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(Copyright Corbis)
(Copyright Corbis)

Home Cents

Money-saving tips from a professional organizer Add to ...

Are you a piler or a filer?

I heard these terms recently while interviewing a company president who had recently undergone an office renovation, and it got me thinking about my own organizational style.

My husband and I are undoubtedly both pilers, though the difference between the two of us is that while he would happily pile paper on paper until the stacks reached the ceiling (and we ended up featured on Hoarders), I get sick of our piles every month or so and feel the need to find a home for everything, whether it's in the filing cabinet or the recycling bin.

Even so, my filing system must be sub-par, because somehow important documents still mysteriously go astray.

Having had a stressful time finding receipts for my tax return this year (I'm self-employed), I decided to do a little something to help myself out in 2012. I added a designated "receipt box" to our home office, where I can deposit all the receipts throughout the year that I'll needing at tax time. Hopefully, it will save me money down the road.

I think it's a good start, but it does make me wonder: Can being disorganized actually cost you money?

"Absolutely," says Kristie Demke, president of the Professional Organizers in Canada. "You know how frustrating it is not to have your paperwork in order, but there are actual costs to being disorganized. You may incur service charges, interest charges or late fees if you are late paying a bill or sending in payment for a parking ticket. If you are disorganized to the point where you cannot easily reconcile your bank statements and your credit card statements, you may be missing errors that could very well cost you money. You may miss 'early bird' discounts when registering for a conference or a class, or you may have to pay a late registration fee."

And there's more: Whether you're incurring courier costs to ensure paperwork gets in by a forgotten deadline or missing out on time-limited offers or rebates, Ms. Demke says unchecked disorganization could be ripping you off. The stacks of paper on your desk could even be hiding forgotten cheques or gift cards (hmm, where did that holiday iTunes card go?).

Since keeping the papers straight in my home could be good for my family's finances, I asked Ms. Demke to suggest some money-saving home organization tips. She liked my idea of a receipt box, but took it even further.

"With any of the receipts that you are keeping in the receipt box, double-check to ensure that the relevant expense is described on the receipt," she said. "And if it's not, take a moment to jot it down before you toss the receipt in the box. This is especially true for any meal or entertainment expenses. You think you will recall who you took to lunch and what you discussed, but a year from now you won't."

Ms. Demke also suggests I keep a spreadsheet for costs like utilities, mortgage, insurance, etc. to reference for income tax purposes. Once it's set up, I can just update the figures and calculate the tax-deductible portion quite easily.

Beyond tax-related documents, Ms. Demke says there are numerous other ways home organization can save you money.

"Set up a system to keep warranties and instruction manuals along with the store receipts for big ticket items such as appliances, vehicles, renovations and other major purchases," said Ms. Demke. "If you need to follow up or have something repaired, you will be able to prove when and where you bought it, and whether or not it is still under warranty. Plus, if you sell the item in the future, you will get a better price if you can tell prospective purchasers that you have the original receipts and all the manuals that go with it."

And for those of you that tend to toss out your store receipts once you start wearing that sweater or eating that breakfast cereal, you may want to think twice.

"Keep credit and debit card slips -- in separate folders, boxes or envelopes -- until the credit card statement or bank statement comes in and then compare to make sure that you are only being charged for what you bought," said Ms. Demke. "You would be amazed how many errors occur and the banks only allow a short window of opportunity to advise of any problem."

Once the receipts and statements have been reconciled, you can shred anything except receipts you may need for income tax purposes or bills relating to items you might return. "In most households, the entire year's receipts for the items that you may have to return will fit nicely in a manila envelope, labelled accordingly."

As for how often we should be sifting through our piles of papers, Ms. Demke says at least once a month, "though once a week is better." Once a year, you can go through your files and shred anything that is no longer relevant. Or if you're leery of saying good bye to your bills forever, you can pull all of last year's file folders from your filing cabinet and place them in a banker's box, which will leave it ready for a whole slew of nice, clean folders for the new year.

Clearly, I'm going to need more boxes.

Ms. Demke says that it's not just piles of papers that could be costing you money -- piles of other household items can be a problem too.

"You'd be amazed how many families that I work with have multiple copies of books, DVDs, or even games, usually because they are kept all over the place rather than together," she said. "Even something as simple as keeping all the mittens, hats and scarves in one place will ensure you don't have to buy replacements since you can't find the gloves you bought last year."

And when it comes to shopping, Ms. Demke suggests we never leave home without a list (agreed -- I am a compulsive list keeper), so you don't buy yet another black tank top when you already have four of them in your closet.

"Keep one list for groceries, one for the big box store such as Costco, and one for the other sundry things the family needs like hardware and household items," she said. "And if you really want to save money on groceries, set up a simple meal planning system and plan a week's meals at a time. It's also a good idea to inventory your cupboards and freezer when planning your meals so that you can plan to incorporate items you already have into the menu."

Get ready, hoarder husband -- spring cleaning is now on the agenda.

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