How to Organize Papers

Climbing a Pile of Files

Organizing papers is probably one of the worst jobs there is in the home. It’s boring, tedious, time consuming and mildly unrewarding because you don’t see the results too much. BUT is is oh so necessary for mental health and peace of mind and ease of organizing in the future. It is one of those tasks that hangs like a heavy burden on any home-keeper. Let’s get rid of it!

Step One: Gather your supplies

Garbage bag, shredder, folders, labels, pen, filing system (either a file box, file cabinet, boxes, basically whatever you like and have the space for, my pick is a small file box that fits in a closet because it fits my paper needs and storage space limitations). You also need a (preferably clear) rubbermaid, and large ziplock bags.  Lastly get a copy of your credit report. You are doing this for your household so make sure you have all your husbands stuff and your kids stuff too – or whoever you live with that needs help getting organized.

Step Two: Gather all your papers to one place

Find a space in your house where you can leave the papers for 1-3 days because this could take a while. So a corner of your bedroom a guest room wherever. Get ALL the papers – piles and randoms and mail and boxes and currently filed etc. You want to do this once and never again. Bonus all the papers strewn about your house will be gone. One step closer to tidy!

Step Three: Get knowledgeable.

Make a list of what you know you pay and have out there so you start to get your mind ready for the sorting. Look over how long you should save papers for.

Ex. For me i made a list of all the things I pay each month, each paycheck from each job, medical stuff,  important documents (passports birth certificates), users manuals and warranty info on products, notes I want to save, tax info, etc. You probably can figure out what is on your list because it is pretty easy.

Find out how long should you save stuff. Go to this site for details.

Step Four: Sort into piles

Just stack everything up and start sorting. If your paper situation is really bad start with the loose paper then move to boxes and then to what is filed. Sort, sort, sort – toss and shred when appropriate. Some times it is helpful to do a few levels of sorting like utility bills and details all in one pile. All the credit card stuff in one pile, All bank statements in a pile, etc. You get the idea. Then in a second sorting weed out each utility to its own category and each bank account to its own, each credit card its own, etc. Sorting could take a very long time. It took me a solid 8 hours start to finish for this task and I was already pretty organized and I only have about 10 years worth of paper. So be prepared. On the other hand it is pretty easy once you get going to toss loads of stuff because you realize how much crap you have saved. Notice I said crap – meaning you don’t need it. Stick to the motto of when in doubt throw it out!

Step Five: Sort your piles

Toss any papers pertaining to anything you no longer own: appliances, vehicles etc. (the exception is a house or other real estate) Any closed credit cards and accounts just save the letter that shows it was closed.

You don’t need to save utility bills once they have been paid and cleared your bank account. Sometimes it is helpful to keep some on hand for reference but honestly if you go paperless than it is all online.

You don’t need to save credit card statements once they have been checked for errors, paid and cleared your bank account. Some places recommend saving them so it is up to you. Again if you go paperless that is a decision you don’t have to make.

You don’t have to save receipts, They are on your bank statements and credit card statements.

Step Five:  Sort each pile into Long term and short term filing

If you are saving a certain category of stuff – like all the credit card statements that pertain to your business then short term file about a year back and anything prior to a year back put in the ziplocks and label (ex. chase credit card statements 2003-2006). These ziplocks of the things you have to or feel compelled to save will go in the clear plastic rubbermaid and then if you ever get audited or whatever you can go get that bin and pull out the stuff you need.

All your short term stuff goes into the filing system you chose. I have six mos. – one year of utility and other statements (bank, credit card etc) I have one year of pay stubs and my most recent tax forms. I also have all the various things I need for reference.  Everything older or no longer pertinent went in the trash, the shredder or the long term bin.

Step Six: Stay on top of it! Sort your mail as soon as it comes in the house. File stuff as soon as it is paid etc. Go as paperless as you can. Every year when you do taxes purge your short term files. Don’t let the paper win ever again!

In a nut shell: know what you have to keep (short term) and what you need to keep (long term) and toss the rest (shredder and trash) and stay on top of it!

image credit


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