Financial Organization – 5 Easy Areas to Simplify (and Improve) Your Financial Life

While on maternity leave, I had some extra time to read and tackle projects that had been on my mind. A friend recommended the book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing by Marie Kondo. In the book, Marie takes you through her process to declutter your home.

I am already pretty organized and try not to let clutter accumulate, but I did spend time going room to room purging anything that was no longer needed. I felt amazing. I still do! My life is easier and I am happier as a result. Less stuff equals less time dealing with the stuff.

That sparked an idea to write a blog on how to organize your finances. Complexity does not equal better. This blog focuses on five areas I commonly see unnecessary complexity.

Consolidate Bank Accounts (or least use only one bank)

I frequently come across clients that not only have multiple bank accounts, but also have accounts at multiple banks. They may have moved money here and there to get a better interest rate or opened an account with a credit union to get better auto financing, for example.

Banks use different marketing tactics to entice clients to come over. I frequently receive flyers in the mail to receive a bonus amount, such as $200, that will be added to new accounts (subject to rules, of course).
I do agree having multiple banks accounts can be helpful if each account has a separate objective, such as keeping a separate checking account for a rental property. However, you can set up multiple accounts at the same bank. There’s no need to utilize multiple banks.

Many banks offer incentives to keep all of your accounts at their bank, such as lower (or no) fees, free checks, higher interest, etc. What you are receiving in a bit more interest by moving to another bank may not be worth the unseen benefits to having all assets at one bank.

Action steps:
– Choose your favorite bank and consolidate all accounts at this one bank. Be mindful of the FDIC insurance limits (www.fdic.gov).
– Close out any accounts that are no longer needed.
– Make sure accounts are titled correctly. If you have a large amount of assets in one account, this account may need to be titled to your trust (if applicable). If the account is held by one individual, you may need to add a Transfer on Death (TOD) instruction.

Consolidate or Rollover Former Retirement Plans (such as 401(k)’s, 403(b)’s, 457’s)

Have retirement plans at old employers you haven’t looked at for years? It’s time to consolidate and organize your finances to make sure you are invested appropriately. Your investment asset allocation should be reviewed at least annually and having multiple plans at former employers makes this task daunting and difficult to review your overall asset allocation.

If you are currently employed and have an existing retirement plan at work, you may be able to roll your former retirement plans into this plan. Check the plan document or with your HR personnel to confirm. If not, setting up an IRA Rollover account is a great option in which you can consolidate all retirement plans into.

Actions steps:
– Gather the most recent statements for all of your old retirement plans.
– If currently employed, see if you can roll these plans into your existing retirement plan.
– Alternatively, rolling into an IRA may be a better option for you. Talk with a CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™ professional to review your unique situation.
– The accounts will transfer over in cash. Review your investment options and invest appropriately.

Having Accounts at Multiple Custodians Does Not Equal “Diversification”

I have come across individuals who have believed they are diversified because they have accounts at various custodians (such as Charles Schwab, Fidelity, or TD Ameritrade, for example). Understanding the difference in diversification and the role of a custodian is important.

Custodians hold the securities for you and are highly regulated. You are not invested in the custodian. Diversification is referencing the positions you are invested in within the accounts at the custodian.

Having your assets custodied at Charles Schwab is different than owning Charles Schwab Corp stock. If something were to happen to Charles Schwab as a company, you can simply move your assets to a different custodian.

If you have multiple accounts at various custodians, while you may feel you are diversified, this could actually be creating inefficiencies (multiple websites to access, statements, and tax documents), and you could have overlap in your asset allocation without realizing it.

Actions steps:
– I highly recommend working with a CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™ professional to assist with moving to one custodian, consolidating accounts where you can, and reviewing your overall asset allocation to make sure you are in line to reach your goals and objectives.
– If you plan to do it yourself, choose your favorite custodian.
– Complete their transfer forms (call and get help) and they will reach out and “gather” the assets for you.
– Be careful to transfer assets “in kind” where appropriate so assets are not being sold (and possibly creating tax consequences) without you realizing it.
– Note that many custodians charge a nominal fee to transfer funds and close the account.

Know When to Shred

There are very few documents you need to keep in paper form. This short list includes documents such as birth certificates, social security cards, passports, marriage certificates (and divorce decrees), and your original estate plan (trust, wills, power of attorneys, and advance health care directives).

Having to construct filing systems, receive paper and organize it monthly is a time suck. I highly recommend you set yourself up to receive electronic statements whenever possible and simply access information online if/when needed (such as utility bills). Alternatively, if you must receive any paper, scan it and save it electronically. This helps eliminate clutter and keeps you organized.

The IRS recommends you keep tax returns and supporting documents for at least three years, whether it be in paper form or electronically. If purging any tax returns older than 3 years is not comfortable for you, scan them then shred. Alternatively, if you still prefer paper copies of your tax returns, just keep the tax return portion and shred the supporting documents.

If you prefer paper copies of other documents as well, I recommend keeping only year-end summaries when possible, or shredding the previous document when a new one comes in (such as with your casualty insurance).

Action steps:
– Purchase a good shredder.
– Go through all files and shred anything no longer needed.
– Sign up for online access and paperless statements.

Consider Using a Website to Aggregate Everything In One Place

Even after all of these steps, you most likely will still end up with accounts at various locations – checking and savings accounts at banks, investment accounts at custodians, credit cards and mortgages at various lenders, and it can be challenging to see everything in one place. Consider using an online aggregation tool.

EP Wealth Advisors uses a program for our clients we call a Personal Financial Website where you have online access to your overall financial picture 24/7. There are other options. A few others include Mint, Personal Capital, and You Need A Budget (YNAB).

You must first have online access to your accounts or liabilities to be able to sync to an online aggregation program. These aggregation tools do a screen scrape allowing them to pull in account balances and transactions via the connections you set up. If you are concerned about cyber security, many offer additional security such a dual-factor authentication. Plus, when you log in you are unable to make transactions, it’s view only.

Once you get this set up, you’ll be able to get a snapshot of your up-to-date finances in a matter of seconds.

Action steps:
– Research the various online aggregators to find which one will work best for you.
– Establish online access to your accounts and liabilities.
– Link to your online aggregator.

Summary

If you follow these financial decluttering steps I promise a weight will be lifted off your shoulders! It will take some time to implement so you may not feel it immediately, but tackle one task at a time and in a few months/years you will start to notice the results when you receive less paper statements, only have to deal with one bank or custodian, and receive less tax reporting documents.

Next time you find yourself wondering how to organize your financial life, remember to resist the temptation to open a new account (get $200 here!) or credit card (save 20% today!), pause and think about managing yet one more thing just to get a few extra dollars. Is it really worth it?

As always, please let EP Wealth Advisors know if you have any questions or if we can help you declutter your financial life.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Laura R. Knolle, MS, CFP® is a Vice President with EP Wealth Advisors. In her role with the firm, she specializes in working with clients to bring together all the pieces of their financial lives. Her expertise includes every aspect of financial planning from retirement planning to estate planning and cash flow management to tax planning. Laura is passionate about client education. She believes deeply that knowledge is true power and thus spends a great deal of time educating clients about their situation and their choices. Bringing all professionals to the table, Laura is collaborative in her approach to ensuring that clients have a team working in concert for their best interests. Laura has been in the financial services industry for more than 10 years. She graduated with honors from Michigan State University with a B.A. in Finance, and from Golden Gate University with an M.S. in Financial Planning and Taxation, with an emphasis in Estate Planning. She is an active member of the Financial Planning Association. She heads up a study group for local professionals, and is also a volunteer bookkeeper for senior citizens through the Diablo Valley Foundation for Aging. As an experienced planner, Laura has provided expert commentary on a number of financial-related topics for publications such as The Fiscal Times, MarketWatch, MORE magazine and Forbes. Laura is a new mother and spends her time lavishing son Johnny Ray with love. She has a passion for fitness, nutrition and traveling. She also enjoys hiking with her husband John and their two dogs, biking, boot camp and lifting weights. Her love of travel extends well beyond that of a two week vacation, as Laura has had the opportunity to live and work abroad in London, England and Sydney, Australia.

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