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Protecting yourself

My worst financial sin: Not opening the mail

Kelly Dilworth

Like a lot of disorganized people, I have an allergy to opening the mail. Until I married and acquired my own personal letter opener (thanks, sweetheart!), I threw mail I didn’t want to deal with on the floor, in a bin, on the kitchen counter, in a desk drawer I never opened or even, in some cases, underneath my bed.

When friends or family stopped to visit, I scooped up the piles of unopened envelopes and other loose items that had lost their way, tossed them in a corner and hid them with a blanket. I put off throwing away mail I didn’t need, such as credit card and insurance offers, because I wanted to shred them to avoid possible identity theft. I also dreaded going over bank and retirement statements, so I put off opening those, too.

Each time I moved to a new place, I collected all the papers and unopened envelopes I had resolved to deal with someday, threw them into bags and took them with me.

I figured that my longtime habit of tossing mail into piles was relatively innocent. If I ever needed something, I’d find it eventually.

Last summer, I finally got around to sorting through half a decade’s worth of unfiled paper I had hauled around with me on multiple moves. I found an un-cashed insurance refund worth a few hundred dollars and a similarly generous personal check I still had tucked away in an old card. I also had several years’ worth of investment statements I had completely ignored and multiple change-of-address requests from financial professionals handling my retirement accounts. If I lost money in the stock market, I certainly didn’t know about it.

I could have also lost money through double-charges on my credit card statements and excessive fees debited from my accounts. But because I never took the time to carefully screen bank or credit card statements from my bachelorette days, I’ll never know just how much money I might have held onto if I had been more financially aware.

According to the professional organizers I talked to for a recent story I did on organizing finances, “Financial disorganization: 6 ways it costs you,” my experience isn’t uncommon – especially for people like me who are chronically disorganized. One of the biggest mistakes their clients make, say professional organizers, is procrastinating on opening their mail. One professional organizer, Alison Kero, said she found a tax refund for $20,000 in a client’s home. Another organizer, Suzie Wilkoff, said her client routinely missed bills because she’d fail to open them.

Experts commonly recommend that you deal with your mail at least once a day so that it’s less overwhelming and doesn’t pile up. But that’s never worked for me since I can almost always find something more pressing to do each evening.

Setting aside time on the weekend to go through unopened mail is more realistic. Professional organizer Susie Wilkoff recommends picking a day of the week that works for you and setting a weekly date with yourself.

It may also be a good idea to enlist help from your spouse or another family member if you feel too busy to deal with incoming mail or don’t have the patience for tedious paperwork. In my case, I have Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder — a mental health condition that’s marked, in part, by chronic disorganization — and so have an especially hard time keeping my financial paperwork in order. Good intentions have never been enough for me and so I’ve relied on my spouse to help me sort my mail.

I still have trouble setting aside time to go through mail my husband’s flagged as important, but I’m more motivated now after realizing just how much money I could lose.

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