Your December Financial To Do List7 timely ways to organize your life

As the end of the year approaches, it’s easy to get caught up in the whirlwind of celebrations and travel.

While enjoying all the holiday fun, here are a few money moves to make to ensure your family’s financial health in 2019.

Give to Charity
Almost 20 percent of contributions made to nonprofits take place in December, according to the Giving Institute, an organization that assists nonprofit groups with fundraising. If you plan to make a donation, check that the charity you choose qualifies for tax-exempt status and that you get documentation of your gift, such as a receipt or bank record. 

You have until Dec. 31 to make contributions and claim them on your 2018 taxes. Contributions made via credit card in December but not paid until January count, as do those with checks postmarked in December that aren’t cashed until after the new year. Also, check out the Consumer Reports list of the best and worst charities for your donations.

Correct Mistakes in Your Credit Report
Every year, you’re allowed one free credit report from each of the big three credit reporting agencies, Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion.

December is a good time to order a report and check it for errors. You can stagger the reports by requesting one now, the second report in four months, and the third in eight months. That way you can get up-to-date reports and remain alert to errors or changes throughout the year.

To dispute an error on your credit report, contact in writing both the credit reporting company and the company that provided the information. Explain what you think is wrong and why, and include copies of documents that support your dispute. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau provides instructions (PDF), template letters (PDF), and more information to help guide you in the process.     

Freeze Your Credit Report
Another big data breach was reported recently, so our personal data is now likely to be less secure. If you’re not actively in the market for new credit, the best way to protect yourself is to put a freeze on your credit reports. That will stop criminals who don’t already have your data from opening fraudulent accounts in your name. 

The fastest and easiest way to freeze your credit is by going online to the websites of each of the three credit bureaus. The advocacy division of Consumer Reports offers a guide to security freeze protection to help you reach each bureau. The page also provides information on how much it will cost to implement a freeze because prices vary depending on the state.

Look for Unclaimed Funds
There may be money floating around out there that never made it into your bank account. But to get it, you need to know where to look.

Your state should have an unclaimed funds department for money left in savings and investment accounts, forgotten rental deposits, and dividends that never were delivered.

To start looking, check with the National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators. You’ll be directed to your state’s unclaimed funds page. The process may take only a few minutes, and this time of year it would be nice to discover a little extra cash to help cover expenses.  

Make Pretax Contributions to Lower Your Taxes
Maximize your 401(k) contributions. Most people aren’t contributing the maximum to their 401(k)s, or even contributing enough to get their full matching contribution. Only 13 percent reached the $18,000 limit in 2017, and only 14 percent of people 50 or older took advantage of the $6,000 catch-up contribution, according to Vanguard.

Though there isn’t much you can do to change your contributions this year, December is a good time to make adjustments for 2019. Visit your plan’s website, or make a call to boost your contribution level. If you’re contributing pretax money, the ding to your paycheck may be smaller than you’d expect because you’ll pay less in taxes. (Try this calculator to see the impact of stepped-up 401(k) contributions on your take-home pay.)

Contribute to an IRA. If you don’t have a 401(k), or if you have extra cash to put away, opt for an IRA—you can save up to $5,500 (up to $6,500 for those 50 and older). You have until April 15, 2019, to make this contribution. If you want immediate tax savings, open a traditional, or pretax, IRA. But consider diversifying some of your savings into a Roth IRA, where you contribute after-tax dollars but your earnings and withdrawals will be tax-free.

Fund your HSA. If you’re using a Health Savings Account, make sure it’s fully funded by the end of the year. For 2018 the limits are $3,450 for an individual or $6,900 for a family, plus an additional $1,000 in catch-up contributions for those 55 and older. With HSAs, you get a triple tax benefit—your contributions are made pretax, earnings are tax-free, and withdrawals are also tax-free, if the money is used for qualified medical expenses.

Review Your Withholdings
Take a look at the amounts withheld from your paycheck to guard against an unexpectedly large tax bill for 2018. To check if you are setting aside the right amount, use the withholding calculator on the IRS website. To adjust your withholding allowance, give your employer an updated Form W-4.

Many people view their tax refunds as forced savings. But keep in mind that the IRS doesn’t pay you interest on the money it withholds. If you reduce your withholding allowances and have the discipline, arrange for the extra sum in your paycheck to be direct-deposited each pay period into a savings or retirement account. That way it has the opportunity to grow over time.

Check Your Auto Insurance Coverage
Our recent study of auto insurance pricing shows that remaining with the same insurer may mean paying too much. So if you haven’t shopped for coverage in the past three years, it’s worth checking with other auto insurers to see whether you can save on the premium.

Even if you find that the coverage you have is the least expensive, there may still be ways to reduce your premium. For example, depending on where you live, raising your deductible to $1,000 from zero could reduce your collision deductible by as much as 47 percent. Consider dropping collision and/or comprehensive coverage when the annual premium for that portion of coverage exceeds 10 percent of your car’s book value.