I'm so disorganized that I missed the chance to celebrate Get Organized Week.
Get Organized Week, which ran Oct. 3 through 9, was created by the National Association of Professional Organizers to highlight the benefits of getting organized.
Honestly, if it weren't for my husband I would be a pack-rat paper mess. My filing system is simple: I pile papers up until they fall over. Then I create another stack out of the fallen papers.
I often tell my husband I can lay my hands on anything I want, which is true -- after a day or two of looking.
But my lack of organization has created hours of frustration whenever I have had to find some important financial document. And I know I have company.
In one survey conducted last year for Esselte, an office-supply manufacturer, 48 percent of the people questioned said they don't organize and file their vital financial documents and other important papers, such as birth certificates, marriage licenses and Social Security cards.
Of the people who said they did file their documents, many admitted that if pressed they wouldn't be able to find the papers easily.
Well, I'm getting a jump on Get Organized Month, slated for January 2005. It's the same thing as Get Organized Week but now stretched out for a month. Lord knows some of us need a month (or two) to get organized.
So, want to get an early start?
I'm suggesting that instead of reading a book for the Color of Money book club this month, you pick up "Homefile Financial Planning Organizer Kit" by J. Michael Martin and Mary E. Martin (Homefile Publishing, $24.95).
Disorganized financial records get in the way of personal prosperity, say the Martins, who are both certified financial planners.
"Not having your information organized creates a lot of financial pressure," Mary Martin said in an interview. "It can also cost you a lot of money."
For example, Martin said many people fail to claim certain tax deductions because they don't have the receipts to remind them.
When you have a standardized filing system you have less stress, she said.
I certainly can attest to that.
Even if you use home accounting software, Martin said, you still should have a filing system to store your paper receipts, warranties, tax records, bank statements and other essential documents.
The couple has created a 44-page handbook that walks you through setting up and maintaining your files.
"Just the simple act of putting something away requires a complex decision process," the Martins write in the handbook. "That's why warranties and medical receipts and bank statements often wound up in a stack on the closet floor, or on the hutch shelf or in the infamous 'kitchen drawer.' " The Homefile financial planning kit is largely made up of 22 preprinted file divider cards that drop into hanging files or manila folders. Each divider card has a Mylar tab at the top naming a category. Each card instructs you on which papers to keep in that folder, along with helpful tips, including how long to keep certain papers, usually depending on the regulations established by the Internal Revenue Service.
For example, the file divider for bank accounts says checks may be disposed of after one year provided they aren't needed for tax purposes. Cash withdrawal or ATM slips can be trashed after the transactions appear correctly on your monthly bank statement, the couple advises.
What I found most useful in the kit was the quick-find index. The index lists in alphabetical order more than 200 documents people need to keep track of. (I'm not kidding.) For each of these items, the index tells you where to file it.
Trust me, the index is a great feature. How many times have you filed something away and then couldn't find it because you forgot why you put it in a certain folder?
"The index makes it possible for two people to know where the papers were put," Martin said.
"When couples don't have their financial papers organized it can cause a lot of . . . anxiety and a lot of fights," she said.
Now you may be reluctant to spend the money to buy a kit to get you organized. I understand. But if you're a lifelong pack rat or a kitchen-drawer or corner-of-the-room filer, doesn't it make sense to spend a little to end your organizational frustration?
The fact is, our financial lives have become too complicated and too full of paper for us to continue being disorganized.
The financial planning organizer kit is available by calling 800-695-3453 or online at www.homefile.net. You can also find the kit at the Container Store and at Amazon.com.
If you have questions about becoming financially organized, join me online at www.washingtonpost.com at 1 p.m. Oct. 27 for a discussion with Mary Martin.
If you want to join the book club, all you have to do is read the recommended book and join me online for a chat with the author.
In addition, every month I randomly select readers to receive the book donated by the publishers.
If you want a chance to win a book for October's selection, please send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. You must include your name, address and daytime and evening phone numbers so we can send you a book if you win.
Michelle Singletary discusses personal finance Tuesdays on NPR's "Day to Day" and online at www.npr.org. Readers can write to her at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071 or send e-mail to email@example.com. Comments and questions are welcome, but please note that they may be used in a future column, with the writer's name, unless a specific request to do otherwise is indicated.