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?
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
everoften 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.
- 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 gazillionseveral 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.
- 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.)
- END OF YEAR — this can take one of several forms. I have been known to:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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:
- 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.
- 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!
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