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13 Smart Things to Do Before Year-End

Maybe you’ve been too busy to notice, but the year’s almost over. So in between shopping trips, holiday preparations, and the rest of the daily grind, it’s time to take a breather and focus on some small things now that might make a big difference after year-end.

Maybe you’ve been putting off these tasks, or maybe they haven’t occurred to you. But with 30 days left in the year, you can take out this whole list doing just one thing every couple of days. And most of these jobs won’t take an hour.

Review your credit history. Time required: less than one hour. At AnnualCreditReport.com you can get a free copy of your credit history -- everything the three major reporting agencies have in your file. Your credit history doesn’t include your credit score, but this is the information used to tabulate your score, so you really need to check it for accuracy. Take 10 minutes to download it, then a half-hour looking it over to make sure all’s well.

Check out your tax situation. Time required: one to two hours. The window for some tax advantages closes at the end of the year, so now’s the time to look into possible credits and deductions – especially if you’re close to another tax bracket. Start by pulling out last year’s return, scoping out last year’s deductions, and seeing if there are actions you can take now to swell this year’s. Can you add more to your retirement plan at work? Can you take a deductible loss on an investment? Make a charitable donation?

Clear clutter. Time required: one hour to one month. There’s no better time than the holidays to turn your clutter into cash, or at least a tax deduction. The best way to approach your closets, attic, basement, or storage rooms is slowly – otherwise it’s too overwhelming. Pick one room, closet, or drawer per day, and spend a few minutes getting rid of stuff you haven’t touched in a year or more. If it’s easily sold, sell it online. If you’d rather help someone less fortunate, donate it. Either way, you’ll end up with more money, more deductions, less mess -- and if you’re lucky, maybe even a re-gift.

Review/rebalance investments.
Time required: less than one hour. Investments like your retirement plan shouldn’t require a lot of maintenance, but they do require some. Take a look at how your investments are performing and decide whether it’s time to buy, sell, or leave well enough alone.

Support a charity. Time required: less than one hour. It’s the season for giving, not just because of good  cheer, but also because of tax-deductible donations. It only takes a few minutes to check out charities.

Max out retirement contributions. Time required: less than one hour According to the IRS, the annual cap for IRAs (including Roths) is $5,000 for those under 50 on Dec. 31 and $6,000 for those older. You have until April to do this, but not so with your 401(k) at work. You only have until Dec. 31 to contribute the max: $16,500 if you’re under 50, and $22,000 if you’re over. Finding out how much you’re contributed this year should only take a minute or two. Use the rest of the time to contact your HR department and set up fatter contributions through year-end.

Spend your FSA. Time required: less than one hour. If you’ve set aside money in a flexible spending  account, it’s gone after Dec. 31. Some changes were made this year to how an FSA can be used. For example, most non-prescription drugs no longer qualify. But if you don’t use it, you’ll lose it.

Prepay bills. Time required: less than one hour. You might boost some tax credits and deductions for this tax year by prepaying things like your mortgage or next semester’s college tuition. If these bills are due soon anyway, get a deduction by paying in advance. What’s deductible? Look at last year’s tax return.

Find a financial adviser. Time required: one to three hours. There’s someone out there who can help you with most of the things on this list, and a lot more – a financial adviser. The National Association of Personal Financial Advisors lets you look up professionals by zip code. Even if you choose one that charges by the hour, you can probably get a free first appointment.

Tinker with your budget. Time required: one to two hours. Now’s a good time to look at whether your spending has matched your projections over the past year – maybe some adjustments are in order, especially if your income or expenses has changed.

Change important passwords. Time required: less than one hour. A lot of sensitive personal information is one smart guess away from being stolen. Add an extra layer of protection by changing the most important passwords at least once a year. A good password has a mix of numbers, letters, and special characters – but as this XKCD comic strip shows, length is more important than complexity.

Digitize documents. Time required: one hour to one month. If you’re buried in paper, maybe it’s time to invest in a document scanner. You can get a decent one for $50 and start transferring the contents of your filing cabinets and drawers to your computer. Just make sure to keep backups.

Make a will. Time required: less than one hour. If you don’t have a plan for your demise, there’s no time like the present to start one. Lawyers can cost hundreds but do-it-yourself software is less than $50 and you can do it in less than an hour. If you have the time and money, have your computer-generated will checked by a lawyer later.

How to find the time to do this stuff

The key is slow, easy, and gradual. Earmark just 15 minutes to an hour per day and go down the list. Keep in mind much of this stuff doesn’t require excessive concentration – you can do a lot of it while you’re watching TV.

And if you don’t get it all done? Well, there’s always next year.