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retirement

Retirees, Get Your Financial Life in Order

Keys to organize your finances to protect yourself from bogus claims of unpaid debt and scammers.

The new year can be an opportunity to form some good habits—maybe adding a daily walk or cutting out desserts. If you’re in this mindset, add organizing your financial life to your list of resolutions.

For older adults, gaining a sense of control over finances is particularly important, says Susan Devaney, a professional who specializes in helping older adults move from their longtime homes and resettle elsewhere. Scammers regularly target seniors with bogus claims of unpaid bills, so having an organized system to doublecheck your finances can help to protect you, she says. It’s also useful to have documentation if you’ve forgotten whether you paid a bill and need to review your records.

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“It freaks all of us out when we get these crazy calls from scammers,” says Devaney, founder of The Mavins Group, a move-management and real estate sales company in Westfield, N.J. “If you have some sort of system, you can reassure yourself.”

Ready, Set, File

Budgeting apps and other digital money-tracking tools may be handy, but you can also use an old-fashioned, paper-based filing system, Devaney notes. “Some people just want to be able to see everything on paper,” she says. “When they put it in a digital document, they feel like it can get lost in there and they can’t retrieve it.”

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January is a great time for sales at office supply stores, so select a few items, such as folders and folder tabs, to begin reorganizing. Pick up a simple desk organizer for your supplies, from pens to paper clips, so you don’t get distracted trying to find them as you work. Devaney prefers accordion folders, so you can organize bills either by month or by subject. Then use tabs or stickers to color code your bills. But don’t get carried away; if you make your organizing system too complicated, you won’t use it.

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She suggests sticking to 12 to 13 months’ worth of files organized by date, or 10 to 12 subjects, such as utility bills, mortgage payments or health care costs. You might also want to include all your insurance policies and tax-deductible contribution acknowledgements, so you don’t overlook them at tax time.

.One way to streamline your bills is to mark the date that you paid it at the top, and add the check number, if needed, before you file it. Or use a colored sticker you’ve designated for paid bills. That way, if a scammer calls you, or if you’re not sure you’ve paid a bill or receive a late notice in error, you can easily go back and check, Devaney says.

Make sure that you—and your spouse or adult children—know how to locate all your accounts and their passwords, says Lori Atwood, a Washington, D.C., financial planner. Keeping a paper copy of all passwords in a secure but accessible place can work, but you also could consider online password managers that keep them safely stored digitally.

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The new year also is a perfect time to review your budget, Atwood says. Write down your income, expenses, retirement contributions and account balances. Then simplify some of your finances. Consider using just one credit card, even if you have a spouse, to cut down on fees, she says. If you have recurring charges such as Netflix or magazine subscriptions, put them on a backup credit card, so if your primary card gets hacked, you don’t have to update all your accounts with a new card.

Set up reminders throughout the year, perhaps on your Google or Outlook calendar, to stay on top of tax due dates and other financial deadlines. And once you’re organized, snap photos or scan your most important documents or bills, so you have a digital backup if needed.

It’s not always easy to get motivated to organize your finances, a task on par with cleaning out a closet or going to the dentist. But it might take just a few hours, Atwood says. “Just get it done,” she says. “It’s all about feeling financially empowered.”

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