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SIMPLIFYING FINANCIAL RECORDS CAN YIELD DECADES OF BENEFITS

That impenetrable pile of checkbooks, bills and brokerage statements on your desk is trying to intimidate you.

You know your finances are too complex and that efficiency would save time and money. But the pile likes being a pile, and it's telling you to back off.

Don't give in. If you can take control of your finances, your investment of time and money will return dividends in both for decades to come.

It's all about simplifying.

With technology -- such as automatic bill-paying, direct deposit and computerized budgets -- you can take a lot of the drudgery out of your financial chores.

By working with an adviser to develop a comprehensive financial plan and by reducing the number of accounts you have, you can gain a better picture of your situation so that all your efforts keep you moving in the right direction.

Simplifying your financial life isn't rocket science, but you shouldn't throw up your hands and think that things will somehow fall into place.

"Simplifying is not a quick task," says Lance Alston, a partner and certified financial planner at JWA Financial Group in Dallas. "There's analysis and research, and most people don't have the patience or the disposition it requires to get to the end result."

But it can be done. You have to actively set out to simplify your financial life. Here are ways to get started:

Have a financial plan.

You'd be surprised at how much it will simplify your finances. Lay out your current resources, your goals and what steps you will take to achieve them.

"The easiest way to simplify your financial life is to figure out what your priorities are," says Lawrance. "Then behave like they're your priorities."

Setting financial targets can also make hitting nonfinancial targets possible.

Take a financial inventory.

That includes looking at your income, expenses, bank and retirement accounts and Social Security benefits.

"Do you have a will? Do you have a living will?" Alex Booras asks. "Do you have long-term care insurance?"

Use debit cards to pay bills.

They're quicker than writing a paper check. Just make sure you have sufficient funds in your bank account and record the debit so you're not overdrawn.

Automate financial transactions.

Pay your routine bills by having the money automatically drafted from your bank account.

Again, make sure you have the money in your account and that you record the transactions.

Reduce your accounts.

"One major credit card is all anyone needs, and this also reduces the chances of your identity being stolen and improves your credit score," says Clintsman.

Organize your personal papers.

"Set up an organization structure for your important papers," Clintsman says. "Most people develop a paper clutter in their homes because they don't have a proper place to file important papers as they come in the mail."

Set up folders for all accounts.

Get rid of the documents you don't need.

Many people keep bills, bank statements, receipts and canceled checks and other documents far longer than necessary.

"It's reasonable to keep your deposit, credit card, ATM and debit card receipts until the transaction appears on your statement and you've verified that the information is accurate," according to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.

Save credit card and bank account statements for about a year if they don't have tax or other long-term significance, the FDIC says.

"The rest you should maintain up to seven years," the agency says.

If documents involve the purchase or sale of investments, keep them for as long as you own the investment.

Be sure to shred unwanted documents containing personal information.

Use direct deposit for your paycheck, pension or Social Security benefits.

You'll get your money faster and you won't have to worry about thieves stealing your check.

Make simplifying your financial life your priority.

"If in doubt about your priorities, your wallet will let you know what your true priorities have been," Lawrance says. "If you don't like where you're at, change what you're doing."

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