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.

“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.”

Subscribe to Kiplinger’s Personal Finance

Be a smarter, better informed investor.

Save up to 74%

Sign up for Kiplinger’s Free E-Newsletters

Profit and prosper with the best of expert advice on investing, taxes, retirement, personal finance and more - straight to your e-mail.

Profit and prosper with the best of expert advice - straight to your e-mail.

Sign up

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.”

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.

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.

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.”

Mary Kane
Associate Editor, Kiplinger's Retirement Report
Mary Kane is a financial writer and editor who has specialized in covering fringe financial services, such as payday loans and prepaid debit cards. She has written or edited for Reuters, the Washington Post,, MSNBC, Scripps Media Center, and more. She also was an Alicia Patterson Fellow, focusing on consumer finance and financial literacy, and a national correspondent for Newhouse Newspapers in Washington, DC. She covered the subprime mortgage crisis for the pathbreaking online site The Washington Independent, and later served as its editor. She is a two-time winner of the Excellence in Financial Journalism Awards sponsored by the New York State Society of Certified Public Accountants. She also is an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University, where she teaches a course on journalism and publishing in the digital age. She came to Kiplinger in March 2017.