It might not come in the bright blue Tiffany's box or be the Apple your loved one has been eyeing. But something as mundane as, say, doing the dishes without being prompted may be just the thing to send your Sig. O.'s heart aflutter during this season of giving.
It's true. Sometimes the biggest gestures come from unexpected places. Taking out the trash, paying the bills when it's not your turn, and calming the screaming baby at 3:30 a.m. are all signs of your commitment to coupledom.
But nothing screams "Tedium! Dread! Avoidance!" louder than financial paperwork. Offering to tackle this mundane chore may be the best last-minute gift you score.
File cabinet triage
It's easy to develop a system to control the pile of receipts, bank records, warranties, and whatnot. Take a cue from the decluttering books crowding the "Organization" aisle at the bookstore. Consider the five steps author Julie Morgenstern outlines in her popular organization book, Organizing From the Inside Out. Her advice can be easily tailored to help people corral financial clutter, too:
Step 1: Sort
Take stock of your financial filing cabinet. What valuables do you have? Take an inventory, using an oldfangled pencil and paper or a more newfangled tracking system such as Intuit's Quicken or Microsoft's Money. Catalog what you own, owe, rent, or otherwise count as an asset or liability.
Step 2: Purge
Get rid of extraneous stuff. This means everything from needless expenses (do you really enjoy call waiting?) to extra accounts (consider consolidating your old 401(k)s into a single self-directed IRA). If you're married, assess the costs and convenience of any separate accounts you have. Ensure your cars are on one policy and see whether you get a price break on homeowners' or renters' insurance with the same firm.
Does your discount broker offer banking services? Nothing cuts down clutter more than getting fewer account statements each month. (Here's some more on which financial statements to trash and which ones to treasure.)
Step 3: Assign a home
In household organization, things you use frequently are stored at the front of the closet. Stuff you use less often goes in the attic or mysteriously disappears when your spouse darts over to the neighbor's garage sale. The same goes for your savings (except the garage sale part).
Short-term savings -- your mortgage, bills, and entertainment money -- should sit in the forefront of your mind and filing cabinet. Your monthly cash flow is accessed most frequently. To stay on top of inflows and outflows, have all family members put bills and receipts in one place. Now vow to reconcile your checking account at least once every two weeks.
Step 4: Containerize
Once you get rid of extraneous accounts, it's time to find the best place to "store" your money. The goal for your long-term savings is to make it grow. Your work retirement plan and a discount brokerage account (where you can set up an IRA) are the perfect vessels for these important investments. Your short-term savings -- what you plan to spend within about five years on a new roof, new car, or even a major vacation -- should be placed in CDs or short-term bonds. Your peace-of-mind money -- for medical emergencies, car-repair emergencies, pink-slip emergencies -- should be easily accessible. But not too easily accessible. Consider a money market account with check-writing privileges. Or read about your other short-term savings options in our savings center.
Step 5: Equalize
Once you have the paper beast tamed and have achieved a state of chipper financial being, work a little every day to maintain your newly centered status. In other words, when the bills, bank statements, receipts, and garage sale proceeds come in, see steps 1 to 4 and lather, rinse, repeat.
When it comes to gift giving, it might be the thought that counts. But the grunt work involved speaks volumes, too.
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This article has been updated and was originally published on Dec. 23, 2005.