How to Manage the Never Ending Paper Trail

How to Manage the Never Ending Paper Trail

It hardly seems fair that as soon as we pay bills, review statements, manage family calendars and school cubbies for the month, all of this ironing out will inevitably become all bunched up again when next month’s paperwork requires the same attention.

When it’s our own personal finances, it is easier to put aside organizing—waiting until we have the time. This could be months down the road for busy people because let’s face it, who isn’t overextended these days?

But, when we find ourselves in the position to manage the finances and household bills for our elderly parents, this is one job that requires careful attention to detail because you will need to account to siblings, attorneys, and the IRS eventually.

Here is the approach I took to getting my mother’s financial house in order.

First, the visual of the mess I walked into. My father managed the finances for the duration of my parent’s fifty-four year marriage. My mother preferred to manage the home and these roles worked well—until he died. She upended any system he put into place and when I arrived on the scene it was mine to figure out from cascading mountains of paperwork. Literally.

For the thirteen years after his death, she would open the mail, then re-stuff the statements into shoeboxes that would line bookshelves, bureau drawers, and stay tucked beneath beds when there was no more room on tabletops.

Can you see it? The scope of what these thirteen years of statements amounted to ended up taking me a few years to unravel.

Perhaps you are wondering what could be so important from that long ago that I would even need to bother taking the time to sleuth through it all.

I can tell you the moral of this story in one line—do not throw away any paper until you understand what it means to your parent’s financial picture. It will not matter that you will need to dig through 200 empty checkbook cartons because the first one you opened had $50 cash hidden inside. It will not matter that you have amassed eighty-five bankers boxes filled with decades of statements to sift through at your leisure while you work to make sense of the portfolio and uncover where any assets might be hidden.

Do your due diligence. You will sleep better at night knowing that you unearthed every account, every safe deposit box in town, every long term CD you stumble upon just because you are willing to do the job the right way.

The wrong way would be to hire a clean sweep crew who will charge you an attractive rate and send strangers in to cart away all the mess you don’t have time to deal with. They are counting on this. It’s how they make their living because they will find cash that is hidden in places you never looked.

Believe me, your obligation is to understand the paper trail before you beginning shredding. I toiled summer after summer when school was out to piece together fractions of clues to find money that was never listed on spreadsheets or statements.

Glad I did. We were running out of cash near the end and I was at the beginning of looking into a reverse mortgage to stay afloat for however long my mother’s decline would last. It was only then that I found the bulk of her wealth in the form of stock certificates from the 1940s that had never been registered. Imagine if I had just shredded these like everything else. They were in the eighty-fifth box of papers and did not look familiar to me. Thankfully, Charles Schwab knew just what they were.

Stage 1: Sort Paperwork into Categories: Long-Term, Short-Term, Monthly

Long-Term—understand old history

Every statement I uncover from every dark corner of my mother’s house that is not dated within the past 12 months, is filed as long-term—something I can peruse later when I have the time to gain some insight about accounts that are active, or have merged, or have been cancelled in the years since my father’s death.

I never recommend bankers boxes for permanent storage, (think flooding!) but temporarily, they are an affordable way to clear clutter from the house.

Label carefully, this will save you oodles of time when you are searching later.

Bundle years for each new box: “Archive 1990-1995”, “Archive 1996-2000.”

Short-Term—monitor recent history

Every statement dated within the past 12 months is filed as short-term—these will be immediately transferred to your filing system once it is set up.

Label as current year: “Active 2017.”

I make an alarming discovery once I go through archives vs. active accounts—my mother’s home insurance has been forcibly terminated for failure to pay. Somehow it got missed and once this happens, you are dead in the water.

You cannot return to the insurer who carried your policy for 35 years, and you cannot reinstate a home policy without a new roof inspection. It will not matter if your roof does not leak—ours was still good—there will likely be some work needed when it comes to old houses. So if you do not have the financial reserves, be careful to never find yourself in this predicament.

Monthly—alpha and chrono order for filing active accounts

I still work with paper. Online banking is great for quick pay, but I am more comfortable perusing month-to-month statements when I need information.

I buy a short filing cabinet and unload the entire contents of the “Active” box—all mail pertaining to the current year—and I sort paperwork into piles in alphabetical order using yellow sticky notes to post the alphabet along the hallway wall, filing each statement accordingly.

Assign a hanging folder by labeling a Post-it note with the company’s name found on the statement. Be sure to file most recent month on top, with subsequent months behind it.

A binder can also work when you have fewer accounts to manage, following this same alpha and chrono set up. However, the girth can make this weighty.

Discarding—be careful about what you throw into the garbage

I follow the sage advice to not throw anything into the garbage that has identifying information: your name, address, social security number, credit card numbers, telephone, birth date, checking account number, any financial statements, even credit card offers you consider to be junk mail.

Be prudent. When you are certain you understand what these papers mean to your parent’s wealth, shred or burn your important papers. For the kind of bulk paperwork my mother has, I choose a shredding service which has very affordable rates and will send a truck to our house. Many times, churches, or local community centers will offer neighborhood shred days. The best part is seeing your heavy load turned into confetti within seconds.

Daily Drop Spot—keeping the household organized

When paperwork arrives before I have the time to address it, I like to use a safe drop spot where I know it will still be waiting when I look for it. Mine is a basket with a lid. I reserve a “man drawer” in the kitchen for my husband. My students tell me their busy Moms create a cubby for their backpack storage, plus a personal In/Out two-tiered box with a colored folder for each child so permission slips and homework are always in the same place.

Avoid the Financial Scavenger Hunt—

One thing that could have saved me immeasurable time was to have a list of where safe deposit boxes were held (and keys located) or CDs with their maturity dates. The more we can organize, the more of a gift it will be to those left behind.

Once you figure out what your needs are, it is so much simpler to find the system that will work best in managing the paper trail.

“How to Streamline Your Rx Collection” will be the next blog posting here.

How to Efficiently Make Over Your Closet

How to Efficiently Make Over Your Closet

Let’s face it. We are regular people who do not live the lives featured in glossy magazines. We aspire to be neater, but to achieve this optic we would need to subsist on six interchangeable outfits of monochromatic khaki and white. What about winter clothes? What about navy blue? How can we whittle away our wardrobes to better suit the life we lead?

After moving fourteen times over the past thirty years, I have discovered I have a knack for the packing and unpacking process. When my college roommates marveled at how I organized, they often asked if I could help sort their dresses, tops, and sweaters, too. As I have aged, I have found organizing to be my great stress release.

This closet call for order has continued for decades because many of my moves involved tricky closet negotiation. An unforgiving space requires a “can-do” attitude. I once gave up a generous walk-in closet for a cute neighborhood with an “I Love Lucy” sized closet. The single shelf above a wooden rod that spanned the same narrow width as those 1950s refrigerators reminded me that everything back then was slim.

It was my greatest challenge. But I relished every moment of reimagining how I could make my wardrobe fit efficiently into this unrealistic space for a modern day woman.

Fortunately, by the time my Depression-era mother needed help managing her own home filled to the hilt, I was not at my wit’s end as I took in the mess of five overrun bedrooms and closets. I was in a state of creative delight, setting timers and working feverishly against the clock to clean sweep—ultimately giving her a home that she loved for its order and cleanliness.

Here is my tried-and-true go-to plan for an efficient closet makeover.

Step 1: Sort

The best way to sort a closet is to pull everything out at once. Set 4 zones to Keep, Toss, Dry Clean, and Donate. Set a timer, give yourself a two-hour window and have your sorting crates nearby. An old piece of luggage you want to donate, or a sizable box, or a Hefty sack can be used to stuff inside the clothes you no longer wish to keep.

Pile your contents onto the bed according to categories: all tops together, suits, pants, day dresses, fancy dresses, coats—all in separate mounds.

Do not be afraid of your disaster zone. I have seen this a thousand times before, and it does nothing short of inducing an adrenaline rush most athletes have to run five miles to achieve. I get mine without the sweat, or, sadly, the calorie burn.

Eliminate from your wardrobe threadbare or unnecessary multiples. Be selective. Do you need all of the black tops you have amassed? Keep only what you love and feel great wearing.

My 1950s closet meant that instead of being able to accommodate four pair of black boots (knee-high heeled, ankle-high heeled, knee-high flat, and cowboy style) I would need to make do with one all-purpose pair. I chose to save the knee-high heeled, which looked far better under trousers than the short boots ever did.

Step 2: Set-Up

My favorite 4 closet essentials are always the same:

1) Beige suede hangers, the thin kind. This will help to create a uniform look, and maximize the hanging space you have; bulky wooden coat hangers that curve have no place in a lady’s closet. All crooks to face wall uniformly when rehanging garments.

2) A good shoe organizer is key and the benefit of trial and error keeps me coming back to the same one: a vertical hanging style with twelve shoe-boxed sized compartments. Metal shoe racks on the floor, or hanging pockets over the door all end up hogging precious real estate or become buried beneath a sea of clothes, thus making your shoes inaccessible.

3) Storage boxes with lids. I always pick a couple of oversized hat boxes to contain clutter, or keepsake cards. Lids are key—you don’t want to see the mess. It disturbs the Zen of your new closet.

4) A double-hang rod is essential for keeping shirts and blazers above skirts and folded trousers below. If you are really Type A, you will correlate your wardrobe so like colors hang above like colors.

Step 3: Stage

Create a visual aesthetic. Hide clutter, loose bobbles, or love letters inside storage boxes. Wardrobe moves light to dark, ordered by sleeve length within palette. Top rung—hang blouses, jackets; bottom—skirts, pants, in corresponding hues.

Space beside double-rod is for dresses together according to color (light to dark), style, sleeve length; special occasion dresses come next; then swing coats; then winter coats, if you don’t have a hall closet.

If you have bonus space, move a dresser inside the closet, opening up the bedroom floor. A nice add-on: family and friends in frames of similar colors, varied styles.

With all of your clothes hanging according to style, and color, you have a better idea of what to shop for next, and what to avoid doubling up on.

Your timer should be dinging just about now.

“Managing the Paper Trail” will be the next blog posting here.


Stefania ShafferBy Stefania Shaffer

Stefania Shaffer, a teacher, speaker, and writer, is grateful her WWII parents raised her to do the right thing. Her second book, the Memoir 9 Realities of Caring for an Elderly Parent: A Love Story of a Different Kind has been called “imperative reading”. Funny and compassionate, this is the insider’s view of what to expect from your daunting role if you are the adult child coming home to care for your elderly parent until the very end.

The Companion Playbook is the accompanying workbook that provides the busy caregiver with the urgent To-do list to get started today.

www.StefaniaShaffer.com

How to Care for an Elderly Hoarder

How to Care for an Elderly Hoarder

Have you ever passed by one of those houses where the crooked garage doors are barely holding themselves together over the heaping bulge behind them?

Then one day, on your usual stroll of the neighborhood, those garage doors are popped wide open for the whole world to see. You shudder and gasp aloud. You don’t want to linger for too long because it is rude to stare, but you silently wonder how someone could live with floor-to-ceiling clutter that has been amassed for decades.

If you are only too familiar with this sight, let me offer you some reassurance that there is a path to purging. When I said yes to the job of caring for my elderly mother, I had no idea I was also saying yes to care for a house that had been equally badly neglected.

Driving up to my childhood home where my mother still lived nearly 35 years later, I see the lawn is no longer green, nor mowed. It resembles something out of the savannah that my father would have tackled in earnest at the first sighting of crabgrass—had he not passed away thirteen years earlier.

When my disheveled, eighty-five year old mother greets me at the door with her warm toothless smile and welcoming hug, I can tell there will be more moments like what Dorothy experienced in Oz when she said to her dog, “Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore.”

Nothing is recognizable to me.

It’s not like we ever lived with white-glove standards growing up, but we were a tidy family if you didn’t count the mud and blood the brothers were always traipsing in.

But, on this day my childhood home is operating at the highest level of dysfunction. Of five bedrooms, four are being used as attic space where wardrobes from thirty years earlier are sprawled across the floor, mixed in with old blankets and petrified briquettes of cat doo-doo. All I can think to myself is who is going to oversee the gut job needed on this house?  Tearfully, I am afraid I already know this answer.

The garage looks worse than what you might imagine.

Even more disconcerting is the pile-up of paperwork saved since my father’s death. My old bedroom is filled with envelopes containing statements stuffed into them, then packed into shoeboxes piled onto the bookshelf, or tucked into drawers, or peeking out from beneath beds.

Depression-era parents. Need I say more? Thank goodness my mother is willing to put her trust into what she calls my good judgment. Health, Safety, Style becomes our mantra for the care that will need to go into her—and her home.

Here are the ABCs to beginning any difficult task: Assess, Begin, Carry On.

Assess

Every frontiersman knew to survey the land. What is the kind of stuff piling up, memorabilia or junk? Who will miss it? I feel a sense of responsibility to the other siblings to preserve their trophies, yearbooks, and kinder artwork—theirs to ditch if they so desire.

Begin

Before you can salvage anything, you need a good staging area.

Step 1: De-clutter the garage first.

  • Clear out discarded toys, bikes, and seldom used items
  • Find the Salvation Army or Goodwill that will pick up
  • Recycle nuts, bolts; shift furniture, find the floor, push a broom
  • Get rid of rusted shovels and the plethora of old tools
  • Clear off every shelf—discard paints and other chemical laden cans legally
  • Shred-It will make a house call affordably, taking mere seconds to do what will take you months with your home machine that will jam frequently

 

Step 2: Create smart centers within your garage

  • Laundry station-move an old bookshelf to store supplies
  • Errand station—use labeled boxes (library donations, record store, Goodwill, Accountant, etc.) as a reminder of which errands to still run
  • Paperwork station—tower plastic crates labeled for archived financial statements. Caution: never throw anything away until you understand what it means to your parent’s financial picture. I found wealth buried in the 85th box.

 

Step 3: Preserving childhood memories for siblings (3-piece set for each child)

 

  • 1) 45-gallon crate 37’L 27”H to store small furnishings, trophies, plaques et al
  • 2) Tri-fold board to stack on top of crate for holding Kinder art, or the like
  • 3) Colored document pouch, zippered, 8.5” x 11” for important papers, flash drives, or special letters home saved by parents
  • Move an old dresser cluttering a bedroom to create new hub for sibling items

 

Carry On

Your job is not yet over. Paperwork sorting becomes my passion.

Step 4-Active vs. Archive File statements accordingly.

Active is for accounts paid in the past year. Scrutinize each to make sure your elderly parent is not experiencing financial abuse. File current month’s statement at front, older months behind.

Archive older statements from previous years. Keep these only for gleaning how money changed hands through investing or bank accounts. Cluster 2-3 years of old statements into one lidded plastic crate the size of a bankers box. Label front as “Archive 2014-2017”. Repeat this until all of your bundles are in separate bins. Once you get a handle on the Active, return to the Archives at your leisure to understand financial history.

Efficient closet makeovers will be the next blog posting here.


Stefania ShafferBy Stefania Shaffer

Stefania Shaffer, a teacher, speaker, and writer, is grateful her WWII parents raised her to do the right thing. Her second book, the Memoir 9 Realities of Caring for an Elderly Parent: A Love Story of a Different Kind has been called “imperative reading”. Funny and compassionate, this is the insider’s view of what to expect from your daunting role if you are the adult child coming home to care for your elderly parent until the very end.

The Companion Playbook is the accompanying workbook that provides the busy caregiver with the urgent To-do list to get started today.

www.StefaniaShaffer.com