Organizing Paperwork for Dummies

Controlling Clutter 1

I have been needing to tackle the “denial piles” of paper in my house for a long time now. You know that ever-expanding mountain of bills, forms, receipts, coupons, statements, insurance stuff, etc that collects on the kitchen counter (and on the microwave, on top of the refrigerator, by the phone, etc.)?  Yeah…you all know!

The problem is, I didn’t have the foggiest idea how to even get started! That was until I was watching a local television program that featured a professional organizer talking about…..Controlling Paper Clutter! BINGO!

This was EXACTLY what I was looking for. It was SIMPLE (I really didn’t need a filing system that was more stressful than the stress I was looking to alleviate) AND I already had everything I needed on hand to make it work!

To create this system, all you need are 3 things (in addition to the extremely important wastepaper basket):

  • An inbox.
  • A desktop filing container.
  • A reading container.

#1  Inbox

Your inbox can be just about any sort of basket or bin. I already had several of these cloth bins on hand that I bought at Walmart several months back for various organizing projects. You just want to make sure that whatever you use doesn’t hold more than about one week’s worth of mail. If you use too large a container, the sheer volume of your paper will be overwhelming and you won’t want to deal with it.

controlling paper clutter

#2  Filing Container

Your filing container allows you to separate, store and readily access incoming mail and other communication. A simple vertical file box with file folders is a good choice and easy to find pretty much anywhere. I already had this box from my former “coupon queen” days, and I’d recently purchased some new file folders in hopes of figuring out some sort of system to use them in. :-)

It doesn’t have to be very big, but it should have enough room to hold the following file folders:

  • Every person in your family. These files hold special school papers, paper that you need for ready reference, etc.
  • Bills to pay
  • Coupons. (I added store circulars and store ads that I’m interested in)
  • Receipts
  • To be filed. This file holds items that will move into your reference files, such as insurance statements, bank statements, paid bills, etc.
  • Current projects. For example, if you are having work done on your home, this folder will hold all related paperwork until the project is complete.
  • Folders for every month/quarter of the year. (I elected to do quarters.)
  • This week. This folder holds any paper that requires immediate action, such as permission slips, etc.
  • This month. This folder holds papers that require intermediate-term action. This file should be reviewed weekly, along with your weekly file, so you can rotate items into your immediate action file.

I added only one additional file folder for “Blog Stuff” (for obvious reasons).  :-)

controlling paper clutter

#3  Reading Container

A reading container is A MUST for helping to empty your inbox. With a reading container, magazines and catalogs have a place to go! The key to making this container work is to put it in an area where you actually sit to read — such as your bedroom or study — so that you can catch up on your reading whenever the opportunity arises.

controlling paper clutter

And THAT my friends is all there is to it!

Here are the results of my efforts. This was my “denial pile” BEFORE I got to work. (It was actually a LOT worse about a week ago before I went through and got rid of all the JUNK that had accumulated.)

controlling paper clutter

And this is the AFTER! Incredible! Like I said, I had purged a LOT of stuff about a week ago, so I hardly had anything to put in the INBOX or the READING CONTAINER (but it won’t take long for THAT to change!)

controlling paper clutter

controlling paper clutter

But the amazing part for me is the filing system! I love the different categories. I feel like they are all-inclusive without being overly-specific and that every paper I had laying around now has a logical place! Throughout the rest of the day I kept finding other odds and ends to add to the system, and a couple of times my kids asked me where they should put something paper-related and I knew exactly where to tell them to go. It is working like a charm!

controlling paper clutter

Of course this system isn’t going to take care of itself, it’s going to need some regular attention. But 15 to 20 minutes once a week should be all it takes to go through the INBOX and various folders.  I think I can handle that. :-)

What about YOU??? Are YOU ready to tackle YOUR “denial piles”?


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  1. Chris says

    First, I LOVE LOVE LOVE the name “denial piles.” We recently had new flooring installed in the entire house, so I was forced to move every stick of furniture out of the house, which meant moving 11 years of denial piles. I have tried many different filing systems in the past, with no success, probably because they get to specific and overwhelmin. Then I come up with my own system that no one els…”e can follow (making it useless): I file my sister’s information under “N” for Patti Knight, since the “K” is silent; my husband’s three contractor licenses get filed under “T” for “Three…” Apparently I am the only one who sees the usefulness of that system so I am going to give your idea a try. Thank you.

    • says

      This is an excellent idea! I have been using a system like this for a few years and it was a sanity saver for certain! I put my files in a Longaberger Medium Market Basket. They fit perfectly and it has a nice plastic protector inside over a beautiful fabric liner. It looks terrific on my desk and kitchen counter while being one of the best organizing systems in my home. I use 5-tab file folders instead of hanging files and print the tabs on the computer.

  2. says

    Perfectly timed! My weekend project was to REorganize our secretary desk (which was originally intended to hide the mail piles that are now taking over our dining room table. I will totally use this file system! Thanks!

  3. Zoquara says

    I actually don’t have this issue. Almost all my bills come digitally, and we don’t get much junk mail. In an average week, we probably get 10 things in the mail, and at least 90% of that is trash. I have a bill-folder system that is totally separate from my filing system, and any paperwork needed for my kids, I fill out and stick back in their bags immediately. This makes it harder for me to forget anything. I also have 2 small cardboard boxes that I put any of my kids’ schoolwork in that I think I may want to keep. When it gets full, I go back through it and either move it to “permanent storage” (a plastic tote) or throw it away.

  4. Mila says

    what do you file in the monthly or quarterly folders? I have been trying many different ways of organizing and I am drowning in paperwork! The only thing that so far that is keeping me somewhat afloat is the inbox which I already use and the recycling bin.. love the filing container idea!

  5. Laurat99 says

    Mail seems to be the biggest clutter-er in my house. I’ve placed a recycling bin close to where I bring the mail in daily and file there as needed. I’ve also requested no catalogs be sent to the house as I mostly shop and browse online. Online bill pay eliminates the monthly paper statement saves trees and time. Our school is kind enough to have one day per week where papers come home, so they are dealt with as soon as they come in the door.

  6. Errin says

    hi this was just the kick i needed my paper work has been on my mental to do list for weeks following me around like eeyorres gloomy cloud!!
    With regards to the last commentabout to be filed i was once taught every time you pick up a piece of paper think F.A.T. file, action , throw away!!!

  7. Vanessa says

    You really are a mind-reader! I’ve posted this before but you have once again given me some great advice and motivation at EXACTLY the right time! I’ve just started my own company and tackling receipts/keeping on top of papers that need to be filed and stored has been seeming a little overwhelming. Tomorrow the filing box (and waste paper basket) will be out and in action. Thank you!

  8. says

    I just tackled the better part of two years’-worth of denial pile, this week in fact. It took three hours, but my partner and I got it done and everything taken care of. I skipped the “to be filed” folder, because if I’m standing right there, reading everything in the inbox with the filing folders there, there’s no reason to do the same job twice! But I do need to designate a day of each week to be a “Paper Actions” day–opening mail, making calls, scheduling bills, and filing the paper, either in the “circular”/trash file or into the longer-term folder.