How to Organize Paperwork: A Simple System

Even for the most organized of people, paperwork can still be a tricky thing to keep tidy. Why is this? I think it’s because there’s an uncontrolled input! Other stuff stays tidy if you leave it alone and don’t buy more, but paperwork keeps flowing into your life whether you like it or not. If you “do nothing” everything else stays put, but if you “do nothing” with your paperwork, it turns into a disaster!



I’ve seen many beautiful paperwork organization systems that involve color-coded files, multiple steps to keep everything in the correct order of importance, and so on. Those are very nice, but they aren’t quite the right fit for me. I need my system to be super simple, or else I won’t keep up with it when life gets busy.



My paperwork organization system is focused around keeping only the limited number of essentials, keeping items only as long as they are needed, and getting the rest out of my house ASAP.



Technically, a completely electronic system would be more “tidy,” but I know it’s not for me because it would require the additional step of scanning documents in. Also, because I wouldn’t have the physical copies of the documents, I know that I’d be neglectful to keep electronic files as uncluttered as I do my physical files (which only have so much space). And, I don’t want the hassle of backing up those files, which I would have to do, or else fear possibly losing them forever.

How to Organize Paperwork​



With that being said, there are two systems I use to keep my paperwork in order. The first is a system of FLOW (the process paperwork goes through when I get the mail), and the second is a system of STORAGE.


Paperwork FLOW System


The majority of papers come to me via the mail. Here’s the process they go through:


Step 0: I pay as many of my bills online, on auto-payment as possible to reduce incoming paperwork.


Step 1: When I get the mail, I immediately go through it. I stand at the recycling can and before even entering my house I sort through it all and discard everything that I don’t need or really want. The rest I divide between items for me to deal with and items for my husband to deal with. (Normally it’s 90% mine.)

What I immediately discard:

    Most catalogs

    All random ads

    Credit card offers

    All envelopes (except for those included for paying bills)

    Bank statements


Step 2: Mail gets further divided. Husband’s mail gets put into a cubby in his desk. My mail gets divided into three categories:


  • Immediate action: all bills and items that require simple, “one step” action

  • Later action: items with later due dates that require multiple steps

  • Reading material: magazines and advertisements I’m actually interested in

  • File: items that don’t require action, but need to be kept.


Step 3: Get it all dealt with. Those items slated for “immediate action” I deal with, then recycle. The reading material gets put into the bathroom (and old reading material is recycled right then). The items for later action and that need to be filed all get put into one, neat pile. This pile gets taken care of once each week, as one of my weekly chores.



Other paperwork follows similar flow patterns, basically either being thrown away, taken care of immediately, or put into the one, neat pile of “deal with later” and “file.” The main other random source of papers is receipts.



Receipts fall into three categories:


  • Small item, personal receipts: trashed as soon as they are recorded in Mint

  • Large item, personal receipts: recorded, then filed in case we need to return the item

  • Business receipts: all are recorded (in Quickbooks), and then filed for tax purposes


I do not keep all the random grocery and small item receipts. I used to, but then I realized they had no future purpose and that they create a lot of clutter!



Once paperwork has gone through the FLOW cycle, the second phase is STORAGE. I only store a very limited amount of paperwork. Anything that I only need to store for a short period of time just stays in the “pile” until I can throw it away.



Paperwork Storage System

The papers I do store get put into a small filing cabinet. In the cabinet there are hanging files that contain multiple other files. Here’s how I sort what the papers that I do store:


File 1: Medical Records

  • Contains one file for each person. I only keep those items that might be relevant in the future.


File 2: ID Documents

  • Birth certificates, Social Security cards, passports, etc


File 3: Property Records

  • Title for our house, plus one file of mortgage statements


File 4: Vehicle Records

  • Care titles, copies of registration, receipts of sale


File 5: Insurance Paperwork



File 7: Photos

  • Random photos go here until the file fills up, at which point I organize them all and put them into albums


File 8: Memories

  • I don’t scrapbook or anything like that, so a few, random little reminders of good memories go here. It’s a nice file to review periodically. I declutter it at least once a year, and only keep those things I still actually care about. Most of my fond memories are recorded with pictures, which are simply much easier to store in an organized way.



That’s pretty much the system! I know it was kind of a long explanation, but it’s really super, super simple to execute. Three steps for dealing with incoming, then just eight files to sort the papers I need to store.



So, finally, here’s a few quick tips to develop a system that works for you:


  • Recycle as much as possible as soon as possible

  • Deal with easy things as soon as possible

  • Keep items that need further action in ONE location so they aren’t forgotten

  • Only store the essential paperwork

  • Keep everything as simple as  possible!






How to Organize Paperwork: A Simple System

 

Even for the most organized of people, paperwork can still be a tricky thing to keep tidy. Why is this? I think it’s because there’s an uncontrolled input! Other stuff stays tidy if you leave it alone and don’t buy more, but paperwork keeps flowing into your life whether you like it or not. If you “do nothing” everything else stays put, but if you “do nothing” with your paperwork, it turns into a disaster!

 

I’ve seen many beautiful paperwork organization systems that involve color-coded files, multiple steps to keep everything in the correct order of importance, and so on. Those are very nice, but they aren’t quite the right fit for me. I need my system to be super simple, or else I won’t keep up with it when life gets busy.

 

My paperwork organization system is focused around keeping only the limited number of essentials, keeping items only as long as they are needed, and getting the rest out of my house ASAP.

 

Technically, a completely electronic system would be more “tidy,” but I know it’s not for me because it would require the additional step of scanning documents in. Also, because I wouldn’t have the physical copies of the documents, I know that I’d be neglectful to keep electronic files as uncluttered as I do my physical files (which only have so much space). And, I don’t want the hassle of backing up those files, which I would have to do, or else fear possibly losing them forever.

 

With that being said, there are two systems I use to keep my paperwork in order. The first is a system of FLOW (the process paperwork goes through when I get the mail), and the second is a system of STORAGE.

 

Paperwork FLOW System

 

The majority of papers come to me via the mail. Here’s the process they go through:

 

Step 0: I pay as many of my bills online, on auto-payment as possible to reduce incoming paperwork.

 

Step 1: When I get the mail, I immediately go through it. I stand at the recycling can and before even entering my house I sort through it all and discard everything that I don’t need or really want. The rest I divide between items for me to deal with and items for my husband to deal with. (Normally it’s 90% mine.)

 

What I immediately discard:

Most catalogs

All random ads

Credit card offers

All envelopes (except for those included for paying bills)

Bank statements

 

Step 2: Mail gets further divided. Husband’s mail gets put into a cubby in his desk. My mail gets divided into three categories:

 

  • Immediate action: all bills and items that require simple, “one step” action
  • Later action: items with later due dates that require multiple steps
  • Reading material: magazines and advertisements I’m actually interested in
  • File: items that don’t require action, but need to be kept.

 

Step 3: Get it all dealt with. Those items slated for “immediate action” I deal with, then recycle. The reading material gets put into the bathroom (and old reading material is recycled right then). The items for later action and that need to be filed all get put into one, neat pile. This pile gets taken care of once each week, as one of my weekly chores.

 

Other paperwork follows similar flow patterns, basically either being thrown away, taken care of immediately, or put into the one, neat pile of “deal with later” and “file.” The main other random source of papers is receipts.

 

Receipts fall into three categories:

 

  • Small item, personal receipts: trashed as soon as they are recorded in Mint
  • Large item, personal receipts: recorded, then filed in case we need to return the item
  • Business receipts: all are recorded (in Quickbooks), and then filed for tax purposes

 

I do not keep all the random grocery and small item receipts. I used to, but then I realized they had no future purpose and that they create a lot of clutter!

 

Once paperwork has gone through the FLOW cycle, the second phase is STORAGE. I only store a very limited amount of paperwork. Anything that I only need to store for a short period of time just stays in the “pile” until I can throw it away.

 

Paperwork Storage System

The papers I do store get put into a small filing cabinet. In the cabinet there are hanging files that contain multiple other files. Here’s how I sort what the papers that I do store:

 

File 1: Medical Records

  • Contains one file for each person. I only keep those items that might be relevant in the future.

 

File 2: ID Documents

  • Birth certificates, Social Security cards, passports, etc

 

File 3: Property Records

  • Title for our house, plus one file of mortgage statements

 

File 4: Vehicle Records

  • Care titles, copies of registration, receipts of sale

 

File 5: Insurance Paperwork

 

File 7: Photos

  • Random photos go here until the file fills up, at which point I organize them all and put them into albums

 

File 8: Memories

  • I don’t scrapbook or anything like that, so a few, random little reminders of good memories go here. It’s a nice file to review periodically. I declutter it at least once a year, and only keep those things I still actually care about. Most of my fond memories are recorded with pictures, which are simply much easier to store in an organized way.

 

That’s pretty much the system! I know it was kind of a long explanation, but it’s really super, super simple to execute. Three steps for dealing with incoming, then just eight files to sort the papers I need to store.

 

So, finally, here’s a few quick tips to develop a system that works for you:

 

  • Recycle as much as possible as soon as possible
  • Deal with easy things as soon as possible
  • Keep items that need further action in ONE location so they aren’t forgotten
  • Only store the essential paperwork
  • Keep everything as simple as  possible!

 

4 Comments on “

    1. Well, the bank keeps them all and they are easy to access online. 🙂 Also, once I’ve reviewed them for errors, what would I do with them? Thanks for the comment!

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