Sunday, February 26, 2006

Organizing Memorabilia (Part 1)

Tip of the Week, February 19,2006

Ah, memorabilia: those photos, cards, letters, mementos, and knickknacks that remind us of the people, places, and times in our lives we love best. Memorabilia can be a wonderful thing, but it can also grow to be overwhelming, and can sometimes seem nearly impossible to store in any remotely orderly way.

Fear not: there are ways of weeding out the mementos you truly want to keep and creating storage systems that will keep them safe, accessible, and contained. This week, we'll take a look at how to go about choosing the memorabilia that's most important to you; next week, we'll explore some storage systems and tools that will protect your memories for years to come.

Start slow and be kind
When it comes to sorting and weeding items with sentimental value, many traditional organizing tactics go out the window: asking "When was the last time I used this?" might be an effective way of deciding whether to keep a certain kitchen utensil, but it's not very useful when you're faced with a stack of old letters. Memorabilia often brings with it a raft of hidden emotions, and sorting through it can require the emotional equivalent of kid gloves.

Before you start sorting, try to prepare yourself for the feelings that might come up as you go through the mementos you've gathered. Consider enlisting an understanding friend or family member to lend a hand, or just to be with you as you sort. Don't try to go through all of your memorabilia at once; break down your sorting sessions into reasonable chunks and give yourself time to decompress as needed between sessions. Perhaps most importantly, be kind to yourself as you sort and weed. If you're feeling overwhelmed, stop; making rash decisions when you're confronted with too many emotions can cause much more harm than good.

Make "Why might I keep this?" your mantra
When you're ready to sort, get yourself in the habit of asking "Why might I keep this?" for each item you come across. This will help ease the decision making process, and may even give you some ideas as to what to do with the things you decide to hold onto.

There can be any number of answers to "Why might I keep this?" For example, you might keep a birthday card from a friend because it was handmade and features a poem written just for you. You might keep an old tea set from a grandmother because you love using it with special guests, and because it makes you feel connected to the gran who gave it to you. You might keep a photo of your father as a child because in it, he bears a striking resemblance to your own children, and you'd like to frame it next to their photos.

Of course, you won't always have a positive--or any--answer to this question. If you find yourself holding onto things only because you feel you should, because they allow you to live in the past rather than the present, or out of spite for another family member, it may be time to let them go. Memorabilia that simply takes up space--or, worse, reminds you of bad memories or brings up negative feelings--probably doesn't deserve a place in your life.

Set some limits
With memorabilia, as with many other things, the more you keep, the less likely it is that everything in your collection will be meaningful, and the harder it'll be to find space for the pieces that are truly important to you. Setting some limits for how much of each kind of memento you'll keep can help make both sorting and storage easier.

Kids' artwork is a great example. If you were to keep every piece of art your children created--from the daily fingerpainting exercises to the elaborate collages--you'd quickly become overwhelmed. Moreover, trying to find the pieces you really loved would be much more difficult if it meant digging through dozens and dozens of works. If, on the other hand, you chose to keep for the long term a certain amount of artwork per child (perhaps a handful of favorites per year), you'd be sure to hold onto what was most meaningful.

Setting limits doesn't mean you need to be Spartan in what you keep, or that you must force yourself to get rid of memorabilia that truly has value to you. Rather, it means focusing more on the quality of what you keep and less on the quantity.

Next steps
Sorting through your memorabilia, setting aside the things that hold meaning and positive memories for you, and letting go of the rest is an important and challenging first step. Once you've done that, the next step is to decide how and where to store or display your mementos. Be sure to check out next week's tip, when we'll look at ways to keep your memories organized, safe, and easy to enjoy.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Organizing for Tax Time

Tip of the Week, February 12, 2006

Unless you're an accountant (and perhaps even if you are), the lead-up to the tax filing deadline in April probably isn't your favorite time of year. Dealing with taxes can seem like a chore in the best case scenario; add disorganization to the mix and you're faced with a task that's a serious headache.

Here's the good news: it's not too late to get organized before filing your 2005 return, and it's the perfect time to get a good system in order for your 2006 records. Use these tips to bring some order to the tax preparation process and to spare yourself some stress.

Create the files you need
It sounds so simple, but it's a step that's easy to overlook: organizing and keeping tabs on your tax-related papers is much easier if you have an appropriate filing system in place for them. You don't need an elaborate, multi-part system (unless you want one) to keep your paperwork in order. You just need a dedicated, easy to access spot for them and some well-labeled folders or accordion files.

Your tax paperwork filing system should allow you to divide your papers based on how you file your taxes. If, for example, you use multiple schedules and forms or itemize numerous expenses or deductions, your system will need to have sections for each type of supporting document you'll use. On the other hand, if you stick with EZ forms and don't itemize anything, your system can be much more basic, offering only space enough to stash your tax forms, booklets, and proof of income.

Get it together
Once you have some sort of filing system in place, use it! Make it a habit to file any new paperwork you receive as soon as it reaches you; that way, you'll avoid the risk of losing it and can rest assured that all of the documents you need will be in one spot when it comes time to file.

Sort your receipts
If you itemize expenses or charitable contributions, it's crucial to have supporting paperwork, which usually means receipts and gift acknowledgements. Anyone who's ever had to dig through a box full of receipts to find the one they needed--or who's paid someone else to do the same--knows that it's no small feat to organize receipts after they've accumulated.

Nevertheless, it's worth getting your 2005 receipts in order and, at the same time, getting into the habit of categorizing your new receipts in 2006. Start by deciding what categories you need; the schedules you use when preparing your taxes (such as Schedule C) can serve as a good starting point, as can the categories in any tax or bookkeeping software you might use (such as Quicken).

When you've got your list of categories, choose a receptacle to hold your receipts. I'm partial to a check file, which has several dividers with tabs that can be labeled; it's large enough to hold the receipts I collect over the year and small enough to fit in my desk drawer. Labeled envelopes or file folders can work, too.

If you're sorting through receipts you haven't yet entered into your books, now's the perfect time to do that. You might also want to keep a running tally in each category as you sort. This might be time consuming or tedious work, but it's well worth the effort in the end.

Archive, then look ahead
Sooner or later, your taxes will be filed and you'll be ready to get your 2005 paperwork out of your sight. Rather than putting it back in a filing drawer (or leaving it sitting on your desk), take the time to archive it with the paperwork from past years. Keeping a copy of your tax return and all of the supporting documents together in one place will make it easy to refer back to if needed and will keep older papers from cluttering up your new and existing files.

In addition to archiving the papers you're through with, take the time to create tax-related files and a receipt organizing system for 2006, then put them to use. Categorize receipts as you get them and file any papers you'll need for taxes as they come in throughout the year. When tax time rolls around next year, you'll be far ahead of the game.

Getting (and keeping) your tax-related papers organized can help reduce stress, decrease the chance of errors on your return, and perhaps even save you money--all of which can make the process less taxing.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Dealing with Roadblocks

Tip of the Week, February 5, 2006

At some point during almost every organizing project, roadblocks are bound to pop up: boredom, the sinking feeling that the end of the project will never come, scheduling conflicts that make it difficult to sustain progress, and sometimes even the sense that you're worse off than you were when you started.

Though it may not be possible to avoid roadblocks altogether, rest assured that you can get past them. Put these four tactics to work the next time you're faced with an obstacle on your path to organization.

Focus on the end result
Let's face it: many of the tasks that organizing requires--sorting and weeding, making decisions, categorizing, and so on--can sometimes be downright tedious. Do them enough times and they might even start to feel endless. Focusing on the actual process of organizing can be enough to make even the strongest willed person want to throw in the towel.

So try shifting your attention to the end result instead. Rather than thinking only about what it will take to finally be done, give some thought to what "done" will mean: a clearer desk and a less stressful workday, perhaps, or a living room you're not embarrassed to have others see. Remind yourself of why you started your organizing process in the first place, and keep your end goal in mind as you work through the project.

Break it down
If you've ever tried to reorganize an entire closet (or desk, or kitchen, or basement) in a weekend, you know that tackling a project that's too large can make things feel even more disorganized than they were when you started. To avoid feeling overwhelmed by the scope of a project, break it into reasonable chunks. When organizing your bedroom closet, for example, don't take everything out at once; instead, work through one particular type of clothing first (pants, say), then move onto the next type only after you've finished.

Time limits can also be helpful here. Rather than spending an entire exhausting Saturday trying to overhaul your home office, aim to spend a few hours on the project Saturday, a few on Sunday, and 20-30 minutes a day during the week. You'll keep the process moving forward without burning yourself out.

Stay realistic
Here's an insurmountable fact: organization never happens overnight. It takes time, effort, and dedication. But here's another fact: disorganization doesn't happen overnight, either. It tends to be the result of months, if not years, of accumulation, delayed decisions, life changes, or a combination thereof.

So while it's important to keep realistic expectations as to how long organizing projects will take, it's just as important to remember that you're by no means a failure if you're not able to undo years of disorganization right away. It took time to get where you are, and it'll take time to get back, but you will get there.

Maintain, maintain, maintain
No matter how dedicated you are to an organizing project, you will likely find, sooner or later, that everyday life conspires to slow your progress. You might have a particularly busy week at work that allows almost no time to weed out the papers piled on your desk, or you might come down with a cold that keeps you confined to bed for several days, unable to work on deciding which items bursting out of the hall closet should be moved elsewhere.

During those times when it's just not possible to focus on moving your organizing project forward, cut yourself some slack and focus instead on maintaining the progress you've already made: don't add any new papers to the stack on your desk, for example, or spend a few minutes of each sick-in-bed day sorting through the mail that's arrived so it doesn't gather into a critical mass. When work slows down a bit or you're feeling better, aim to ease yourself back to where you left off with your organizing project.

The next time you hit a roadblock when organizing, don't let it stop you completely. Put the four tips above to use, find a workable detour, and get yourself back on the road to organization.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Organizing Against Identity Theft

Tip of the Week, January 29, 2006

Identity theft is a serious problem in our modern world, requiring its victims to devote hours of work--and often hundreds of dollars--to undo the damage. Luckily, there are simple steps you can take to avoid risking identity theft, and several of them will help you get more organized, too. Use these tips to keep your identity in the right hands: your own.

Buy a cross-cut shredder. These machines cut paper into small, confetti-like pieces, rather than long strips, and make it almost impossible to decipher the information on whatever is shredded.

Deal with the mail. Aim to shred or otherwise destroy any junk mail that contains sensitive information--credit card or mortgage offers, "courtesy checks" from credit providers, and the like--as soon as possible. At the very least, separate your mail into three categories: things you want or need to keep, things that can be directly recycled (circulars, catalogs, etc.), and things that need to be shredded. Set aside a few minutes a week to take care of the shredding.

Keep important documents safe. Never carry things like your Social Security card or birth certificate in a purse or wallet, and make sure to store documents with sensitive information (financial account numbers, SSNs, and so on) in a secure spot.

Review your bank and credit card statements soon after you receive them. Keeping close tabs on the activity in your financial accounts will make it easier to detect suspicious transactions. Also, hold on to your charge card and bank receipts until you can compare them against your statements, and then destroy the receipts you don't need for recordkeeping or tax purposes.

Shred all sensitive information. Any piece of paper with your social security number, your full credit card or bank account number, your PINs or passwords, or other identifying information belongs in the shredder. Old bank statements, credit card statements, receipts, checks, and passports should all be shredded.

Check your credit report on a regular basis. US citizens are entitled to a credit report from each of the three credit bureaus--Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion--each year; visit to request your report. If you see something unfamiliar, inaccurate, or suspicious in a report, immediately contact the credit bureaus.

Get your paperwork organized. Finally, take the time to create a simple, effective storage system for important papers like credit card statements, bank statements, insurance documents, mortgage papers, and identity documents (Social Security cards, birth certificates, passports, etc.). While effective filing on its own won't deter identity thefts, it will make it easier to keep current on what's happening with your accounts, and will put at your fingertips much of the information you might need if you ever did have to investigate suspicious transactions or instances of fraud.

As with many other disasters, identity theft tends to be something most of us give very little thought to before we're faced with it. Using the tips above and a healthy dose of common sense, though, can help you keep potential thieves at bay. There's only one you, after all, and that's exactly the way it should be.