One of the annoying yet necessary points to adult life is organizing paperwork and documents.. way fun right? Don’t even get me started on the space it can take up.
Prepare yourself, this post is COMPREHENSIVE and possibly one of the longest posts I have written.. but it was NECESSARY to get the information out. I hope you can forgive me LOL.
How I know this works
I remember as a newlywed, well… okay I take that back… as an engaged young woman (we lived together and combined finances before the actual wedding, this is the 21st Century after all..) trying to setup our home office was chaotic and a bit of a nightmare.
You couldn’t just type “home office organization” into Pinterest and get this amazing guide back then!
I literally sat in front of the TV binge-watching Scrubs and sorting and shredding papers for 4 days!
Anyways, since that first AWFUL time, I have completely re-vamped our “home office” no less than 5 times.. Yes, in 7 years of marriage so far, I had REDONE our home office and changed methods for organizing pesky paperwork every single tax season until 2 years ago.
Now, I FINALLY have it down to a science that I like, I can keep up with, and doesn’t go to the crapper after 1 month.
And guess what, in the spirit of sharing I have documented it and will lay it all out for you!
Let’s get to work
1 – Protect the invaluable items
First thing is first, before we go crazy organizing your LIFE and simplifying your filing system, lets cover the REALLY important documents.
If you don’t already have one, get a waterproof fire resistant safe for your very super ultra important documents.
The ones that are irreplaceable or REALLY hard to replace.
- Such as:
- Birth certificates / Adoption papers
- Social Security Cards
- Marriage Certificate
- Your Will and POA docs (and any Just-in-Case Letters to your spouse/family if tragedy hits)
- Deeds & Auto Titles
Locate these documents and get them to a safe space NOW.
We have this SentrySafe and its perfect for these few documents and other valuables we want to keep safe from potential natural disasters.
Make sure you separate the keys and put them somewhere YOU can find when you need it and wouldn’t go MIA if tragedy does strike.
Now, I am a little OCD so the thought of loose papers rolling around willy nilly in this box makes my skin crawl, so I got this letter-size accordion folder to put our documents in before putting in the safe. You can even label the tabs – YAY for organization!!
Another tip – if you don’t use cloud storage for photos, download your ditigals to a USB drive and chuck it in the safe, that way if you lose your computer, those pics will be saved.. but REALLY you should store them online where you can get to them from anywhere. If your an Amazon Prime Member, you can use Prime Photo.
We have been using this service for a while now and I LOVE it! My husband and I each have the app on our phones so our pictures are automatically uploaded to our Prime Photo account where I can easily access my and his photos from vacations and even order the prints cheap through Amazon for my scrap-booking. Win!
2 – Dedicate a space for household papers
Next, decide on where you will be filing your day to day household documents. Depending on your home office, or lack thereof you may decide to use File Boxes, a File Cabinet or your Desk.
Let me take you through the evolution of my home office, as I have literally utilized all these methods!
Handy dandy File Boxes
So the first time I set out to setup our home office and get our documents organized, I had a cheap desk with no drawers tucked into the corner of a guest room. We were low on space in our first home so I had to get crafty for how I would implement a filing system.
I finally settled on File Boxes that could be stowed under the desk for easy access, and they were cheap enough for my teensie budget.
I bought 2 of these awesome plastic boxes, and that was perfect for just the 2 of us at the time. We didn’t have too much in the way of paperwork as we weren’t homeowners nor did we have many bills or loans. Ahh… those were simpler times…
PS – They didn’t have those nifty handles back when I bought them…I might be a little bit jealous about that. LOL
The everyday File Cabinet
If you have the space for a dedicated File Cabinet, there are some great options now that look nice and modern.
When we purchased and moved into our current home, my mom happened to be in the process of moving her Acupuncture practice and I scored her old filing cabinet. This thing was NOT pretty. But it was large and we now had room to spare and our poor little plastic file boxes were now overflowing with all the new house paperwork.
THANKFULLY they make really cool looking file cabinets now that don’t look like actual filing cabinets. Seriously.. check these out y’all!
…and there I go getting wicked jealous again haha!!
Built-in File Drawers in your Desk
Finally, you may already have a nice practical desk that already has a deep file-sized drawer or two built in for your files like this beautiful Executive Desk. (it comes in 3 different finishes!)
In our current home, we moved our home office around a couple of times.. It started out upstairs in the loft. Then when we were ready to turn said loft into a home theater we moved the office downstairs into a spare room. That didn’t last long.. I HATED being down there and the Feng Shui was just off. My office clearly needed to be somewhat separate from our living space. So back upstairs it went. Only this time, we added dry wall to close off a nook in the loft into a dedicated office and add built in desks with tons of storage.
I planned out every single drawer, cabinet and cupboard for a specific purpose be it craft supplies, documents, or just spare cables. Of the drawers, we added 4 deep drawers that were file cabinet dimensions, and I got these nifty inserts to make them official file drawers.
3 – Dedicate a space for sentimental papers
I highly recommend picking a separate dedicated space for your sentimental items, such as:
- Your kiddos’ art projects & schools papers
- Travel mementos
- Special occasion cards and announcements
- The box of letters you kept from when your husband was in the Army that mother hid from you until you made the life changing decision to see him before you married Mr. perfect and got caught in the rain in a boat surrounded by swans.. oh wait.. that’s “the Notebook”…
LOLOLOLOL. Sorry I couldn’t resist. I love me some Nicholas Sparks..
Anyways, if your a die hard scrapbook-er (like me) or just don’t have the heart to toss these items and plan on doing something with them… tuck them away somewhere safe. Don’t let them get mixed up in your office paperwork.
I keep a smaller file box that hosts these items. Yes. SMALL.
This way I can gauge when I’m getting too behind on my scrapbooking!
Also, my portable file box travels easily with me to my scrapping retreats.
Yes, I said scrapping retreat: a weekend away with my fellow scrapbook loving girlfriends in a cabin in the woods where we scrapbook day and night, drink lots of coffee (and wine) and enjoy each others company. It’s AMAZING. Your getting all my deep dark secrets now!
Anywho.. I keep a file per year with the miscellaneous stuff that will need to go into that year’s scrapbook, and a file per event/vacation that will be getting its own scrapbook. I try very hard not to get more than 5 years behind.
If your plan is to just save everything and give it to your kids to do with what they will when they are all grown up (like my husbands’ family did), your going to need a much bigger box…or a tub…or a storage unit… LOL
4 – Time to Declutter!
Now that we know where everything needs to go, its time for the HARD work. Time to start organizing and decluttering all those papers.
When it comes to household documents, there are 3 options, and 3 options ONLY.
I’m talking Keep, Shred, or Toss here people!
There are certain documents you will have to keep short and long term. DO NOT keep the documents you can easily access online. This helps keep down the clutter.
Types of documents to keep:
- Bills you still get in paper form (go digital!!)
- Receipts and warrantys for major purchases
- Receipts for tax deductible purchases and donations
- Paycheck stubs (if not digital)
- Mortgage statements
- Medical bills, claims and statements
- W-2 and 1099 Forms
- Annual tax returns
- Investment Statements (if not digital)
- Home Improvement documents and receipts
- Automobile titles, insurance policies, Leans
- Retirement statements and records (if not digital)
As you chuck papers into the keep pile, take the extra step to put them into 3 piles: Current Year stuff, Last 7 years Tax related stuff, and Keep forever stuff.
You will want to shred papers you are not keeping that have sensitive and personal information on them.
Not doing this can put you at risk for identity theft. Especially those pesky credit card offer letters!
Here are some of items you would typically keep, but I recommend also shredding if you have them available in digital form:
- Monthly bills – utilities, credit cards, subscriptions, etc..
- Bank & Investment statements
- Paycheck stubs
Don’t mess with scissors, you can easily shred your own documents using a personal shredder.
This is a good sized shredder for any home office. I love that it can run continuously for 30 minutes and has its own cool down cycle and LED indicator when its starting to overheat..
This was a lesson learned for me as I went to shred all the crap I weeded out of my own home office and totally fried my shredder by allowing it to overheat!! Don’t do that.
Alright, this is an easy one, anything that is left (i.e. your not keeping and doesn’t require shredding) can be tossed.
Or rather, RECYCLED. It is paper after all.
5 – Organize your Keepers into files
Alright, time to grab the documents in your “Keep” piles and start the filing.
Based on the method of file storage you chose in step 2, you are going to dedicate a drawer/box to the following:
- Short Term – This is for your current year papers
- Long Term – For your last 7 years Tax documents
- Permanent Keepers – For your forever keepers
When we had less papers to file (and less space), I combined long term and indefinite files to save space. Actually I have 4 drawers now… and you might too! 7 years of tax documents take up a lot of space when you have itemized deductions and businesses! Not to mention the warranty papers that stack up in a new home..
If your slightly OCD like me and need your labels to be perfectly uniform, you may consider getting a labelmaker. They come in super handy for lots of things!
I have this Dymo LetraTag label maker and love it! It doesn’t take up much space and is easy to use. It is also great that I can always find the replacement cartridges I need easily, which I can’t say the same for my printer!!!
I like to use the Clear Tape cartridge for my file labels, I find the paper white looks funny on manila folders, but will work in a pinch, or just blend into the background of your hanging file labels.
Now get to Filing!
How you sort and file your keepers in their designated drawer/box is totally up to you and will depend on what your keepers are.
But at a high level, here is an example of how you could organize them:
Short Term drawer/box
Select a hanging file color for each of the following categories, then label them individually, and place a labeled manila folder for each of the sub-category as applicable.
Example: (your specific situation may differ depending on lifestyle and taxes)
How many files and folders, categories and sub categories you need depends on your family lifestyle and how much physical paper you receive and need to save vs how much you get digitally.
For example, I no longer keep files for my bank statements, or ANY of my monthly bills folders since I opted in for email statements and have automatic payments setup. Its very simple to switch and it makes life so much simpler.
Any time I need to reference any statement I can pull it up online, easy peasy. 1 less file to keep!
So next time you go to pay a particular bill, log into your online account, see if they have an email opt-in and CHECK THAT BOX.
Long Term drawer/box
This one is MUCH simpler. Your Long term or “7 Year” files can be as simple as 1-2 hanging file per tax year.
An Example would look like:
Your permanent files should be similar to your Short Term files, plus or minus a few.
Every year in January you will go through your short term files and pull everything you need for taxes. Those items will transfer to that year’s tax folder and move to the long term files.
Once you have done your taxes for the previous year, go through what is left of your Short Term Files and shred what you don’t need to keep and move the rest to a permanent file in the Indefinite files.
Banking and Income
What isn’t used for taxes can just be shredded, no need to keep those statements.
However, you may want to keep a permanent Job File to transfer any offer letters, W-4s and other miscellaneous items you want to keep for the duration of that job into the Indefinite files.
Most of these can be shredded at the end of the year. If you claim utilities for tax deductions you would move those records to your Long Term tax files.
However, I DO keep a permanent file with the original contract/bill for each provider for the duration of the contract.
I may keep a permanent file for my cell phone contract, but I shred the monthly bills at the end of the year. Throughout the year the company may send notices and updates that I may keep in that permanent file as well.
In this section most statements can be shredded as well.
The exception would be short term loans. In those cases keep a permanent file until the loan has been paid off.
I have a short term file for my car loan AND a permanent file. At the end of the year I pull the short term manila folder contents and move them into the permanent file to start the new year. Then when the loan is repaid in full and I have the Title in my possession I will shred all the loan statements and move the title to my fire-proof safe for safe-keeping. Then the permanent car file will just contain any services I have had performed on the car.
Most of your receipts you would have kept for tax purposes, so those transfer to the long term tax files obviously.
Large purchases and warranties should find a home in the permanent files as long as you have the item, or as long as its under warranty.
Also create a permanent file for each member of your household. This file is where you can transfer medical documents, receipts and statements if you so desire. I include my fur-babies in this category.
Yes – each baby has a file! 🙂
You may also choose to keep some miscellaneous files, but be sure to not let them get out of control. If you have 3 or more like items, it might need its own category.
We have a number of paid memberships, so I like to keep those contracts/cards in a “Memberships” File with a manila folder per company.
6 – Keep it going!
Once your done, give yourself a HUGE hug, cuddle, or a big fat Ice cream sundae – GREAT JOB!
Now comes the most challenging part – STAYING ORGANIZED.
Don’t let things pile up!
It is important to plan a consistent and specific day weekly/biweekly to file everything new.
For me, filing daily just wasn’t feasible, so every time we get the mail – I sort it immediately, and anything that needs an action or to be filed goes in a tray.
Something simple like this vintage wood tray is perfect.
I found once a week to be the sweet spot of not much has piled up yet and its how often I sit down to balance my budget and pay bills anyways (every Thursday!).
Go digital where you can
As you go through this exercise of setting up and organizing your home office, take note of every statement that can be replaced with a digital version.
You could take a couple hours and knock out opting in to everything in one day, but that may be daunting..
Which is why I recommend the next time you go to pay a bill check to see if they have an option for email statements and automatic payments and sign up!
Slowly but surely you will find you get much less paper waste and mail, and paying bills is so much quicker too!
Not to mention, it’s SO MUCH easier at tax time to download statements in bulk rather that sorting through piles of papers.
Whew! That was a lot of info! I hope it was helpful for you and you are on your way to setting up a home office system that is clutter free, organized and efficient for running your household!