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Remember Monopoly? I loved that game, and I was always the banker. I enjoyed stacking the money neatly in order by denomination, making sure the bills all faced the same way as they nestled in the little cardboard banker's drawer, and I kept the property cards in order according to their position on the board. (Yes, I was born to be an organizer.)

With an adult's perspective, it's interesting to recall my childhood approach to playing this game. I had a vague notion that you could borrow money, but I never did: In my Monopoly world, transactions were strictly cash-only. I didn't want to be bothered with keeping track of what I owed or gambling on whether I would have the payment in the future. I wanted to just hand the money over and be done with it, or, if I didn't have enough, to simply put the purchase out of my mind and roll the dice again.

As a grown-up I know that, no matter how much I wish it did, life doesn't work that way. Very few transactions happen in real time; almost everything, even a basic checking account, is based on credit, which adds layers of complexity to managing our money.

At the same time, credit has made life much more pleasant for millions of people, including me. Where would we live if we had to save up enough cash to buy a house without a mortgage? How safe could we possibly be if we had to carry around thousands of dollars in cash instead of one little card that's useless to a thief without the PIN? The credit system has been good to us, but it requires a heavy load of organization.

If you're like me, you see both the beauty and the impracticality of a simple cash system, and you sometimes resent the management that goes into the multiple bank accounts, credit cards, and investments of a typical family. Managing money is a necessary evil, not a hobby, so you want a system—a clear, concise, easy, and quick system—that allows you to track where your money is going, where it's coming from, and how much you actually have on any given day.

This has been a pet pursuit of mine since I got my first job back in high school, and over the years, I've tried a lot of things in my quest for the ideal financial management system. I've created highly detailed, complex, very accurate but very time-consuming processes, and I've tried the opposite extreme as well. With every new variation on my own methods, and with every system I've helped a client to develop for herself, I've learned something new about balancing the value of accuracy and detail with that of time and simplicity. I've learned the value of being “organized enough,” and that's what I hope to convey to you with this book.

What Organize Your Personal Finances In No Time Can Do for You

The In No Time series was created for busy people who want to enhance areas of their lives that could use some organization. The title has two meanings: You want to get organized very quickly (seemingly in no time) and you need to accomplish this feat in the absence of spare time on your part (you have “no time” to organize). I know you don't want to make a career of this: You want to dive in, make improvements, and move on to the next project. So that's how you use this book—skim it, jump from chapter to chapter, take what you need, and go. You are, of course, welcome to read it cover to cover, savoring the author's wit and insight, but my feelings won't be hurt if you don't.

There are many fine books in print on general organizing and on managing your finances. This book bridges the gap between the two, showing you how to narrow the focus of foundational organizing techniques and direct them exclusively toward projects that clear the way for achievement of your financial goals.

Everything's easier when you're organized, and the best way to get there is one project at a time. You can organize the kitchen cabinets another day: For now, it's all about your money. Complete each of the projects in this book and you'll gain

  • A foolproof system for collecting all of your receipts and ATM slips

  • An income and expense tracking document and a technique for tracking cash expenditures on-the-fly

  • The know-how to balance your checkbook by hand and information about options for setting up money management software

  • A comprehensive bill-paying system that includes techniques for avoiding late fees and overdrafts

  • An efficient method for managing incoming mail

  • A comprehensive document storage and retrieval system, including paper and electronic files

  • Techniques for creating a property inventory (both written and videotaped) and a plan for storing irreplaceable documents and computer media

  • Tools to improve your efficiency as a consumer, including lists to prevent duplicate buying and a method for tracking items you've ordered

  • Tools for calculating your net worth, debt-to-income ratio, and other personal statistics

  • Resources for more information from experts on financial issues and advanced organizing

Along the way, you'll be able to see your finances from the perspective of a professional organizer, not a financial expert, so the focus stays on the efficiency of the system.

Who Should Read This Book?

If you believe that you could keep your finances organized with just a little direction and better systems, you've come to the right place. This book is meant for readers who

  • Have moderately complicated personal finances (multiple accounts, investments, credit cards, insurance policies, and the like)

  • Have recently experienced an event that made their finances more complicated (such as marriage, starting a business, or receiving an inheritance)

  • Are take-charge types who want to be in control of their finances and want to manage the process themselves

  • Enjoy being organized and are willing to put forth the effort to achieve that state

  • Have had their finances managed by someone else in the past but now want to take over the job themselves

  • Want to put new systems in place but don't want to create them from scratch

  • Have financial problems, such as chronic bounced-check fees, that can be improved by organization

  • Are already doing a pretty good job of keeping their finances organized but would like to make refinements

For some people, this book will be a great start, but it won't be the only help you need. If you are intimidated by organizing or have had little success with past organizing efforts, you might find it most beneficial to work through this book with the guidance of a professional organizer—preferably one with experience in chronic disorganization. If you have financial problems that organizing will not alleviate, such as serious debt or compulsive shopping, or if you have high anxiety over financial matters that causes you to avoid addressing money matters, you can learn valuable organizing skills from this book, but you also need to work with a financial expert or a counselor with expertise in your areas of additional need.

How This Book Is Organized

The lessons and projects in this book are presented in a logical sequence, so you will have a more seamless experience if you work through the book from beginning to end. However, if you prefer you can use portions of the book in random order—especially if you're already organized in some of these areas and simply want to fill in the gaps in your system.

This book is organized into three parts; here's what each contains:

  • In Part I, “Capture the Numbers,” you'll learn how to track every dollar as it comes and goes and finally see an accurate picture of your income and spending habits. You'll develop systems for ensuring nothing slips through the cracks, which will pave the way for you to balance your accounts and keep them balanced from here on out. After you've gotten a grip on the seemingly secret life of your money, you'll establish a proactive approach to bill-paying and put safeguards in place to prevent late fees and overdrafts. By the end of this section, you will have a fully functional process for capturing the data of your every deposit, check, debit, and withdrawal.

  • In Part II, “Corral the Paper,” we set our sights on taming all of the statements, letters, bills, and other documents that enter your life (often uninvited). You'll establish some ruthless rules for managing the mail, and you'll find yourself throwing away much more than you have in the past. For the lucky papers that get to stay, you'll create a streamlined, easy-to-use filing system—or perhaps a legitimate “piling” system instead. You'll put special safeguards in place for your most critical documents, and you'll finally get those stacks of paper off your desk (or floor) and therefore off your mind!

  • In Part III, “Advanced Projects,” you get to have some fun. You'll learn some impressive organizing tricks that you can show off to your friends, all while taking your efficiency to new heights. Here you'll find organizing tools to get shopping down to a science and ways to make your planner (paper or electronic) work harder for you. Also in this section, if you want to tinker with the financial numbers you now have at your fingertips, you'll find formulas for calculating your net worth, your debt-to-income ratio, and even your own personal profit-and-loss statement. If you want to create a savings or debt repayment plan, you can do it with the tools in this section. Appendix A contains a list of useful references and resources, and you'll find blank copies of the spreadsheets used in this book in Appendix B.

Special Elements and Icons

Throughout this book, you'll find a variety of special elements—lists, sidebars, icons, and other “extras” designed to catch your eye and call out items of special interest relevant to the nearby text. Some of these special elements are described here to help you learn how to use their information when you encounter them in your reading.

To-Do and You'll Need Lists

Each chapter of the book includes a list of what you'll need and one or more to-do lists. You'll Need gives you a quick reference for shopping: Be sure you have these items on hand before you begin so you can make the most of your organizing time. The items on your To-Do Lists give you the steps you'll take to complete the projects in each section.

Basic Organizing Principles

There are a few organizing principles that I think of as the foundations of what I do as a professional organizer. One or more of these principles comes into play with every job I take, and each of my clients becomes accustomed to hearing me mention them again and again. Because these ideas are so important, I've flagged examples of them throughout the book with the icons you see here. Absorb these key principles into your approach to organizing your finances, then use them in other areas of your life and see what a difference they'll make for you:

Have a Home: Designate a home for every item you own, including all types of paper. A major component of clutter management is knowing where to put things when you're ready to put them away. Not everything has to be in its home all the time, just as long as it has a space reserved for it and can go there anytime.

Be Consistent: Do things the same way each time. Invest in creating a method that you can easily develop into productive habits, and avoid reinventing the wheel each time. This is especially important in managing your finances and documents because many intertwined subsystems are at work and you can easily lose track of what you're trying to do and how you meant to do it.

Use Your System: A system works only if you apply it comprehensively and consistently. If the process isn't working, modify it to meet your needs or even switch to something completely different, but don't abandon the project altogether. Being organized will always require some effort on your part, but it should be like a merry-go-round: You have to pull hard and run with it to get it going, but once it has momentum, you can just stand still and give it a regularly scheduled push.

Organized Enough: Be only as organized as you have to be. Avoid organizing for its own sake. Organizing is not something that has inherent value, like kindness, for example. Kindness is a good thing to practice even if it provides no direct benefit for you. Organizing, on the other hand, is a tool that should be used only for a reason: Organize your paperwork to save yourself time and frustration in the future, not just to put it in a different order. If it's alphabetized A to Z, don't make it Z to A just because. When you're organized enough, stop.

Clever Client: These are solutions that my clients have discovered on their own, usually through hard-fought trial and error. Most of my clients have AD/HD (attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder), so they've had to find ways to compensate for what they lack in attentiveness, impulse control, or planning ability. They love sharing their tips because they get to help others and at the same time prove that they're not, as the famous AD/HD book title says, “lazy, stupid, or crazy.” Best of all, these little gems are often better than anything a non-AD/HD organizer could dream up!

Finding “the” Way

“This is my way. What is your way? THE way does not exist.”

Friedrich Nietzsche

A final point before we dive into your financial life: In organizing, as in life, there is always more than one right way. This can be frustrating if you're tired of trying to choose and simply want someone to show you the way so you can embrace it without second-guessing. In this book, I present you with just one or a few options—the ones I have found to be the most useful, easy, or popular with my clients—and invite you to apply all of my techniques as-is or to modify them as you wish. I encourage you to find your own ideal balance between the time invested and the usefulness of the end result—your unique version of “organized enough.”

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