Several years ago, when New York Times personal-finance writer Ron Lieber was furloughed for a few days, he responded in true personal-finance expert fashion. By devoting one of his unpaid days off to taking care of a list of financial chores he had been meaning to get to some day, he turned what looked like a pay cut into profit.
In a subsequent “Your Money” column in the Times, Lieber related the results of his fiscal health day: “Financially, the total of my savings and new earnings [from what I was able to accomplish] will net out to about $2,000 annually after taxes,” he wrote. The reward turned out to be so great that Lieber decided to make it an annual tradition. “I got enough done that I now plan to take a fiscal health day at least once a year…on a weekday when all phone lines and financial institutions are open.”
Here are some of the things that were on Lieber’s list for his first fiscal health day — along with related comments plus a few footnotes to previous SMI articles on these topics:
- Open a high-yield savings account. Why should your savings languish in a low- or no-yield account when credit unions and online banks are offering higher rates?
- Get a cash-back credit card. Lieber opted for a 2% cash-back card tied to his investment account.
- Shop for cheaper insurance. Lieber saved $150 a year by reviewing his homeowner’s insurance and making changes.
- Cut back on phone service. Lieber got rid of costly phone features he never used.
- Make progress on getting a will completed. Lieber called three lawyers to price the possibilities.
- Fill out a “here-is-what you-need-to-know-about-our-finances-if-I-die” form. This is a wonderful thing for your family to have during an emotionally wrenching time. (For more on this topic read How to Set Your House in Order.)
- Set up automatic monthly contributions to non-profit groups. Lieber hopes this will end his “end-of-the-year scramble to get donations out.”
- Check gift cards to see how much is left on them; then spend that money! “The longer [gift cards] sit,” Lieber wrote, “the more interest...the department store will earn from your money and the bigger the chance you’ll misplace the card.”
- Organize health insurance paperwork. Like many of us, Lieber was “adrift in a sea of forms” that needed to be sorted.
(Speaking of insurance, here’s a preventive step that can save you down the road: make sure your computer has an ongoing backup — either to an external hard drive or to a cloud backup provider. There’s a good chance you’ll pay more to restore a crashed computer than you would for one of these backup systems.)
Like Ron Lieber, Larry Jones — a stewardship pastor and author of the Generosity Pastor blog, has embraced the idea of taking a fiscal health day. He says setting aside time to tackle a financial to-do list is an effective way to battle against “financial creep” — i.e., those “money drains that come on gradually and almost unnoticed.”
Here’s what Jones accomplished:
- Asking the cable company for a lower rate. He got it. If your cable provider isn’t as friendly, consider switching to a lower cost package.
- Automating bill payment for insurance, electricity, gas, water. This was a significant time saver.
- Setting up an auto-draft for monthly savings. Easy to do online.
- Closing two old bank accounts. Why keep what you don’t need?
Jones estimates that the six hours he devoted to his first fiscal health day yielded an annual savings of about $600. In other words, he “earned” roughly $100 per hour for his labor.
If the idea of taking a fiscal health day appeals to you, here are a few other ideas to consider :
- Check your credit. With identity theft running rampant, it’s important to check your credit reports. You’re entitled to a free report each year from the three credit bureaus via annualcreditreport.com. Look for credit accounts you don’t recognize, and if you find any, take the steps outlined on the reports.
- Create an online budget. Free online budget tools, like Mint.com, make it simple to track your cash flow. That information enables you to truly manage your money, enabling you to proactively pursue your financial goals.
- Change your income-tax withholding. If you usually receive a sizeable refund each year, estimate your taxes and consider asking your employer’s HR department to withhold less from each paycheck.
- Check your PMI. If you bought your home with less than a 20% down-payment, you are probably paying for private mortgage insurance. Once you build up at least 20 percent equity, you should be able to drop that insurance. Check with your mortgage company to see how much equity you have.
- Check your travel rewards. If you’re accumulating frequent flyer points at an airline or two, or frequent guest points at a hotel chain, find out if any of your points are due to expire soon. If so, see what minimal step you could take to protect those points.
While the exact savings will vary, taking a fiscal health day — whether during a furlough, a staycation, or just a day off — is well worth the investment of time. Indeed, the return could be so substantial that you start looking forward to facing your financial to-do list and getting more fiscally fit!