How to manage — and cull — the influx of paper that comes into your home every week.
With all the technological advancements of the past two decades — emails, texts, online bank statements, electronic billing, etc. — it seems logical that we would be dealing with fewer papers coming into our homes. But most of us are still dealing with a ton of paperwork, and we’re finding it universally difficult to manage.
The constant influx can be overwhelming. It takes time to sort through papers, to decide whether to keep something and to properly put documents away so we can easily find them later. The key to paper management is to keep it simple and be consistent. Don’t let yourself get buried before you develop a system. Now, while it’s still the beginning of the year, is the perfect time to get started.
I am a firm believer that every household needs at least two file drawers, which should be plenty for most people’s current paperwork. If you don’t have a specific space allocated for paperwork, you’re starting at a disadvantage.
You’ll need a supply of hanging file folders, as well as interior file folders. If having your favorite color or fancy folder designs will inspire you to file papers, go for it. But basic folders are adequate.
You should also have a couple of portable filing boxes — either cardboard or plastic — to keep long-term files you don’t need to access regularly. Your filing drawers or filing cabinet should have this year’s files and paperwork. Keep extra file folders in the drawers along with a Sharpie for easy labeling. And invest in a small shredder. Even though our identities are more likely to be stolen online than from documents placed in the trash, it’s still better to shred financial documents and anything that contains important personal information.
Start by going through your files to discard paperwork you no longer need from last year and set up new files for 2019. Keep the categories as general as possible. When you get too specific, it can have the counter-effect of making things more difficult to find. Categories might include, “Mastercard,” “bank statements,” “medical bills for Scott,” “receipts for charitable contributions” and “appliance manuals.” There is no right way to arrange your files, just do what makes sense. Some people alphabetize their files, others group them by category and prefer to keep household categories separate from financial and personal files.
Managing paper flow
Make a goal of opening your mail every day. I promise it will save you time later. Recycle magazines and catalogs you won’t look at immediately. Open bills and recycle the envelope along with any extraneous inserts. Put the papers that need to be filed in a bin that sits on top of your filing cabinet or on your desk, and place the bills that need to be paid next to your computer. (Everyone should be paying as many bills online as possible, either through automatic debit or through your bank’s online portal. If you haven’t set up online paying for recurring bills, do it now.)
After the bills have been paid, shift those papers to the filing bin. Then, once every couple of weeks, pop the papers into their corresponding files. If you’re not sure whether you need to keep something, don’t spend too much time contemplating it — err on the side of caution and keep it for one year.
Papers such as bills to be paid or recent receipts for major purchases — anything that requires follow-up — can be kept in a file or poly envelope marked “pending.”
What to keep
Frequently, people procrastinate dealing with paperwork because they are unsure whether to keep something and for how long. Here are some general rules:
• Keep all of your tax returns and the supporting documents for seven years. Every year but the current year can be kept in a labeled plastic filing box on a shelf in your basement or in a guest-room closet.
• Copies of things like your will, health-care power of attorney and living will, financial power of attorney, as well as information on how to access all of your accounts should be kept in a portable plastic fling box that is clearly labeled so people can easily find it in the event of a tragedy. If you don’t have some of these documents or haven’t updated them in the past decade, prioritize getting them done and update existing documents where necessary.
• Often people want to keep hard copies of bank and credit card statements for a year, even though they can access those records online. It is totally fine to keep paper copies in chronological order. Just shred the prior year and start fresh for 2019. I recommend people keep monthly investment statements until the end of the year and keep their year-end statements for five years.
• Things like utility bills don’t need to be kept once the payments have cleared your bank. Receipts for charitable contributions should be printed when the donation is made or when you receive a receipt for a contribution and filed with the current year’s tax documents.
And don’t forget all the papers that come home from school. School papers that are representative of your child’s work can be kept in a file labeled with the child’s name and grade. At the end of the year, cull the file and keep the best of the best.
While it’s challenging to manage the paper flow that comes into your home, establishing specific places for things and sorting through paper each week will prevent you from having a much larger paper-sorting job over time.
Anzia is a freelance writer and owner of Neatnik.