Master Your Money with a Financial Health Day

Howdy, folks. I’m writing you from a hotel room in Charlottesville, Virginia. All alone. My wife kicked me out of the house.

But it’s a good thing.

You see, for reasons too boring to enumerate, it’s been a topsy-turvy few months in the Brokamp household, and my “to do” pile has really piled up. It was beginning to affect stress level, and threatening my remaining hair follicles (which are already an endangered species). So my wife found a hotel for me, reserved it for two nights, and kicked me and my “to do” pile out of the house.

And it’s been great. I’ve filled every garbage pail in the room, along with a trash bag I brought along with me. I’ve consolidated my lists, organized papers into folders, prioritized my various responsibilities, and fine-tuned my task-management system — all without the interruptions of kids, household chores, or the Wii.

My weekend away was all about my job, but if you’re having trouble tackling all those nagging financial tasks, perhaps it’s time you take a “personal finance retreat.” And you don’t have to go away; you just have to stay home on a day (or two) when no one else will bother you.

One of my colleagues recently did this. Motley Fool senior editor Denise Coursey took a one-week “stay-cation” to conquer her list of tasks. On the financial side, she changed her family cell-phone plan, opened a new bank account, set up direct deposit and auto bill pay, signed up with Mint, and created a budget. Besides streamlining her money management, Denise estimates that her financial retreat will save her $1,000 to $2,000.

In July, New York Times columnist Ron Lieber wrote about his own “financial health day,” which involved getting a will, opening a higher-yielding savings account at SmartyPig, and submitting flexible-spending receipts. He figures his day off will save his family $2,000, and he plans to make it an annual tradition.

Crossing off the items on your financial to-do list might require more vim and vigor than you have at the end of the day. Plus, many tasks require getting a human being on the phone, which is not always easy at 10 p.m. So maybe you, too, can increase your net worth and decrease your stress level by taking a financial health day. Here are eight tips for what to do, and how to do it.

1. Build Your Financial Control Center
One of the biggest impediments to completing any task is not having everything you need when you need it. Somewhere in your home, assemble your financial control center — a working area that has all the files, forms, statements, and passwords you need to get the job done. According to productivity guru David Allen (author of Getting Things Done), “The workspace should function like a cockpit — all the controls easily accessible as required, allowing for maximum focus on the work at hand.” And don’t forget the important tools: Before the big day(s), get thee to an office supply store to stock up on pens, printer paper and cartridges, stamps, sticky notes, folders, envelopes, tape, legal pads, and reference materials. Eliminate the speed bumps of having to get out of your seat or run to the store to get what you need.

2. Build That Budget
If you’ve always thought you should analyze your past spending and plan your future spending (i.e., budget) but never had the time, here’s your chance. Fire up that spreadsheet, or give personal finance software like Quicken or Mint for a spin.

3. Get All That You’re Due
Do you need to submit flexible-spending receipts, insurance claims, expense reports, or (gasp!) tax returns?

4. Prevent Future Expenses
Avoid penalties by renewing soon-to-expire licenses and registrations, sending in upcoming insurance premiums, and paying parking tickets or any other expenses that will cost even more if you procrastinate.

5. Take Time to Comparison Shop
Do you know which of your local grocery stores has the best prices? Are you paying too much for your cell phone? Could you get a better deal on your gym membership? Are you getting the most perks on your credit card?

6. Prioritize Your List
Financial housekeeping often takes longer than you think it will. So spend some time the night before ordering these tasks…moving those with the biggest financial payoff to the top of your list. Also, prioritize projects that can only be accomplished during normal business hours.

7. Be Ready to Multitask
You may be spending a lot of time on hold, navigating customer-service phone trees and waiting to be recorded for quality-assurance purposes. Have another task ready to work on while you’re waiting to speak with a human being.

8. Put On Your Blinders
This day is for financial housekeeping only. Turn off the cell phone, ignore Facebook, and don’t check your email.

9. Get Away From It All
Make your financial health day a real retreat by doing it somewhere else. Go to a hotel, bed and breakfast, a friend’s vacation home — somewhere with no distractions. Bring all the paperwork you’ll need. This is especially good for higher-order tasks, such as mapping out financial and career goals.

p.s. There’s still time (but not much) to fight pediatric cancer and make fun of my mustache.

J.D.’s note: I’ve been preaching the virtues of scheduling a Money Day for three years now! I think this is an excellent way to make time to tackle those financial chores you’ve been neglecting.

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