Simple strategies to lessen your financial stress.
By Emma Johnson
With so much troubling news coming out of Wall Street, financial anxiety is high. While you can't control the stock market, you can tackle some of your smaller money issues and put a bit of that anxiety to rest. Here is where to start.
THE ISSUE: I'm enrolled in a flexible-spending account, but I'm feeling overwhelmed by the paperwork.
THE RELIEF: Filling out these claims takes time, but doing so can net you hundreds of dollars each year, by allowing you to pay for health-related expenses with pretax dollars, says Kelley Long, a Chicago-based personal-finance coach and certified public accountant. Even if you spend just $300 on co-pays a year, filing them through a flexible-spending program may save you up to $100 in taxes. To streamline the paperwork, print out a claim form from either your company's Website or the Website of your programs administrator. Then make 12 copies, one for each month and place them in a folder where you will save all your health-care receipts. Once a month (mark your calendar), fill in the expenses you have accrued and fax it to the administrator.
THE ISSUE: A collection agency wont stop calling my house, even though we pay all our bills on time.
THE RELIEF: Return the call, because they aren't going to stop ringing you, says Gerri Detweiler, a personal-finance adviser for Credit.com, an independent education site. If you believe that the bill collector has mistaken you for someone else or called in error, ask to have your number removed from its list. Believe it or not, most will comply, says Detweiler. If the agency still claims you owe a debt and wont take you off its call list, ask to be sent something in writing. (Its required to do so by law.) After that, if you are still receiving calls during dinner hour, ask for the agency's address and send a certified letter telling it to stop contacting you. Additionally, you can file a complaint with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (consumerfinance.gov). Also worth knowing: If you are being contacted about a family member who is in debt, you are not legally required to provide any information about him or her to the debt collectors.
THE ISSUE: I need to do a home repair but don't want to put money into my house, since its value has declined.
THE RELIEF: You'll obviously need to call in a professional if the situation is urgent (rainwater is pouring through the ceiling, say) or you're in the process of moving and the sale of your home is contingent upon making the repairs. It also pays to take action if you're planning to stay in your house for five years or longer, as home values may rebound by then, or if the problem is currently small and relatively cheap to fix but could snowball into something bigger and badder if left unaddressed (a leaky toilet, a furnace pilot light that wont stay lit). That said, in today's weak housing market, you should avoid spending more than is absolutely necessary on fixes if you're going to move prior to 2016. Be careful not to over-improve your house for example, by installing a new $45,000 slate roof on a modest home, says David Crook, author of The Wall Street Journal Complete Real-Estate Investing Guidebook (Three Rivers Press, $15). In most cases you wont be able to recoup the costs.
THE ISSUE: I cant cover my bills until I have my paycheck in hand.
THE RELIEF: Most credit-card companies and many utility companies actually allow you to choose your due dates, so call each one that you use and request that your deadline be switched to a day or two after the day when you typically are paid. (And try to keep a small cushion in your checking account in case a bill is unexpectedly high one month.)
THE ISSUE: The purchase I made with my debit card was less than my bank seems to think.
THE RELIEF: Since funds are immediately taken out of your account when you use a debit card, any error on the banks or the merchants part could ding you considerably. You could overdraw, incurring a fee that averages almost $30, and not be able to use your card for additional purchases. So take action. As soon as you notice a discrepancy, contact the financial institution with your receipt in hand, since it should accurately reflect how much money should have been debited from your account, says Greg McBride, a senior financial analyst for Bankrate.com. Already tossed the receipt? No matter. The bank will probably still initiate an investigation.
THE ISSUE: Receipts are taking over my house.
THE RELIEF: Throw most of them away, yes, even those debit-card receipts, once you've verified their accuracy with your bank. The only receipts you should definitely keep are those for purchases that you're planning to write off on your taxes for example, job-search expenses, home-business costs and medical expenses. (Hang on to these receipts for seven years.) You may also want to hold on to receipts for pricey items, such as electronics and appliances, in case you need to return them or make a warranty claim. Everything else is grist for the shredder.
THE ISSUE: I sent in a rebate offer but never received the money.
THE RELIEF: It shouldn't take more than six weeks or so for a check to arrive. If you've been waiting longer than that, call the company's customer-service number for the rebate department, which is usually printed on the offer form. Mention the terms of the agreement and the date you mailed the rebate. If you no longer have a copy of the form, try Googling the brand name and rebate to find a phone number, suggests Kelley Long. Its a bit of a long shot, but you may be able to receive your money simply by providing the purchase date and the products model name and serial number to the customer-service agent. With future rebates, take these preemptive measures: Make a copy of all the required documents, use certified mail to submit the rebate, and read the fine print carefully to be sure that you qualify for the cash-back offer.
THE ISSUE: I'm being buried in credit-card solicitations.
THE RELIEF: Banks are always looking for ways to raise revenue, so they're competing for your business, says Tim Chen, CEO of NerdWallet.com, a credit-card resource site. Shrink your junk-mail pile by taking these steps: First, fill out a form at OptOutPrescreen.com, a joint venture of the consumer credit-reporting agencies. Then, enroll in the Direct Marketing Associations delete list (dmachoice.org). These two services will block offers for five years or more.
From the October 2011 issue of Real Simple. © 2012 Time Inc. All rights reserved.
Susan S. Lewis, an Accountant in Naperville, can help relieve your financial stress and help you keep more of what you earn. Contact us today.