new-year-savingWhen I feel the primal urge to get organized, I know it must be January. Like everyone else, I have a to-do pile that’s flowing out of its basket. But after the New Year, I start clearing away the mess–first the pine needles on the floor, then the projects on my desk. There’s always a bonus. When you put your financial papers in order, you end up reviewing them–and ways to save money jump out at you.

The hardest part of this project is getting started. Next, you have to make time (I’ve offered guesstimates of how much you’ll need at each stage). For many people, it helps to set up a schedule. Weeks one and two: Go through your big bills and check out ways to cut your payments (this means getting on the phone and perhaps the Internet, so it’s your longest job). Week three: Grit your teeth, tote up how well (or how poorly) your savings and investments did last year, and note what you should change for 2014. Week four: Fix up your filing system so that everything’s in its place. Then you won’t have to face such a mess next year!

Here are some projects that should be on your to-do list. How much they’ll pay off depends on how conscientious you’ve been up till now. Our scoring system on potential savings: from £ (enough to buy a few dinners out) to £££££ (enough to buy dinner in Paris).

Analyse your phone bills



Gather past bills to see what you’re paying for local and long-distance service. Also, determine your calling patterns: Do you use long distance mostly on weekends for family, or during the week for business? Then compare offers (by phone and online) from competing companies to find out where you can get a better deal. Check per-minute rates, monthly fees, taxes, all additional charges, and exactly when evening and weekend rates apply. This exercise always takes me more time than I can believe. But that’s what dark winter days are for. And the payoff can be substantial: One Wallet Doctor reader finally forced herself to do the research–and saved more than £1,000 last year!

Review your checking account



Look at your last three bank statements and circle every fee. You may be paying £300 or more a year without knowing it. Once you’ve spotted those money nibblers, you’ll be able to think of ways to reduce them. Take an interest-paying checking account: You’re earning an average of just 0.6 percent today, paying around £10 a month in service charges and getting socked for £20 or more if your account falls below a high minimum balance. You might save if you switched to a no-interest account.

Refigure your mortgage



Run the numbers to see if it pays to refinance. You could save money even if rates are just 0.5 percentage point below what you’re paying now. One young California couple recently refinanced their mortgage and used the savings to pay off both their car loans–saving them thousands in interest.

Look at one of two strategies for refinancing:

1) Get a new loan for the term remaining on your old one, to lower your monthly payments.

2) Cut your term to 15 years or less–paying about the same each month bur cutting your interest costs by a huge amount.

Reduce your debts



Add up how much interest you paid on credit card debt and other loans last year. Figure out a way to add £50 or £100 per month to debt repayment, and you’ll save hundreds or more.

Reevaluate your life insurance



If you’re carrying term insurance and you’re in good health, go shopping. Another company may well be offering lower rates–saving you £100 a month or more. Ask your agent to check for something cheaper, or do it yourself online.

Do a homeowners' insurance checkup



Have you truly protected yourself in case of fire? Walk through your home with a video camera, recording not only your furniture, jewelry, and rugs, but also the contents of your drawers and closets. Mention how much special objects cost. Without these records, you’ll have a hard time proving to your insurer what you lost. Keep records in a bank safe-deposit box.

Prepare a treasure map



Here’s another long-term money saver. Untold millions of dollars are lost every year because, after a death, the children or grandchildren can’t find all the assets. To be sure this doesn’t happen to you, leave your family a master list. It should include your insurance policy numbers, bank accounts, brokerage accounts, retirement accounts, deeds and mortgages, tax records, the location of your safe-deposit box (and the key!), employee benefits and the phone number of the office that handles them, Social Security number, personal papers such as your marriage certificate or military discharge, your computer passwords, credit card numbers, health insurance card, the names of your lawyer and accountant, and where your will is.

What? You don't have a will?

Hey, this is January. Make a call to your lawyer.