You have a 401(k) from an old employer that you haven’t looked at in weeks, a high-interest credit card you’ve been meaning to do something about for months, and cash sitting in your checking account that’s doing nothing. You’ve been meaning to whip your finances into shape for a while now, but haven’t had the time. Do it now: take a day off of work or school if you have to, get up early, and put your finances through boot camp. Here’s how.
Blast from the past is a weekly feature at Lifehacker in which we revive old, but still relevant, posts for your reading and hacking pleasure. This week we thought it’s a good time to reevaluate your finances and make sure you’re not mismanaging your money.
Photo remixed from an original by JutASC (Shutterstock)
Take a Day Off
The first thing you’ll want to do is make sure you take a day off from work or school where you won’t be distracted by your daily activities. You don’t actually have to play hooky, but if that’s what it takes, do it. You’re going to spend a lot of time on the phone, so you don’t want to be distracted by an incoming call from a colleague at the office or a family member at home that wants your attention. For this to work, you’ll need—at least for a good portion of the day—to sequester yourself in a quiet place where you can focus while you use the phone, read documents, and browse the web.
0800 Hours: Enroll In (or Check Up On) Your 401(k)
If your employer offers a 401(k) and you’re not using it (especially if your employer is willing to match some portion of your contribution), now’s the time to sign up. Most companies partner with an investment firm to manage their 401(k) program, and to enroll all you have to do is log in to that firm’s site with credentials supplied by your employer (or sign-in instructions supplied by your employer.) Photo by _e.t.
Spend your first hour collecting your 401(k) enrollment documents, or contacting your company’s HR department (preferably by phone—we are on a schedule here) to find out how to enroll. Then head over to the respective site for your 401(k), log in, and see the funds that are available to you. If you can enroll online, head over to MorningStar and Yahoo Finance and start researching funds, and use previously mentioned BrightScope to evaluate your 401(k) program.
If you can enroll online, go ahead and do it. If you have to send in forms or have paperwork processed by your HR department, make notes to yourself about which funds you’d like to enroll in, how much you’d like to contribute from your paycheck to each fund, and take it with you when you go back to work. By the end of the hour, you’ll either be completely finished or you’ll have most of the heavy lifting done and you’ll be able to finish the process the next time you speak to your company’s HR team. When I did this, my HR department didn’t want to deal with handling my investment for me, so when I ran into trouble, they gave me the direct line to our 401(k) administrator’s corporate support line, which streamlined the enrollment process.
0900 Hours: Move/Consolidate Your Old 401(k)
If you’re changed jobs a few times and made use of your employer’s retirement funds at each company, you probably have a couple of 401(k) enrollments lying around collecting dust. If you’ve been attentive, you know which funds you’re enrolled in for each of them and how each one of them is performing. Then again, if you were attentive, you wouldn’t need to take a day off for financial boot camp.
Since you spend the last hour enrolling in your current employer’s 401(k), now is a good time to roll over your old 401(k) funds into your current one, or into a rollover or Roth IRA so the money isn’t sitting somewhere out of sight. Logging in to one investment firm and seeing all of your money in one place-especially if the funds available at your current employer are better-will give you a single, holistic view of your retirement funds. Keeping three or four different firms with dozens of different funds is a recipe for eventually getting lazy and ignoring them all-the way I did until I put myself through this process.
If you have a financial advisor, now’s the time to call them up and talk to them about the process. For those of us without one, you’ll need to call each retirement fund and imitate the process manually. Call your current investment firm first though: more and more are offering painless rollovers and transfers as selling points, and they’re all more than happy to take your money, and will likely make the process as seamless as possible. When I did this, both firms handled the process electronically, avoiding any tax implications for moving that much money around. There may be some documents you have to sign, but they’ll mail, email, or fax them to you.
1000 Hours: Call Your Credit Card Companies for Lower Interest Rates
This step may take a while if you have several credit cards, but now’s the time to take a look at your bills, the interest rates you’re paying for each credit card, and start making phone calls to ask for lower rates. We’ve discussed how a simple phone call can save you money on your credit card bill, and discussed it again in our bill by bill guide to saving money on your monthly expenses.
You may not have success with all of your credit card issuers, but it doesn’t hurt to ask, and if you have a long history of on-time payments and an account in good standing (which sometimes means you’re carrying a balance on the card,) the credit card issuer will be willing to lower your interest rate a few points to keep you as a customer. If the customer service rep you speak to can’t help you, ask to speak to the issuer’s customer retention department and let them know you’re considering consolidating your balance to another, lower-interest card, but don’t want to have to if they can cut you a break.
1100 Hours: Call The Lowest Interest Card Issuers and Consolidate Debt
After you’ve called your credit card issuers and negotiated lower interest rates, your debt landscape should have changed a bit. Now that you have lower rates from some companies (and perhaps no results from others,) take the next hour to call the ones with the lowest rates and see if you can consolidate your credit card debt to one, low-interest card. There may be a balance transfer fee associated with the move, but many issuers waive the fee for new customers and customers who have been with them for a long time. Photo by Andres Rueda.
Many issuers will be happy to bump up your credit limit to accommodate a balance transfer because it represents incoming debt. Higher credit limits aren’t always a good thing, but if you’re using the higher limit as a way to consolidate your credit card debt onto one low-interest card that you intend to pay off, it’s a good step. Now comes the hard part: make sure that you resist the urge to load up those now zero-balance cards.
1200 Hours: Lunch
Seriously. You’ve been working a full day here whipping your finances into shape. Take some time to put your feet up and enjoy a well-deserved meal. If you don’t feel like taking a whole hour out of the day when there’s more to do, you can use some of this time to follow up on phone calls from earlier, or eat into this hour if the previous steps are running behind. Whatever you do though, take a time out for at least a little while: it’s been a productive morning!
1300 Hours: Call Your Cable/Cell Phone/Internet Service Provider and Negotiate Lower Bills
It’ll help to go into these conversations educated. Before you pick up the phone, check out your cable provider, wireless carrier, or ISP’s website to see how much they’re offering your level of service to new customers. Then go check out their major competition in your area, if there’s competition available. There’s no guarantee that you’ll get the same bargains when you call them up to and ask for it, but you’ll at least know how much you could save. Photo by Mike Fisher.
When you call your cable TV company or ISP, cite how much they’re offering your level of service to new customers, and ask if you can get a break. Explain that you don’t want to have to leave for the competition, even if their packages are competitive. This is another situation where a front-line customer service rep may not be able to help, and you’ll have to chat with a customer retention representative or a sales rep who can get you to the right people. When you call your cell phone carrier, keep your usage in mind and bump down to a lower-cost plan if you’re paying for features you don’t use.
Your mileage may vary here. Some companies will be happy to offer long-time customers a break on their bills to keep their business: I actually had a Comcast rep ask me how much I was willing to pay per-month for my current level of service just to keep me as a customer. Other reps have heard this refrain from enough customers that it just won’t work anymore, even if you cite their own discounts and bargains. You may have to make good on your threats to quit and go with a lower priced competitor-which is why it’s important to do the research before you call. Don’t cancel on the spot, but if they won’t help, let them know you likely will. For some more tips on how to trim those bills, check out our guide to minimizing your monthly expenses.
1400 Hours: Call Your Bank to Automate Your Checking and Savings Accounts
Now that you’ve organized your retirement funds and gotten yourself a break on your monthly expenses, it’s time to do the heavy lifting and call your bank. At the very least, you’ll want to take some time to open a high-interest savings account (or any interest-bearing account) if your bank offers one that you qualify for, but the real goal here is to take the time to automate and organize your routine expenses and cash flow. Photo by m.prinke.
Once you have your savings account open, consider opening an additional checking account for your bills. It’s not mandatory to get your bills and savings nice and streamlined, but having one account that’s entirely for bills and another for discretionary spending removes the temptation to spend into the money you need for regular expenses. Usually, all of this can be done online if you already have an account with the bank, but you may have to make a phone call or two if you have questions.
Now, sign up for your bank’s electronic bill payment program. Set up an automated transfer of funds; say around 5% (more if you can afford it) to your savings account (preferably to take place when your paychecks land; pay yourself first!) to help you save for future purchases, like your next computer, a new appliance, or a new TV for the living room. You can use this account for long term expenses like a down payment on a car or house, but we’ll get to that in the next hour.
Your end-goal is to create an automated flow that kicks off when your paycheck lands in your checking account. When it’s deposited, interest-bearing savings are automatically deducted. The amount you’ve budgeted for bills is automatically moved to a checking account that handles them, either through your bank’s automated bill payment process so you’re never late, or that you kick off manually by paying your bills online when they’re due. Like I mentioned above: a separate “bills only” account isn’t necessary, but it can help separate the money you have to spend on regular expenses from the money you need for bills.
By the end of the hour (or two, if you have to make phone calls to get these automatic processes going) you should have automated your most routine, mundane financial processes: bill payment, savings, and investing in your future goals or retirement.
1500 Hours: Open High-Interest CDs or Interest Bearing Accounts
Now that you’ve gotten your regular expenses sorted out with your bank, it’s time to take some of your discretionary cash (if you have any, of course) and put it to work doing something better than standing by in your checking account for your next impulse buy.
Even though interest rates on Certificates of Deposit (CDs) and other high-interest savings accounts aren’t great right now, there are plenty of good ones to choose from. Here are a few of your favorites: even though rates are low, any time is a good time to set some money aside for your long term goals. Whether it’s a down payment on a home, or you want to buy your next car with cash, locking up the money in a CD or high-interest account is a great way to put it out of sight (so you’re not tempted to spend it,) and put it to work for you.
1600 Hours: Spruce Up Your Budget
By this time, the banks are closing, and financial institutions are winding down the end of their business day. It’s time to put the phone down and turn your attention to matters at home. Take a look at your budget, and make sure that your expenses actually match up with it. Many of you said that the humble spreadsheet was one of your favorite personal finance tools: make sure the money going out of your bank account actually matches up with the spreadsheet. If it’s not, it’s time to reevaluate your budget, or try a ddifferent tool that can help you create and stick to a budget. Photo by espensorvik.
Spend this hour making sure that you know where your dollars are going and none of your expenses are unexpected. You’ve gone through all this trouble to automate them and make sure they’re all organized: a little attention to you’re your predicted and actual cash flow will make sure they don’t fall apart all over again.
1700 Hours: Clean Up
By now your finances should be in order, and in the last hour you spent some time making sure that you trusted the processes you set up and understood where your money was coming from and eventually going. Now, take it a step further and tidy up your documents and files. Shred old bank statements and bills that you don’t need anymore and scan documents like your tax returns, old W-2s and 1099s that you want to keep. Get your filing cabinet in order, and take some time to dig out from the piles of paper that you probably have, and may have spent a good deal of the day sifting through.
At the end of this hour, not only will your finances be in order, but all of your financial documents will be as well. Digital copies of your investment fund terms, any recent prospectuses, and other important documents and files should be archived and backed up. Your filing cabinet should be in good order so you can easily find and pull out information you may need to quickly retrieve. This is especially important because you spent the day making so many changes.
1800 Hours: Dinner
You’re all finished, and your day of boot camp is over. If you didn’t finish everything, make a short list of the things you want to come back to, or the things that require some follow-up when you have other documents at hand or after you’ve spoken to someone you couldn’t reach. Don’t let the ball drop just because your boot camp day is over-follow up and finish the job.
When that’s done, treat yourself to dinner, comfortable in the knowledge that your finances are automated, easy to examine at a glance, and that your bills will be paid, you’ll always be able to tell what you can and can’t afford, and you’re saving for short and long-term goals as well as retirement. If you don’t want to spend the money on dinner after talking money all day long, we can respect that too.
Automating and organizing your finances isn’t a ticket to walking away from them. You’ve consolidated your debt and retirement accounts to make it easier to see them, not so you don’t have to look at them. You set up multiple accounts or automated bill payments so you don’t have to worry about bills being late-not so you can forget you even have bills. Make sure the system works well for you and tweak it where it doesn’t. Photo by Pete O’Shea.
Over the long term, taking these functional steps will help your finances transform from something strange and arcane that you don’t understand into a clear, concise, and easy to follow process that makes sense to you and helps you get to where you want to be financially.
What do you think? Are there additional steps that you would put into a financial boot camp regimen? Do you think it’s too much to tackle in one day? Share your thoughts in the comments below.