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Paper and bill-paying

[Script's avatar]Script is a semi-retired senior bookkeeper and accountant with over 33 years full time experience in small, medium and multi-national companies. For the last 17 years she has run her own company ("Script's Services") providing bookkeeping and secretarial services to small businesses, self-employed professionals and individuals.

THE SSSSSS Files: Script's Suggestions & Systems for Simple Solutions to Serious $ Scenarios

All the suggestions here are based on Script's own personal home system. However, most of these were learned in the workplace. Script wants to begin by thanking various colleagues, accountants, lawyers, friends and co-workers for their training, inspiration and advice over her long and varied career.

Furthermore, Script wrote this to help herself, as much as the other members of Squalor Survivors. And what works for her may not work for YOU! So adapt, discard, retain, modify, ignore: you choose!

Where to begin

We begin at the beginning. With an acknowledgement that everyone has to cope with an immense avalanche of papers, invoices, bills, receipts, tax material, money, cheques, documents, and junque mail every single day. The Paper Tiger.

We will accomplish nothing if, like ostriches, we hide our heads in the sand. The paper problem will never go away. Not even Death stops the avalanche! Just ask the executor of even a simple estate.

So...let us begin with The Mail: the main source of our papers concerning money.

  • In an office, The Mail is handled by one person: often in a separate Mail Room. The Mail Opener has an important function in any well-run business.
  • In the spirit of office-like efficiency and ruthless professionalism, Script opens the mail standing up. Beside her is the garbage can and recycle bin. She does not consider Opening the Mail a leisure time activity to be enjoyed while watching TV.
  • In fact, Script considers Opening the Mail the single most important step in taming the paper tiger.
  • Unwanted flyers, envelopes, etc go immediately in her paper recycle bin.
  • Bills-to-pay go immediately in one single folder (more on this later).
  • Things-to-file go immediately in one single box (more on this later).
  • Invitations ("how exciting!") go immediately to a clip on the fridge door.
  • Script's eagle eye is always on the outlook for actual money ("how useful!") mostly cheques. These go inside bank book in purse. Immediately!
  • Greeting cards ("how thoughtful!") go immediately for display on the dining room china cabinet.
  • If some of your "Mail" arrives in your home via your purse or briefcase, follow the same routine as above.
  • Script has established a designated HotSpot on the counter beside the phone: a silver tray equipped with note pads, post it notes, pens, and memo tree. Here she puts other papers to handle, for example a letter to answer ("how nice!")
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The Bills-to-Pay Folder

In a well-run office the bills are paid in well-defined cycles. Offices do NOT pay a bill as soon as it comes in the door and neither does Script. She stores the bills somewhere and processes them later.

[plastic file rack]
  • Imagine that YOU are your own Accounts Payable department (this was in fact Script's all-time-favourite office job!)
  • Script keeps a simple rigid plastic "HotFile" rack in her kitchen on a counter near the phone (away from food preparation and heat sources.) This HotFile holds about 6 regular office-size hanging folders.
  • As she opens the mail, BILLS immediately go in one file at the very front of the rack. Sometimes Script leaves the envelopes unopened (shame!): but at least they are where they belong. Immediately.
  • Nothing else goes in the BILLS folder. But also stored in the HotFile is a separate file of information for telephone banking; information on her savings account; etc.

When to Pay Bills

  • When there is enough money!
  • No, seriously, the ideal solution is to establish a designated time/day/place for paying bills.
  • This may not be possible ("no money yet"). But it is the GOAL which Script advises for everyone. Including herself, hem hem.
  • As someone who lived for many years with the "no money" squalor, Script sympathizes with those who CANNOT pay bills promptly.
  • Now... what about those who WILL not pay bills promptly? This is the classic Squalor Survivors scenario. People with the $$$ who cannot make payments on time.
  • Why? There are lots of ingredients in this particular Toxic Stew: fear of parting with the $$$; procrastination; poor work habits; depression; home in squalor.
  • But, let's assume you are financially and emotionally able to pay bills in some sort of timely way.
  • Make this Bill Paying a designated weekly task. Pick a day. A time. A place. In one office, Script's job included "pay bills every Thursday." End of story.
  • Even if you cannot pay the whole amount, pay something. This keeps your credit better and helps immensely with the guilt and remorse...
  • Script does not believe that it is efficient, sensible or necessary to pay bills more than once a week.
  • Script also recognizes that at many times in her squalorous life she has not paid bills weekly: or monthly. Or even bi-monthly. That is not the end of the world. But to move PAST the 2 month horizon is looking for Serious Trouble!
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How to Pay Bills

  • In the Goode Olde Dayes, Script paid bills with cheques. Requiring cheque book, pen, envelope, stamps...and eventually a walk to a mail box.
  • No more!
  • Now it is true that Script still needs cheques for the odd thing (and some of her expenses are somewhat odd). But there are many much more efficient ways to pay bills today.
    1. Direct withdrawal: many utilities, mortgage brokers, insurance agencies, municipalities etc. allow you to have the funds withdrawn immediately from a bank account or charged to a credit card. This is the easiest way to pay bills. BUT it assumes that you have a stable income that allows you to pay bills in a timely way. This method is NOT suitable for those who do not have enough money.
    2. Bank Machine: many of us now pay bills directly through an ATM. The downside: you have to go out to a machine. It takes time. You then have to do something with a receipt when you return home. Nevertheless, Script herself keeps this option open. You never know!
    3. Telephone Banking: advantages: you do it at home (in nightgown maybe! With cup of tea at hand!); at any time of day or night. Disadvantages: telephone banking is physically awkward---keying in numbers on a touch-tone phone. Nevertheless, it is also an option that Script herself has used and keeps open. You never know!
    4. Internet (on line) Computer Banking: yes! The future is here! Easy. Simple. Quick. Downside: you need a computer. And you need to believe that this is safe. If you are afraid to do this, Script sympathizes. In this day of fraudulent schemes and swindles of every description, it is wise to be cautious. But for now, Script is using this method as her primary way to pay bills.

The Next Step

All right! Well Done! So far so good! You've paid your bills. What's next?

In a well-run-office, someone would FILE the paid bills. In her home, this is Script. BUT once again, as in the well-run-office, Script does not file constantly. She files systematically, thoroughly, professionally: but OCCASIONALLY. How? When?

On the handle of her office door, Script hangs a large black canvas Tote Bag. Everything for filing eventually goes here. And by-the-by, just a reminder: filing means PUTTING AWAY in such a way that the information or material can be retrieved easily.

[blacktotebag]
  • Remember the single "THINGS TO FILE" box in Script's kitchen? When it starts to get full from mail, purse flings, shopping receipts, Script brings this box to her office. Where the files are! If she is feeling well, she files the stuff instantly.
  • However, if she is feeling tired, ill, depressed, she dumps the stuff in the Tote Bag. That's it. A PHYSICAL limit has now been established. And when does Script tackle the Tote Bag?
    • When it gets too full.
    • When she should be doing something else ("Structured Procrastination").
    • When she has time to kill in the office (waiting for a phone call, for example).
    • OR in the last resort: by the end of the month. That is her self-imposed TIME limit.
  • Script would never waste precious time and limited energy filing every day. No: she has better things to do: drink bubbly, watch KungFu with DearHubby, cook gourmet treats. She doesn't feel guilty, no! But she does recognize that the filing will have to be done eventually and so she does it within her self-imposed physical and temporal LIMITS.
  • Funny anecdote: Script once worked for some very conflicted clients. Guess what! These silly people stored their THINGS TO BE FILED in a large box (not so bad) but allowed their CAT to sleep in the box (not so good). This meant that everything was covered with cat hairs. And was eventually un-fileable.
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How to File

Script would like to remind her gentle readers that unless she is much mistaken, we are not running Buckingham Palace, IBM, or the World Bank from our homes. For home/family needs, Simple is Better. This is what Script does:

  • First of all, a place. Script in her mature wisdom now believes that every home should have a filing cabinet. Since virtually all homes have TVs, Computers, VCRs, Digital Cameras, Cell Phones and other expensive and complicated electronic thingys, she is not at all shy about recommending that YOU (this means YOU!) buy, borrow, find (don't steal) a real filing cabinet. Maybe 2 drawers. Maybe metal. And find a place to put it. Near desk. Under desk. In cellar. In office. Yes! This means you!
  • Secondly, there have been some very thorough lists posted recently about what to keep. Script got very nervous reading these (as she is not trying to run Buckingham Palace, IBM or the World Bank from her home). She is much more simple...her friends say "simple-minded"...
  • SO...this is how Script organizes her files:
    • TAX stuff: first and foremost
    • PENSION info: for DearHubby
    • INVESTMENT info: for happy old age
    • BANK stuff: to keep the wolves from the door. For example, our Line of Credit info.
    • IMPORTANT Papers like copy of drivers licenses. Really important stuff goes in Safety Deposit Box.
    • INSURANCE papers: just in case we don't reach happy old age.
    • The Dreaded ORANGE FOLDER (wills, estate stuff). More later.
    • HOME expenses
      • Realty Taxes
      • Telephone
      • Light, Heat, Power, Water, Sewage
      • Everything else
    • CREDIT CARD receipts
    • Script does only the most basic colour coding: green for money! Nothing has a fancy label. If YOU like, go ahead and beautify: just remember not to make the icing before you learn how to bake the cake.
    • Some of these files are actually "sets" of files. For example "Investments". By law, Script and DearHubby must have separate retirement plans. So one file each! Also Script has been fortunate enough to inherit other money (for which she is truly grateful.) This investment info is also filed separately.
    • And a few words for investment info: most of Script's male clients file this stuff with a dedication worthy of the search for the Holy Grail. And perhaps a fat portfolio IS the Holy Grail for some. Script laughs. She keeps the CURRENT year only. She constantly throws stuff out. Laughing! She does NOT care what the price of Amalgamated Consolidated was back in the year Dot. She saves only what she needs for tax purposes.
    [The dreaded orange folder]

    The Dreaded Orange Folder

    Script, as you know, is a realist. She has seen tragedy, unexpected death and disaster. SO...in her wisdom and because she loves her family, she has put together ONE (1) file with information "just in case". She chose ORANGE as it is her least favourite colour. Nothing else in her house, office or files is orange; therefore this one folder is super-easy to find. She has told (laughingly of course) her nearest and dearest to look for this ORANGE folder. Just in case.

    Do yourself and your loved ones a favour. Make your own orange folder. Containing...

    • wills and estate information.
    • List of bank accounts.
    • Photocopy of contents of wallet.
    • Investment info.
    • Funeral wishes.
    • Whatever. Do it now! Update it sometime: maybe every 5 years.
    • Anything is better than the vast NOTHING which many people leave behind for their bereaved and shell-shocked survivors.

    Taxes

    We just looked at Death ("the dreaded Orange Folder"). Now a few words on Taxes.

    Script is a fanatic about keeping her tax stuff in order. Many members of Squalor Survivors are terrified to reveal their living situation to strangers, and they protect their privacy at all costs. Well, the Government has no interest whatsoever in privacy, etiquette, manners, civility. They come when they darn well please, tough luck. And so, Script likes to be prepared! Not that she expects Revenue agents to arrive at her door with machine guns (as a fellow accountant once experienced). But she is absolutely rigorous about her tax files.

    • The very first file in Script's file cabinet is reserved for CURRENT YEAR taxes.
    • She puts things here all year long.
    • Taxes may be prepared once a year only; tax gathering in a year-long, even life-long activity.
    • In a separate folder Script keeps LAST YEAR. She NEVER mixes these up.
    • Eventually, Script puts Last Year goes into far-away-secondary-storage, with the sincere hope that she will never be called upon to look at this again.
    • Script saves anything and everything tax-related in one place. ONE place.
      • ONE. Uno. ONE. Do you understand: ONE!
    • By doing this one simple sorting thing, year-end personal-tax-time is as stress free as is humanly possible. We will not discuss your personal angst at sending large sums of hard-earned money to rapacious governments.
    • Even if you are not able to file. Not able to pay bills on time. Not able to make your own orange folder. Not able to do anything right at all in the office: if you can keep ONE place for tax stuff, you will be farther ahead than many of Script's clients were before she entered their lives!

    How to Save Money

    Script is not going to tell you how to use coupons, shop for specials, sell your stuff on e-bay. NO! She is interested in big-time stuff only! Saving for serious rainy days and happy old age.

    • First of all, try to establish a RAINY DAY fund. Equal to about 3 months living expenses. It might take a year or two or more to accumulate, but start now!
    • Script did this originally when her finances were in serious disarray. How? She transferred 10% of everything she received (royalties, income, gifts) to a special savings account. 10% is easy to understand even for math phobes! Script is obviously not a math phobe, but she appreciated the simplicity of this method.
    • You also need a Happy Old Age Fund: or retirement plan. If you have a job with apension, great! If you have "expectations" in the form of rich elderly relatives, great! But no matter who or what, try to save something just in case...
    • How? Use the "pay yourself first" plan. In other words, if at all possible have investment moneys automatically withdrawn from bank. Most banks and investment houses are happy (deliriously happy!) to do this for you.
    • How much to save? You cannot save everything. Don't even try. This is setting yourself up for failure.
    • Aim for 10% of your income. Gross, net, whatever: aim for something that you think looks like 10%.
    • Rich people should be able to save a greater percentage of their income. Some double income families can (theoretically - they rarely do) save ALL of one salary. People who live paycheque to paycheque have the most trouble of all - they often can save little or nothing. BUT Script has seen high income professionals with pitiful portfolios and a cleaning lady who saved enough to buy a condo!
    • Helpful hint: start NOW. Script has built a happy healthy old age nest egg by saving a little every year. For many years! She began her retirement savings plan in 1975 when she was in her mid-twenties. She never invested major dollars - because she didn't have major dollars. It is difficult to make up for lost time after age 50. Difficult, but not impossible...
    • Find an advisor. (Not a friend. Not a smarty-pants coworker.) Find a professional advisor. Ask the bank. Ask the accountant. Read books. Take course. Learn!
    • Have hope! Start now. Remember the old joke: "When is the best time to start saving for retirement? Age 21. When is the second best time? Today"

    How Long Does Script Spend on Her Paper Work? An educated guess

    • Daily: to open the mail, clean out purse, put shopping receipts in Kitchen File Box: a few minutes.
    • Daily: to collect receipts from OTHER family members: no time. Script trained DearHubby to put HIS receipts in the Kitchen File Box. It took about a year for him to learn this.
    • Daily (optional): to check bank balance on telephone/internet: 3 minutes
    • Weekly: to pay bills on "Thursday": perhaps 30 minutes.
    • Weekly: to review bank accounts on line: perhaps 20 minutes if not done daily
    • Monthly: to file all the stuff that has accumulated: perhaps 30 minutes.
    • Semi-annually: to check on tax file: is all ok so far? Perhaps 1 hour.
    • Annually: to get tax stuff ready, clean out desk, start new folders: perhaps 4 hours.
    • Annually (optional): to organize donation budget: 1 hour
    • Annually: to review investments: 2 hours.
    • Annually: to make RRSP deposits (our retirement fund): 2 hours
    • Every 3-5 years: make new will: to visit lawyer, sign documents: several hours
    • ONLY YOU can see whether this is too much or too little. Script balances her cheque book to the last red (or black) cent virtually every day. Other people (including Script's Mom, the office guru) just check the bank statement monthly.

    Uncle T's Words To Live By

    Uncle T (DearMom's brother) was Script's boss for many years. Here are his trinity of timely tips for office sanity:

    1. Handle each piece of paper as little as possible.
    2. If the desk is in serious squalor, begin to sort by picking up the first piece of paper on the top.
    3. There is often a better way: look for it!

    How to get out from behind the 8 Ball of Debt: the Poor House avoidance plan

    This was originally written for a very negligent client.

    • RECOGNIZE that you have a problem managing your own money. Lots of movie stars and celebrities let someone else manage for them. You may have to do this too!
    • PLAN to change your ways. Pick a starting date. A new year. A new month. Your birthday.
    • EXPECT that the first few weeks will be dreadful, like a drug addict going cold turkey.
    • GIVE UP CONTROL of your access to money, for 3 months by:
      • putting credit cards away (in safety deposit box for example)
      • putting cheque book away (likewise)
      • giving yourself an allowance weekly
      • having all committed expenses - rent, hydro, mortgage, insurance - paid directly.
    • HOPE AND BELIEVE that after a finite period of time you will change your spending patterns and can start on the road to recovery.

    Document versions are available in the Resources section.

    [Script] stunned me with the idea that filing should be looked at like laundry: never completely caught up, and that's fine. Angelina Hedgehog