the people with whom you have talked, and write down the dates of the conversations. If you are told that a corrective action will be taken, follow up to make sure the change took place.
Because credit reporting agencies are in touch with each other electronically, if one corrects an error the other two should catch up. But if you need more immediate action taken, you can contact each agency individually.
Pay your bills
The last thing you need to do to truly clean sweep your credit is to knock out some debt. If you have any collections or credit card debt, develop a budget to pay them off as soon as you can. You may have to cut some luxuries for a few months, but it will be worth it. Cleaning up these debts opens up your available credit and allows you to use your credit responsibly.
Make sure you are able to pay longer-term expenses, such as a mortgage, student loan, or auto loan, on time each month. This might also be a good opportunity to look into your interest rates and see if there’s a possibility of refinancing as rates continue to stay near record lows. Also look into the possibility of paying debts off early—but check first to make sure there is not a pre-payment penalty.
After you finish, set up a day each month to check in with your finances—and relish the feeling that your finances are uncluttered and up to date.
Ilyce R. Glink is the author of several books, including 100 Questions Every First-Time Home Buyer Should Ask and Buy, Close, Move In!. She blogs about money and real estate at ThinkGlink.com and at the Home Equity blog for CBS MoneyWatch.
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