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Planning a Financial Tuneup

There comes a point in most people’s lives when the pile of undone financial tasks — the un-automated bills, the out-of-balance retirement accounts, the out-of-date budget, the under-optimized rewards programs — becomes large enough to provoke a sort of low-grade anxiety.

Megumi Miyatake | Taxi | Getty Images

This quality or state of not having your act quite together lacks its own word in the dictionary. It is something short of discombobulation, but the mild, mental chafing is irritating enough to demand a remedy.

Thankfully, there is one: the financial tuneup.

On tuneup day, you take that nagging list and commit to crossing as many things off it as possible. If you can, try to take a personal day off work to do it, since some of the customer service assistance you’ll inevitably need may be from places that are closed on weekends.

The tuneup requires preparation because you need all your various usernames and passwords at hand or certain tasks may take longer. It can be tedious, so you will also need appropriate snacks and sweets at hand for fuel. And not everything will get done in a day since there is inevitably something or another that requires follow-up.

But now that I’ve finished my fourth annual tuneup, this day devoted to fiscal health has become one of my favorites of the year. It feels that good to get yourself properly sorted.

To plan your own tuneup, consult our interactive checklist containing 31 suggestions of things you consider doing.

The list includes the aspects of your financial life that may require regular maintenance, like bolstering your annual savings by another percentage point if you can afford it. Then, there are the one-offs, like walking a loved one through your financial affairs, lest you meet an untimely demise and leave behind a confusing mess of records. You should also regularly shop for better deals on credit cards, cable and cellphones. That alone can yield four figures of annual savings.

Here are some of the tasks I tackled in my own tuneup this time around. Please share your list on our Bucks blog over the weekend.

AUTOPAYMENTS This year I added a new twist to tuneup day: a determination to attempt to right at least one wrong in the world of personal finance by going directly to a company that is thwarting efficiency and seamlessness.

I recently acquired an American Express corporate card and stopped using my personal American Express card for work expenses, so I could better track my household’s true spending. But while I’m able to pay my personal American Express bill automatically (the company pulls the full balance from my checking account each month on the due date), American Express won’t let people pay their corporate cards this way. (A majority of companies pay the bills for individuals themselves, but some, including my employer, make employees write the checks each month.)

When I asked why, American Express’s first response was that employers didn’t want us using autopay because they feared we wouldn’t pay enough attention to the bill. But that made no sense to me. You have to pay careful attention to the bill to itemize the charges on your expense report and get your reimbursement from your employer.

The Association of Corporate Travel Executives sent out a questionnaire this week about this issue and found that 25 percent of the 57 respondents who have employees pay the bill themselves would be fine with an autopay option, while 40 percent weren’t sure. As for those other 35 percent that didn’t like the idea, perhaps they haven’t heard from enough of you who would like to have this choice. This is your cue to complain to them.

An American Express spokeswoman said that I was the only person who had ever complained about this. Let’s fix that, shall we? I invite you to Tweet your displeasure to the company using its handle, @AmericanExpress; please copy me, @ronlieber, so I can see what you’re saying. I started the ball rolling when this column went up on the Web on Friday afternoon.

REBALANCING Tuneup day is as good a day as any to rebalance your retirement and other investment accounts. This year, I made a happy discovery many clicks into Vanguard’s Web site: the company will do the rebalancing for me automatically every 3, 6 or 12 months, if I give it permission to do so.

Permission granted. Every investment firm should offer this service, though some employers don’t yet let retirement plan administrators present it as an option. If that’s the case where you work, request that they allow it.

Automatic rebalancing takes the emotion out of investing by removing feelings from the rebalancing task. If a computer is doing the work, humans like you won’t be tempted to let winning investments ride for too long or pull money out of stocks out of fear while rebalancing. It also keeps you from forgetting to make the adjustments.

FILE CABINETS The grown-ups in our household have security freezes on our credit files, which make it nearly impossible for anyone to open new accounts in our name. But our identity theft prevention strategy has fallen short recently because we misplaced the keys that allowed us to lock our filing cabinets.

A call to Bisley, the manufacturer, fixed that. The company dropped a master key in the mail that day and asked for a mere $3 in return.

Even if you aren’t worried about thieves getting into your files, consider the children who may live with you. At some point, they will probably become intensely curious about what you make and how much money you have. It’s probably a good idea to share this information with them at some point, but you want to do it on purpose at the right moment with the proper context.

Until then, locking them out of the files is probably best.

RENTAL CARS I am a big believer in the money value of time. But until tuneup day, I’d never gotten it together to set up memberships in every major rental car company’s program, which allows you to skip the long lines when picking up your car. After a particularly unpleasant wait at Hertz a few months ago, I resolved to deal with this. And in about half an hour on tuneup day, I fixed the problem.

The next step was to make sure that all of my account numbers were always within easy reach. For more than a decade, I’ve kept my membership numbers for various airline and hotel loyalty programs jotted down in tiny handwriting on the back of my business card from three jobs ago. Now, all this account information is stored on AwardWallet.com. I also downloaded its mobile phone app so that I’ll always have the membership numbers handy.

REWARDS AwardWallet can also update your reward program balances for most travel and credit card companies. I’ve traditionally cashed out of at least one program on tuneup day as an incentive for enduring some of the drudgery that goes along with these efforts.

This year, I called Capital One and had them send me a check for $145.19, which represents a couple years’ worth of cash back from one of its credit cards. About $50 of it went toward taking our daughter out for dinner to celebrate the end of kindergarten. The rest went into a relatively new savings account we’ve set up for her bat mitzvah.

Sure, credit card rebates alone won’t make much of a dent in that bill. But it’s a start. And if all you do on your own tuneup day is get some good new habits started, you will have accomplished an awful lot.

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