Managing Financial Paperwork from the Road

Sat 17 September 2011

Packing up for one month in Cambodia was much the same as for my eight month trip. I'd like to share some ways to manage your financial and practical affairs from the road. They're all simple, but you need to allow enough time before you leave.

What's in your wallet?

Open your wallet and find everything with an expiration date. Check your car registration and passport too. Will they expire while you're travelling? Make arrangements to renew them. The US State Department reports a 4-6 week processing time for routine applications.

When you depart, take unneeded cards out of your wallet and -- this is key -- put them someplace easy to find when you return. I left sensitive items, like credit cards, with a friend. The library and shopping cards stayed in my car. I'd forgotten I put them there, and was delighted when they magically appeared at my first trip to the supermarket.

Your Guardian Angel

If you're going on a long trip, you need a trusted person back home to be your agent on the ground. Tim and Jessica coined the term "Guardian Angel". I had two: my parents, and my best friend.  My parents stored the documents too sensitive to leave in storage. My friend opened mail, scanned an occasional bill, and (very generously!) stored my car.

Your job is to lighten your Guardian Angel's load as much as possible, and bring an extra-extra-nice present back from your travels.

Paying Bills Online

Most companies encourage to go paperless. Fewer dead trees, and less paper for the Guardian Angels. The most difficult part is finding a bill with the account information. Some companies, especially utilities, require that you enter a security code printed on the most recent bill to complete signup.

To simplify, I centralized my bills on my bank's bill payer service. I prefer to have them all in one place, and to send money on my schedule rather than authorizing withdrawals by the companies. My bank even has a feature to view bills and statements from the bill payer screen, so I don't have to log in to site to check my balance.  ING Direct's eBill demo explains it all in more detail, and has a great Peanuts-style soundtrack.

Online statements is another step that may take a billing cycle or two to be fully established.

I set up an automatic monthly payment to my credit card companies for the minimum amount due. I remember to do bills once a month, but each company has a different due date. The automatic payment ensures I never pay a late fee.

It's best to start migrating to online payment three months before departure. Gather up all your bills as they come in the first month, and do a marathon setup session. In the second month, confirm that all payments were received, and add the paper bills that you missed. Confirm everything is working smoothly in the third month, and enjoy peace of mind.

If your primary bank doesn't offer these services, you can open a second account with one that does. I use my credit union for the things I need to do in person, and ING Direct online for everything else. If your bank does this well, feel free to mention them in a comment.

Moving Money: Checks and Transfers

Sometimes you need to send a check.  ING Direct will send a paper check or electronic payment to a person.

You may also need to send money to your Guardian Angel. Electronic fund transfer usually requires an account number and bank's ABA number, just like direct deposit. I prefer not to send that information in email, so it's another to-do before leaving.  Once transfer is set up you can repeat it with a click.

Tax Preparation

Will you be on the road during tax season? How will your W2s, bank interest statements, and other tax documents be delivered? If not online, make a plan for how you'll get them.

There are always some items I have to look up when I fill out my return. I dug out the information when I packed my filing cabinet, and put it in a spreadsheet on my laptop.


You may  need to sign and return a document. Your tax return, for example. I wound up doing this the usual way: print it out, sign, scan it, and email it. It's a drag. Despite all the signs promising fax services, none of the Internet cafes in Siem Reap had a working fax. Afterward, I was stuck with a hardcopy of my tax return and no shredder on hand.

In a happier example, my awesome insurance company got my car back on the road the week before I returned to the country. They  reregistered my car, reinstated my auto insurance, and mailed  my new license plates for arrival the Friday before a holiday weekend. I was able to visit friends and family immediately. I had to sign the policy quote to make the magic happen.

Ernest Svenson, an attorney, has written several articles about how to make a digital signature. (He's a lawyer, so he should know, right?)

The steps boil down to scanning a paper version, editing it in Photoshop , and inserting it into a Word or PDF. It's not always possible, but it's a start.

OSX Lion has added signatures to Preview, their PDF reader.

There areseveral iPhone apps that let you sign PDF documents. I'm curious to hear your experience with them.

Timeline Recap

ASAP: check your passport and renew if necessary
3 to 1 months ahead: switch bills to online payment. You can do it at the last minute if you're organized. If you're doing it at the last minute you're probably not an organized person, so be kind to yourself and start early.
8 to 6 weeks ahead: check expiration dates on credit cards, car registration, license, etc. and order replacements
4 to 2 weeks ahead: collect tax information as you pack your filing cabinet
2 weeks ahead: set up money transfer with your Guardian Angel
< 2 weeks ahead: you'll be too focused on packing.

Category: Tips

Tags: practical /