Taming the Paperwork Beast – Steps to Help You Control and Organize the Paper in Your House

Does all of your paperwork end up in a huge pile that’s taking over your space? Do you have trouble finding every bill before it’s due? Are you unsure where to find all the receipts and forms you need for paying taxes? If you answered YES to any of these questions, you are being overtaken by the Paperwork Beast! Fortunately, there are several easy steps to tame it.

Many people who are otherwise organized and neat have trouble with paperwork overtaking their home or office. It is a very common thing, and it happens almost without you knowing it. Let’s say you come home after a long day at work, grab the mail from the mailbox, and when you come in the door, you’re immediately greeted with “MOM! What’s for dinner?” or “Honey, we have to leave in 30 minutes for the concert – help me find something to wear”. You certainly don’t have time to sit and logically go through the stack of mail you just brought in, so you dump it onto the pile you already have (on the hall table, the kitchen counter, the office desk, etc.), with a promise to get to it tomorrow. Yet – tomorrow brings a repeat performance, with slightly different details, and you simply don’t have time to deal with it then.

When you finally DO get a free Saturday afternoon, you sit down with the pile, and discover 2 overdue credit card bills, an invitation to a party – for last week, a letter from your tax preparer telling you he needs the property tax receipts, and a ton of restaurant fliers, free carpet cleaning ads, and other pieces of junk. Rather than delve in and begin to tackle this stuff, it’s easier to put it back where you found it. You think to yourself “as soon as I have a nice, neat desk and a filing system, I can begin to keep up with stuff”.

Well – what’s stopping you? There is a simple 4-step process to dealing efficiently with paperwork – PLAN, SORT, FILE, and MAINTAIN.

PLAN – Get up, go directly to the closest supercenter or office store, and get yourself just a few simple items that will help you put an end to the excuses and frustration of the Paperwork Beast. Here’s all you need to get started:

  • 3 stackable letter-trays OR 3 baskets/bins
  • 10 hanging file folders w/tabs
  • 20 file folders w/labels
  • 1 expandable file folder with 30 slots (may be prelabeled with numbers 1-30)

That’s it! You can certainly go as fancy or decorative as you wish to suit your decor. Sometimes actually having something that is pleasing to YOUR eye will inspire you to utilize it more frequently, so go ahead and splurge on a wicker fabric-lined basket if you wish.

SORT Sit in a comfortable spot with plenty of space around you for this step. You will need 3 boxes, bins, or bags that you will use for the sorting. One will be for TRASH/RECYCLING, one for FILE/USE, and one for SHRED. The items to trash/recycle will be the easiest, and you will recognize them immediately. Any fliers or junk mail, or expired items (like that old invitation or the envelope from a card) can be put in this bin. Do NOT put any documents with sensitive information in this bin. That will go in the SHRED bin. Anything with your address or account information on it, that is not something you need to file or use, should be shredded. Finally, you are left with a pile of things to FILE/USE.

Get the other 2 bins out of your way, and sort the remaining items into piles like BILLS DUE, BILLS PAID, RECEIPTS, etc. You may have letters from your Insurance company or bank statements that will just need filing. Set those aside as well.

FILE Set aside things that need to be handled immediately, such as bills to be paid or letters to be answered. You should be left with things that just need a good home. If you don’t already have a home filing system, you should begin now. It’s crucial to be able to lay your hands on important documents in a moment’s notice. If you don’t have a filing cabinet or desk drawer, you can purchase an inexpensive filing box or large expandable folder.

You purchased 10 hanging file folders, and now you are going to create some main categories. You can add others to these as fit your needs, but all families should have at least 1 file for each of these: Medical, Insurance, Taxes, Legal Documents, Warranties, Financial, and Bills Paid. Go ahead and make those hanging files now, and lay them out on the floor or table where you’re working. Sort the pile of papers you have left by placing them with the appropriate folder that they belong to.

Now take the regular file folders that you purchased (these come in colors, which can be helpful, too) and create sub-categories of the large ones above. For instance under Insurance, you should have folders for Home, Auto, Health, and Life. Under Legal Documents, you may want one for Wills, Licenses, Medical Directives, etc. As you did with the hanging files above, create whatever fits your need. You’ve already pre-sorted your paperwork into the main categories; now file them into the appropriate subcategory and put in each file folder.

Hopefully you have a place for everything. Of course everyone’s circumstances will be unique, and you may find that something just doesn’t fit anywhere. Create a MISCELLANEOUS file for this, and label the outside of the folder with the contents and the date you added the item. That way, when you go to look for something, you will be more likely to find it.

MAINTAIN This last step is almost as crucial as the ones above. In fact, once you’ve done the sorting and filing, it will be the most important one to keep the Paperwork Beast out of your hair for good! You’ve established a filing system for your paperwork, but if you don’t have a way to keep up with it from the start, what good will that do?

Decide on a central, logical place to keep your daily incoming mail. Many people dedicate a small table somewhere in the living room or kitchen for this purpose, or perhaps a corner of their desk. You just need to make sure it’s someplace that you see immediately, and consistently! Here you will place the 3-tray stackable letter trays or 3 bins that you bought earlier. Find a way to label these items into these categories: TO BE FILED, TO BE PAID, and TO BE DONE. You don’t need a basket for trash/recycle, because those items should immediately go away! If something needs to be shredded, put it in the FILE bin, and shred it while you’re handling those items.

You purchased an expandable file folder with 30 slots. Many of these come already labeled with the numbers 1-30. If yours doesn’t, just label it yourself. Here is where you will file your bills to be paid. This is a crucial file, and one you must deal with on a regular basis – weekly, if not daily. File each of the bills in this folder, but do NOT file them by the DUE DATE. They will be late when you finally get to them! For bills that you pay by mail, file them at least 10 days before the due date. For bills you pay electronically, file them at least 5 days before the due date. Once you’ve paid the bill, file the statement in the appropriate folder you made for it. You will make it a regular task (weekly or daily) to go through this file and pay the bills before they are due.

All that’s left are things “to be done”. This could be something like a magazine that needs to be read, an invitation you need to reply to, or a reminder letter about a doctor’s appointment. While not as critical as the bills, you should have a plan to do these things within 5 days.

Keeping ahead of these tasks may sound daunting when you are reading it on paper, but once you’ve cleared out the clutter you started with, it can actually be an exciting challenge to maintain the organization you’ve created. If it no longer overwhelms you, you will be more likely to stay motivated and on top of things. You should actually make an appointment with yourself for dealing with paperwork. Set aside a certain day or night of the week, and block off 15-30 minutes that is dedicated to keeping it under control. You will find that the more you do it, the quicker it will go.

Having peace of mind about these important tasks is worth the small cost you will incur in supplies. You may in fact already have items in your home that you can use – it doesn’t need to be anything fancy, but it does need to inspire and motivate you. Don’t let the Paperwork Beast overwhelm you – you have the tools to tame it once and for all!