Jan. 1, 2007
Another year, and another chance to get organized. Whether you’re getting ready to prepare last year’s tax return, planning to keep better records this year or just want to avoid a potential data disaster, the good news is that there are tech products that can help you.
Let’s start with financial record keeping. If you’re not already using online banking, give it a try. I know — you worry about security and you’re right to be concerned, but millions of people are banking online and the vast majority of people don’t get into trouble. Check to see if your bank offers free online banking and bill pay. If not, consider changing banks. Most banks not only let you see your balance and transfer funds between accounts but also pay bills either manually or automatically. Auto payment works great for bills that don’t change, such as fixed mortgages, car payments or rent. Be sure to read all the fine print regarding how long it takes for the payment to arrive and whether the bank takes the money out of your account right away, the day the payment is processed or after the payment reaches its destination. Most banks will let you issue online payments to anyone by drafting paper checks to individuals and small companies and electronic funds transfers to larger businesses like utilities and credit card companies.
If you really want to automate, consider signing up for Paytrust (www.paytrust.com). The service, which costs either $2.95 a month plus 50 cents per transaction or $12.95 a month with up to 30 free transactions, not only pays your bills, but lets you receive bills online and sets rules as to what is paid and how much. You could, for example, tell it to pay your minimum balance on a credit card or the entire balance if less than $500, but to alert you if it’s higher. I’ve been using this service for years and love it. Not only does it help me avoid ever being late with a payment, but it also gives me detailed reports at the end of the year, which is great at tax time. Plus you can search for transactions going back to the day you signed up for the service.
In addition to tracking your checking account, it’s a good idea to keep track of credit cards and cash transactions, especially if you can deduct any of those funds from your taxes. Both Quicken and Microsoft Money do an excellent job with all aspects of finance including budgeting, managing your debts as well as your assets. If you’re going to use one of these programs, it’s best to start early in the year so that you have a full year’s worth of data to analyze. Intuit, which publishes Quicken, also offers the Quicken Home Inventory Management program ($29.95) which helps you keep track of your belongings and household items, which can certainly help if you ever have to make an insurance claim.
One advantage to online banking and financial management is that — in some cases — you can ask your financial institutions to stop sending paper statements. Such statements can sometimes be used by identity thieves to gather information and the fewer you have coming in the mail; the less likely they are to get into the wrong hands. Assuming you do still get some financial information on paper, make sure you dispose of it properly. The best way to do that is with a shredder. You can get personal shredders such as the Techko Identity Guard 6-Sheet Strip Cut Paper Shredder for under $30. This model is designed for light duty – up to 6 sheets at a time. For about $70, you can buy the Staples Mailmate Junk Mail Shredder which handles 10 folded sheets as well as CDs/DVDs, credit cards, staples & small paper clips.
Before you shred those documents, consider scanning them so you can keep a computer record. Visioneer makes a series of simple document scanners starting at $59 for the OneTouch 7300 USB but your best-bet is often a multi-function device that scans, copies, prints and, perhaps, faxes. Hewlett Packard’s HP Deskjet F380 All-in-One does costs $79.99 and does an adequate job as printing, scanning and copying. Having a copier around can also be extremely handy.
Putting labels on things can help you keep track of them. For example, some power bricks or rechargers that come with cell phones, MP3 players and other electronic products aren’t marked and it’s easy to get them mixed up so it’s a good idea to label them. I also put labels on portable devices that I’m likely to lose as well as books that I lend out, spice jars and everything else that needs to be identified. You can get an inexpensive hand held label printer like the Casio KL-780 EZ Label Printer for as little as $27, or you can get one for your PC from Casio, Dymo, or Brother. My favorite is the Brother P-touch QL-500 that can be purchased online for under $60. It hooks up to a PC or Mac and has the ability to use continuous feed label stock which can save you money because you use only as much stock as you need. It also accepts stock up to 2 3/7 inches wide for really big labels or even bumper stickers. Brother makes special label stock for CDs and DVDs but I just use the 1 1/7 inch continuous label stock for CDs. 100 feet of that stock costs $14.99 which translates to 1.2 cents an inch.
Finally, no start-of-the-year getting organized technology story would be complete if I didn’t nag you about backing up. You know you should, but if you’re like most people, you probably don’t. I’m a big fan of external USB hard drives such as the Seagate 250GB Hard Drive (about $130) or the 500 gigabyte My Book Essential Edition ($279) from Western Digital. These and other external drives typically come with easy to use backup software and they plug into a PC or a Mac via the USB (2.0) port. Even if you don’t buy an external drive, be sure to backup your absolutely essential information by emailing it to yourself or burning copies to CDs or DVDs that you store off-premise just in case the unthinkable happens to your home or office.a