Confession Time

It’s time for me to be honest.

Do I seem like I have my act together? Do I seem like the most organized and fiscally savvy gal you have ever encountered? Oh do go on.

Here is reality: I am 28 years old. Until three months ago I kept all of my important papers in a bin. This bin:

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So embarrassing

I don’t have a desk, so I just threw everything important into this bin. Checks, thank you notecards, my passport, medical documents, my lease, broken pencils, my social security card, an old alarm clock, a gazillion paperclips, important mail, pay stubs, used up highlighters, tax information, wrapping paper. It was all in there.

To give myself a little credit: I never lost an important document, so at least I was consistent about tossing crap in there.

However. As I’m sure you understand, the situation is not sustainable. Firstly (if you recall), I move a lot. Lugging this bin of unsorted paperwork around with me is not a good use of my energy.

Secondly, the bin goes under my bed. It is annoying to go searching under the bed every time a piece of mail comes in.

Third, I had multiple panic-filled moments when I had to spend time rummaging through there praying I had actually followed my system. Lots of stress and anxiety and self-scolding for not being a more organized person.

I needed at least an intermediate step…so I did this:

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Only slightly better….

What you are looking at is a beautiful plate with an octopus on it (see the tentacles peeping out of the bottom left?) that my aunt gave me. It became my mail receptacle. And by mail receptacle I mean place to put towers of mail until they get too tall and they fall over and I have to shove them in the bin under the bed.

You can see why this system is not great. I can’t even see my pretty plate.

Finally, at the age of 28 and 2 months old, I finally decided to keep my paperwork like a grownup.

I invested in an ugly file folder crate and some hideous army green hanging folders. Now when my mail stack gets too high, I file the important paperwork. I don’t even keep those little empty mailback envelopes they give you! I get rid of them right away! The files and box weren’t cheap, they don’t look nice, and it is definitely not my favorite part of being an adult.

However…. after being an adult for over a decade now, having this file box does make me FEEL more like an adult. And I no longer freak out about where my social security card is (what is that thing for, anyway?)

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The ugly bin. I am such a responsible adult.

So you see- I am not a naturally organized person. I don’t have a label maker. (I don’t want a label maker because then I would feel guilty for not putting things away in the places I had chosen for them) The reason I have organized my finances the way I have (with automatic bill pay and instant budget making) is because if I didn’t have it automated, my bills and important paperwork would end up in the under-the-bed-lack-of-filing-system and I would have no clue about my money at all.

You will also notice that I didn’t come up with this new organization system overnight. I had a few failed experiments including:

  • A pink binder that did not have enough space in it and I also couldn’t find the hole punch
  • Multiple shoe boxes that I moved around with me
  • A lovely green storage container that got crushed during a move 😦

The point is- sometimes you are going to try to set up a system, and it won’t work. You might need to set up a system one piece at a time (the mail plate was a genius step for me to avoid making my roommates crazy with my old bills stacked on the hall table…) But if you keep trying different systems (and in my case, if I had just bought some stupid file folders) then one day you will find a system that works for you.

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Dealing with Paperwork ugh

I am a magnet for paperwork problems. I am not kidding. My paperwork issues are out of control. I know I am in trouble when the person I am talking to says, “Huh. That’s weird” when looking up my information. Some examples:

  • I had to get my diploma printed THREE times because they kept messing up various pieces of information. First my name was wrong but everything else was right. Then the name was right but the date of graduation was wrong. Third time = I finally have proof that I graduated on time. Phew.
  • When I was applying to grad schools, I had heard back from all the schools but one. I called to see if I got in, and the administrator said,”You got in but it looks like we forgot to send your packet out to you. Unfortunately, the deadline for enrolling was three days ago so now you will be charged a $50 late enrollment fee.” Please don’t be surprised that I did not choose to attend that school.
  • I sold my car and cancelled my car insurance. I got billed the next month. I called again to cancel. I got billed again. The next month, I called the corporate number instead of my agent and was told I needed to send in proof that I actually sold my car. I sent in the paperwork. They said it didn’t count because it wasn’t notarized…as if I had the option to go back in time to get the paperwork notarized. (That thump you just heard was me hitting my head against the wall). It took six months of back and forth before I stopped paying (and was reimbursed) for car insurance on a car I didn’t own. I made quite a few of the phone calls to deal with this while I was waiting for the bus. That is called unfunny irony.
  • I was accepted to my fellowship eight months before it actually started. Two weeks before the fellowship I got an email saying I needed to turn in employment paperwork within 24 hours and I needed to have it notarized and overnighted. When I got that short-deadline email I was in Paris where there is an abundance of drool-inducing cheese but a painful shortage of U.S. notary services. As soon as I got home I ran all over town to send in the notarized paperwork. It turned out that the paperwork the office had provided for me was a. for 2012 and therefore expired and b. only valid for the Northern Mariana Islands. I am not joking.

See what I mean? These are only the examples that didn’t take me an hour to type up. I’m sure you have examples like this of your own (although if you do I am very concerned for America and our ability to file simple paperwork).

Unfortunately, financial management means lots of paperwork, and whenever there is paperwork there is significant potential for head-thump-inducing paperwork problems. All four of the examples above would have cost me money (in the case of the incorrect diploma- it may have cost me a future job!) and none of them were caused by anything I did. Sadly, this is common- usually someone else’s mess-up will cost you your hard earned ca$h, and that STINKS. Lucky for you, I have learned a few strategies that have helped me cope and recoup my money.

  1. Document your interactions. Whenever someone is promising to do something for you (cancel your car insurance, spell your name right this time) write down their name, their employee ID number, the date you spoke, and exactly what was promised. Sometimes I trust people and I forget to do this, and sometimes it bites me in the butt. If I ever have to make the same call twice, I start taking notes- but my life would be easier if I just did it from the start. This is especially useful for the cable company. I have found that cable companies tell you different things EVERY time you call. So keep calling until someone tells you what you want to hear and then write down that person’s information and use it to get what you want. Bam! Well done.
  2. Ask for some role reversal. The customer service representative you are speaking with (incompetent as he or she may seem) is paid to know more about the company policies than the customers. Ask them to use their expertise and put themselves in your shoes. I usually say, “I know I am not the first person in the world to have this problem. If you were me, what would you do to solve this problem?” It usually works. Don’t be afraid to be pushy (but polite) with this technique. Flatter the incompetent who is helping you and remind them that they are the expert in this situation and ask for their expert advice.
  3. You catch more flies with honey than vinegar. This tip feels like the exact opposite of what you want to do. You are dealing with the world’s most incapable person who has ever been given a paycheck and you are getting frustrated. I get it. But you are the only one fighting for you. If you hang up the phone, you still have the problem and no one will fix it for you. So take a deep breath and be the nicest version of yourself that you have ever been. When my sister was getting married, she was having a terrible time getting a contract from the reception venue and the coordinator was not responding to calls or emails. When she finally was able to schedule a meeting (5 months from the wedding with no confirmed location), my (understandably frustrated and worried) sister baked cookies for the coordinator and started the meeting off by thanking the coordinator for her help and support in the wedding planning (my sister wasn’t even sarcastic- truly an incredible feat). The coordinator produced a contract at the meeting and my sister and her fiancé got an even better price than they had been expecting.

Finally, stick with it. Patience is the key to victory. I have my diploma in hand from a school that remembered to accept me on time. I no longer pay for car insurance while I am taking the bus. I am legally employed at my fellowship and not in the Northern Mariana Islands. It might be painful getting there, but be persistent. I have hope that one day I will wake up and notice that I haven’t had a ridiculous paperwork problem in over a week. A girl can dream, can’t she?

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