How to Organize Your Life: A Simple Paper Filing System

Piles of papers can become overwhelming quickly, can't they?? You think it's all under control until you have to find one in particular for the thing with the guy at the place; and then you are shuffling through a mondo stack (or stacks), and you want to pull your hair out. It is hard to organize your life in other areas when your paperwork is in disarray, because not being able to find those important documents when we need them can affect EVERYTHING else.

Well, I am here to help.  Years ago I came across a super easy system for handling mail, bills, and other paper clutter, and it has worked so well that I have not had to alter it.  In this arena of life as in many others, we can make it complicated, or we can simplify it and make it easy.  I am generally on the side of simple and easy, aren't you?

Looking for a simple method for how to organize your life paperwork? I've been using a system for years that takes little effort, space, or thought! :-) Take a look and get organized today!

Here's my system to organize your life paperwork:

  • You've heard this one before, but it's true. Handle all your mail right away.  Throw all junk mail in the trash right away. Open everything else and throw all the envelopes away. I use online banking to pay most of my bills, so I even throw many of the return envelopes away.
  • What's left gets thrown into a basket to be dealt with later.  That's right!  Some people say you should handle paperwork only once, which means that when you get the mail each day, you should immediately sit down and pay every bill and then file it.  Well I'm sorry, but I don't ever often want to do that every day when the mail comes.  The act of opening the mail will give me an idea of what needs to be dealt with soon and what can wait until later.  (If it's something pretty important, I might jot a note to myself in my planner about it.) But it all goes into the basket — all of the bills and anything else that needs a response of some kind, be it a letter, a government form, etc.

    Looking for a simple method for how to organize your life paperwork? I've been using a system for years that takes little effort, space, or thought! :-)
    This is the top basket in the cabinet. It slides in and out easily when I want to work with it.
  • No, I don't have a special place for unpaid bills – they just go in there with all the rest. There's not really that much other stuff in there; it's not like I would lose them. It IS possible to over-organize, I think. My goal is to make it easiest for me. Having a separate place for differing types of mail would be inefficient; it would also be harder to keep everything looking nice.
  • A couple of times per week, I pull out the basket and start sorting out the papers that need to be dealt with now.  I pay the online bills, I write out whatever checks, I fill out whatever forms.  As I finish working with each piece of paper, I write what I did, and the date, across the page in big letters.  A bill I paid online, for instance, might say “EFT 2-11-15.”  (EFT stands for electronic, um, something transfer… isn't that funny? I don't know what it means, but that's what I use to tell myself I paid it online.  Such is my brain.)  If I write a check, then it will say “#303 2-11-15,” with #303 being the number of the check.  These papers are then put into a pile that grows as I work.
  • Yes, there are some things that stay in this basket for a LONG time – but if they need an action done on them, they stay in there until I do it. Having to keep seeing them whenever I go in there looking for bills reminds me that I still need to take care of them.  And yes, that means I handle some pieces of paper a gazillion several times… and all I have to say to that is, so what?  Does that mean I am unorganized or lazy or cluttered?  No to all of the above.  I want a SIMPLE, did I say EASY?, UNCOMPLICATED system.  You can't get much more uncomplicated than throwing things in a basket and dealing with them a little at a time.
  • Looking for a simple method for how to organize your life paperwork? I've been using a system for years that takes little effort, space, or thought! :-)So now I have a pile of papers that have been dealt with in some way and have today's date on them. Here's where we get into my nitty gritty filing system (sarcasm, y'all).  I have twelve file folders, each with the name of a month of the year on it.  These are kept in a second basket (the bottom one in the cabinet), with the current month in the front. When I'm finished working with papers for today, I pick up the entire pile that I have dealt with and place them into the folder that corresponds with the current month.  That's right — EVERYTHING into one file.  There is no need to put the electric bill and the phone bill into separate folders. How often have you had to look for a particular piece of paper that you didn't also know the approximate month (or range thereof) that it was from? In the last several years, if that has ever happened to me, I don't remember it.  (These files can also be where you put receipts for purchased items, if you like to keep those.)

    Looking for a simple method for how to organize your life paperwork? I've been using a system for years that takes little effort, space, or thought! :-)
    In the front I keep my unused checkbooks so they are handy. Behind the monthly files, you can see the red Medical file, then the rubber-banded papers from last year, then at the very back is the Important Papers file.
  • END OF YEAR — this can take one of several forms.  I have been known to:
    1. in January, remove all papers from all twelve file folders and make a big pile, which then gets encased in a rubber band and stored at the back of the basket.  Last year's pile gets pulled out and stored in a box in the basement.
    2. in January, move the papers from last January into February's folder.  Then in February, move  all the papers from last January and February into March's folder… and so on.  That means that along about mid-summer I would have a pretty large pile to move, and it would take a lot of space in my file basket… so probably around June I usually end up removing everything for the previous year and dealing with it as above.
    3. in January, move the papers from last January into a new folder labeled with last year's number.  Then in February, move the papers from last February into that same year folder.  And so on.  Eventually this pile will also get the rubber band treatment as above.
  • I read somewhere that you only need to save paperwork for five years.  So when I add a new rubber-banded pile to the stash in the basement, the one from six years ago gets pulled out and used for fire-starter in our woodstove.  If you haven't needed the papers from it in the past six years, you won't need them any time in the future.
  • TAX PAPERWORK — As this starts arriving in the mail, it gets filed in the January folder.  Even if it arrives in February.  OK, first it might get put in the other basket, but then as I'm going through that basket for things to deal with, I will pull out the tax information and file it under January.  That way it's all in one place when I am ready to do the taxes.  And after I do the taxes, it all gets filed in the month that I did them, along with copies of the tax forms themselves.
  • OTHER FOLDERS  — I only have two other folders in my entire filing system:
    1. Important Papers:  This is a RED folder (although in the picture, you can't see that — all you can see is the purple label), and it is the one folder I will grab if the house is ever on fire and/or I have to evacuate quickly. This has life insurance policies, birth certificates, titles for our vehicles, a copy of our will, etc. I put it at the end of my filing basket, so it will be easy to snatch in a hurry.
    2. Medical:  I used to keep one medical folder for each family member, but recently I went through each one and reduced a lot of clutter.  Now I just have one folder for the entire family.  The point is to have a record of the medical history of each person, and you don't need every single piece of paper to do that.  These are kept from birth on.

And that is it.  That's all I do.  It's worked for twenty-some years, and it's all encased behind one cabinet door. There is no need to use a more complicated method for how to organize your life paperwork! Try it!

It's Not That Hard to Homeschool

32 thoughts on “How to Organize Your Life: A Simple Paper Filing System”

  1. I LOVE you! And I love this method. i haven’t even implemented it yet, but I’m starting this week. All I don’t have is a cabinet to keep it in, but that will be figured out eventually. My only question is, what do you do with kids’ schoolwork and/or artwork that you actually want to keep? I try to reduce this as much as possible, but the guilty mom in me always keeps some so my kids feel loved ;-). Just curious if you have a system for this. Thanks for your awesome idea!

    1. Aw, Gwen, I love YOUR enthusiasm! Thanks so much! You have asked a GREAT question. When my kids were little, I was probably a bad mommy in that I did not keep very much stuff. My system is that each child has a small plastic container (about the size of the baskets in this post, maybe slightly taller) for keepsakes. These containers sit on a shelf in MY closet. In there went the occasional extra-special “artwork” or schoolwork, their old Awana books, hospital bracelets from their birth, some special letters or cards they might have received, etc. The small size kept me from hanging onto too much stuff, but gave me enough room to chronicle their growing up years fairly well. I made sure to write a date on everything that needed one. Sometimes it was my decision to put something in there, and sometimes it was the child’s. My youngest is 12 now, and she still occasionally will give me something to “put in her box.” All of my kids have enjoyed pulling their boxes out occasionally to go through their things. It’s a system that’s easy to maintain, because when I want to save something I just have to lift a lid and set it on top of what’s already in there. If things start to overflow, I go through them and pare down a little bit. Or, in the case of my eldest, I get a slightly taller box, lol (She is a violin player and has a lot of programs from performances). Hope this helps! Thanks for stopping by! :-)

      1. When I graduated high school, Mom gave me my box; as she did for my brother. She kept a box for herself. At 68 I still love opening my box & reminiscing.

        1. Yes, I have a box from my mom, and I also have boxes for all my kids. :-) I should write a post about that! :-) Thanks for the idea, Ruthie!

  2. OK. Two things I love and will have to use at my house. First, I have an emergency folder, but I love the idea of making it red. What a simple thing, and yet I never considered how easy it would need to be to identify in an emergency. Second, I love the idea of monthly folders that turn into an annual folder. This is similar to how I organize my homeschool materials, and it is so simple. How did you know I was planning on organizing my paperwork this weekend :) Thanks for sharing these tips. They were very useful!

    1. I keep all important papers, birth certificates etc etc in a small fire box. That way, if you have time, you can grab it and run in a emergency – if you do not have time to grab it your important papers are still safe.

  3. LOVE how organized and how simple this is. It’s so easy to lose all the important forms you need over the year or to lose access to stuff you need from previous years. I also agree that it’s totally possible to over-organize.

  4. Hi, thank you, , sounds great, what do you do with owner manuals and receipts? How do you know what month you bought something in? Thank you, yours is the best idea yet! Please let me know how you handle the other situations? Lol

    1. Good question, Amy! There is a drawer in the same cabinet that I keep all the owners manuals in. I just throw them in there in a big pile. No alphabetizing, no sorting. When I need one (which is not that often), I go through them until I find the one I need. And receipts? True confession: I rarely keep them. When I do, they get filed in the folder for the month the item was bought. People make a big deal about keeping receipts, but truly, beyond a few months after you bought the product, have you ever really needed one? I can’t think of a time when I did. Certainly not after five years, so they get kept that long with the rest of the paperwork and then chucked. I say let them go, baby! :-)

      1. I staple receipts for “big” purchases inside the cover of the instruction/warranty booklet. I did have to return an expensive flatiron once and I was glad to find the receipt with the warranty.

    2. Shelby Fletcher

      I do like to keep a file on each vehicle which I put each receipt for EVERYTHING to do with that vehicle. That way, if and when we sell it we have a complete record. New owners love this. I’m switching to what you do and losing a pile of needless files haha. I will keep my pets in one and horses in another. I’m inspired to start this right now. Thank you for your genius simplicity.

  5. Love, love, love your simple system!!! The ONE in-basket and the 12 months of folders are brilliant!! Cheers to not over-organizing!! BTW, I pay my bills with Mint Bills. Once it’s set up, all the bills show up there and I just click to pay them. If I want specifics, I can always go to the website for that particular utility (or whatever) and get details. Same with product manuals — just type in the name of your item in a search engine and someone, somewhere has created a PDF of it! ;-)

  6. Great tips! I have a business, my husband is a real estate agent, we have a farm and 2 rental houses . I am over run with stuff!!! We need to build on a room or something! Any details for us? Thanks!

    1. Oh my! Don’t build the room, just purge the stuff, would be my suggestion. EVERYTHING IN LIFE is easier when the “stuff” (ahem) has been decluttered. :-) Thanks for stopping by, Carol!

  7. I’m so glad I picked your article to read about a simple filing system. I’ve been making it way too complicated and always end up with a mess. I can see how this will work perfectly for me! Thank you!!

  8. I pay my bills, add them to my Excel spreadsheet, shred them. Anything needed for taxes goes into a file folder. Done! I have no idea why I’d need an old bill.

  9. I have a small rolltop desk where phone books reside (yes, we still have a few!), along with envelopes, postage stamps, and pens and post-its. On one small shelf in it, I put the bills as they come in–in the order they are due. I have a small notepad where I write what will be paid on each Friday (hubby gets paid weekly, myself–twice monthly). As I pay the bills each Friday morning, I mark them off on the pad. Then the bill gets put into a square, tall basket, with the most current in the front. They stay there all year, along with check stubs and anything else that will be tax-related. Back in November I decided to go through the basket and shred everything that didn’t have a work-related charge on it (that we would need for taxes), leaving only the latest two months–just in case. :) Now it’s late January, and I will only have a couple of months to go through for anything tax-related. The rest of those bill receipts (utilities, car payments, credit cards, etc.) will get shredded. If they don’t have anything to do with a tax deduction, why keep them? I will end up with ONLY what needs to go with our W2’s and 1099’s. I used to have to go though the entire previous year in January/February, so I decided to get ahead of the game. I plan on continuing this through this year–every few months I will go through and shred all those bill receipts.

    To be honest, I have always kept my electric bills so I could compare past years. But that’s going to stop now because I can see all of that online.

    So my “system” is close to yours. I just leave everything together throughout the year instead of filing it by month. Your system looks great! I have three filing cabinets in our “study” that are in serious need of a thorough cleaning. Old owners manuals and other junk that no longer applies to our life. The sentimental stuff is what always slows me down, LOL.

    Thanks for your great ideas!

    1. Sentimental stuff is a problem isn’t it!? I have all my Mum’s 21st birthday cards, the cards they received when I was born, keepsakes from my father’s war years. I kept all those, but went through and photographed all our own wedding cards, (front and inside), my son’s birth cards, programmes of musicals I have played in (orchestra) etc. etc. I organised them into albums on the photos app and chucked the hard copies out (it wasn’t easy but I don’t regret it. Now I can still look at them and enjoy the memories without the clutter, and my son can look at them in a shared album if he wants to. Easy to share with other family members too.

  10. Hi Ann, I just found your blog site and even though my kids are all grown and I no longer homeschool, I love your posts. Because I live in a small apartment, simplifying clutter is a biggie for me. I have a desk and the top drawer is where anything that comes in the mail that needs to be looked at or saved, goes in. The bottom drawer opens up and has filing envelopes (such as Rent, Electric, Gas, car ins, vehicle info, medical, etc). Each month checks are written for the bills, receipts are slipped into their appropriate envelope. At the end of the year each envelope’s contents are taken out and all are rubber band together with the year written on a paper that in cases all of them. These are then filed in my under the bed box. Because I live in government housing, I have to be recertified each year and need proof of so many papers that I have to keep mine separate so that I can find them when they’re needed. I also have a filing notebook in which I place certain papers that I know I am going to need at the time that I recertify which is once a year. So my circumstances are a little different, but even in that I have found a way to declutter all of my paper. For that recertification, I need proofs of my utilities, and any medical expenses, so I just call in January of each year and I am printed off a paper that shows all my payments. So I’ve learned the last couple years that I don’t even need to save all of those receipts in my under the bed box. I can just include this sheet it shows all my payments for the year, thus my under the bed bundle for each year has gotten smaller (thankfully).

  11. I LOVE your concept of not sorting paper by category. I have such a hard time keeping up with that. It seems just about everything can be accessed online so I’m trying not to keep much.

  12. This is exactly what I was looking for. I HATE paper! I’m trying to get my home office organized but I keep getting stuck on the paper mess. I’ve tried a variation of this in the past but this made much more sense. Thank you.

    I’m in Missouri also.

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