Family checkbook: Stay on top of your important financial mail

By Kathy Sweedler

Keeping up with mail is a challenge. Some of the mail — ads, catalogs and such — isn't important if it becomes buried in a pile or kicked under a couch. But mail related to finances, I do need.

Through the years, I've developed organizational systems that help manage finances. For example, at this time of the year, documents that I'll need when I file taxes are arriving. Those that come by postal mail, I immediately put in a labeled folder, "Taxes 2013," so that they will be all in one place when I am ready to prepare my income taxes.

Receiving financial documents by email requires a different system. I typically print these documents out as soon as I see the email (or I will forget!) and then file it in the folder. And then I move the email to a folder on my computer — just in case I need to find it later.

How do you organize your financial mail?

While we're on the topic of taxes, now is an excellent time to check out tax credits that may save you money. For example, the earned income tax credit applies to low- and moderate-income working families. If you worked last year and had income of less than $51,567, you should check out your eligibility for EITC.

On average, EITC adds $2,300 to working families' federal tax refunds. It can mean an additional $487 for people without children up to $6,044 for those with three or more qualifying children.

Last year, more than 27 million workers received $67 billion in EITC refunds. In Illinois, the EITC of claims filed totaled $2.4 billion, with the average claim at $2,378 per return.

Plus, Illinois has a state EITC: Those who claim the federal EITC may also get a state EITC. For more information, visit the IRS website at 1.usa.gov/1a3Zn0x.

You might also qualify to have free help filing taxes. Check a list of local sites at the University of Illinois Extension website: web.extension.illinois.edu/cfiv/ce.html.

Not only do I have tax documents arriving in the mail, but I am also receiving notices of my data breaches with my credit cards.

Have you had a problem lately with your debit or credit card? It's scary to think of someone stealing our money. When we hear about millions of accounts being hacked, we wonder "What can we do to protect our identity and our money?" Here are my suggestions on steps that you can take:

1. Look at your financial account statements frequently, and report anything that looks odd to your financial institution immediately.

2. Sign up for cellphone text alerts for your financial accounts. You can be notified of withdrawals to your account as well as low balances.

3. If you can comfortably pay off your credit card completely at the end of the month, use credit cards rather than debit cards. Debit cards are not as protected by federal legislation as credit cards. Legislation limits our loss due to credit card fraud to $50, but for debit cards our loss could be everything in our account. For more information, read "Lost or Stolen Credit, ATM, and Debit Cards" at 1.usa.gov/Lehx3W.

4. Link your debit card only to your checking account, and do not keep too much money in that account. Keep larger amounts of money in your savings account.

5. Check your credit report and look for any signs of identity fraud. Check all three credit bureaus' reports at annualcreditreport.com. You can check your reports once a year for free.

Managing finances, even the supposedly simple things like finding your mail, can be a daily challenge. For more tips and strategies on money management, I invite you to visit the UI Extension's blog, "Plan Well, Retire Well," at retirewell.illinois.edu.

Kathy Sweedler is a consumer economics educator at the UI Extension. Contact her at 333-7672 or email sweedler@illinois.edu.

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