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Your Problem:

Finances in chaos at tax time

Beware the ides of March. Okay, you don’t have to worry about getting stabbed to death like Caesar. But come the 15th, you’ve only got one more month to prepare your tax returns. Linda Rothschild, head of the New York City professional organizing firm Cross It Off Your List and incoming president of the National Association of Professional Organizers, offers tips for getting your finances in order:

Solution #1: Bills and receipts

“For small business owners, I generally recommend that they put these in an accordion file, one of those brown cardboard expanding files labeled either 1 to 31 or A to Z,” says Rothschild. “Use file folder labels to cover up the numbers or letters and make new categories by type of receipt or bill. You could use headings like ‘bank statements’, ‘credit card,’ ‘donations,’ ‘income,’ ‘insurance,’ ‘office supplies,’ ‘utilities,’ and so on. That gives you a self-contained filing system for all paid bills and receipts for the year, and as you pay each bill, you can just drop it in the file.”Rothschild also suggests using a software program such as Quicken to organize your check register. “It lets you categorize each check, so at the end of the year a simple keystroke gives you an itemized expense report,” she says. “And it’s very simple to use. If you can write a check, you can use the program.”

Solution #2: Mail

“People have a hard time keeping up with this,” admits Rothschild. “After a couple of days, it piles up and takes over your desk. I tell clients to deal with it immediately – while you’re on the phone, you can at least open the mail and separate it into different categories. Anything you didn’t request, throw out – you don’t need to read everything. If it’s a bill, have a designated basket or file where you keep all your bills and put it there. You don’t have to look at it yet, but that way when you finally sit down to pay the bills, you won’t have to scramble around looking for any.”

Solution #3: Business cards

People bring these home from meetings and end up piling them on their desk or sticking them in a drawer, says Rothschild. “Then when they need one, they can’t find it,” she notes. “Rather than alphabetize cards by name, categorize them by what people do. For instance, if you meet a computer consultant or travel agent, file the card under ‘computers’ or ‘travel.'” After all, you’re more likely to recall meeting someone who offered to fix your Mac than you are to remember that his name was Williams. To help jog your memory, write the place and date you met the person on the back of the card. “And if you don’t think you’ll ever use that contact,” Rothschild says firmly, “throw the card away.”

Solution #4: Scraps of paper

“These are the bane of many people’s existence,” says Rothschild, who urges everyone to get in the habit of writing things down in one place. “Have some sort of master list in your computer or notebook,” she says, “somewhere you can dump all this information. It doesn’t have to be organized – just get it all down and you can pick through it later.” Rothschild recommends carrying a small notebook for jotting down phone numbers and reminders. Look through it periodically so that you remember what needs to get done, whether it’s shopping for office supplies or returning phone calls.The most important thing about getting organized, says Rothschild, is to keep at it. “People think you can just do certain things that somehow make you organized,” she observes, “but you have to organize those pieces of paper – they’re not just going to jump into the files.” And it doesn’t happen overnight. “You can’t wake up one morning and say, ‘I’m going to get organized today,'” Rothschild adds. “It’s about forming a series of habits and disciplines.” So jot down that thought, file it under “O” for “organized,” and start going through those piles on your desk.