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How To Organize Paperwork: The One Simple System I Live By

organizing paperwork

You know that ever-expanding mountain of bills, forms, receipts, coupons, and statements that collects on the kitchen counter (or the microwave, on top of the refrigerator, by the phone, etc.)? I once heard someone refer to those tottering piles of paper as “denial piles,” and I couldn’t come up with a better name for them if I tried! :-)

Paper clutter is not a fun problem to have, nor is it a problem that has a quick or easy fix (though, turning some of that clutter into homemade paper is a fun way to get the most out of it!) We all know that sorting through those piles is going to be a drag, so we’d rather carry on in denial and pretend the piles aren’t growing before our very eyes…

But if there’s one thing I’ve learned in recovery, it’s that ignoring a problem doesn’t make it go away—in fact, it actually makes the problem harder to deal with down the road! And such is the case with paper clutter.

But once you have a system in place to help you organize your paperwork, it’s not hard to stay on top of it! Today I’ll be sharing a simple system you can use in your own home to organize your paperwork and conquer those “denial piles” for good!

How To Organize Your Paperwork (And Eliminate Paper Clutter)

The simplest way to organize paper clutter is to divide it up into three distinct stations (not including the all-important important wastepaper basket!) These stations are:

  • Inbox
  • Reading container
  • Filing system

Let’s talk about each station one at a time, so you can get a better idea of each station’s purpose and how they will work together to help you stay on top of your paperwork.

organizing paperwork

Station 1: The Inbox

When papers of any kind enter your home, the inbox should be their very first stop. It will be your job to go through that inbox regularly and decide where each item should go next.

You can use any sort of basket or bin as an inbox, as long as isn’t too big. If your inbox can hold more than a week’s worth of mail and papers, it could easily get so full that you simply start ignoring it again. (And if you’re like me, that’s what got you into this mess in the first place!)

organizing paperwork

Station 2: Reading Container

Having a designated reading container is extremely helpful when it comes to emptying your inbox, because it’s the perfect place to store magazines, catalogs, and other reading material you want to look through later on when you have the time. You can use any type of storage box or bin as a reading container, as long as it’s big enough the magazines and catalogs you normally get in the mail.

Oh, and be sure to store your reading container somewhere you’ll actually use it, like next to your favorite armchair. (You could even store your reading container in the bathroom if that’s where you do a lot of your reading!) ;-)

Station 3: Filing System

The final piece of the paperwork puzzle is also the most important: a filing system. The purpose of the filing system is to keep your all of your important papers and mail organized and easy to find.

Note: The reason I’m calling it a “system” rather than a filing cabinet is because you might end up with more than one location for your files. As you’ll see below, I have my files split between two different organizers. Whatever arrangement makes sense to you is a-okay!

organizing paperwork

File Folders

Your filing system will consist of several file folders, with each one designated to hold a certain type of mail or paperwork. I like to use hanging file folders, because they’re easy to use and widely available in fun colors and attractive designs.

organizing paperwork

Each folder should have a specific purpose and represent some segment of the paper clutter that normally piles up around your house. Here are some examples of file folders that I use. Feel free to borrow them, or else use them as a starting point for coming up with your own array of folders:

  • Each Family Member – Have a separate folder for each family member or person in your household for their school papers, important documents, etc.
  • Bills To Pay – A folder for bills you have received but haven’t yet paid.
  • Coupons – A folder for coupons, store circulars, and store ads you might want to use later.
  • Receipts – A folder to house receipts for recent purchases, in case you need to make a return or check the warranty.
  • Current Projects – A folder to store any paperwork related to an ongoing project, such as home repairs or renovations.
  • Each Month Or Quarter Of The Year – Have a separate folder for each month or quarter of the year to house anything related to a specific month or season.
  • This Week – A folder for any paper that requires immediate action, such as permission slips, contracts that need signatures, etc.
  • This Month – A folder for papers that require intermediate-term action. (Both your “This Month” and “This Week” folders should be reviewed weekly so you can rotate items as needed.)
  • To Be Filed – A folder for items you want to file away for safe keeping, such as paid bills, bank statements, tax documents, etc.
organizing paperwork

File Storage Container

Once you’ve gotten your file folders and labeled them for a specific purpose, you’ll need something to put them in. There are a lot of different organizers you could use for your filing system depending on your preferences, but here are a few worth considering:

  • Desktop Document Tray – This best-selling file folder rack has five tilted trays for documents, plus a bottom shelf for other desktop essentials.
  • Cascading Wall Organizer – Take advantage of vertical space with this cascading wall organizer, with six pockets and folders to keep papers easily accessible.
  • Plastic File Box – While this file box isn’t anything special to look at, these heavy duty boxes are built to last and easy to stack if you need more than one.
  • Linen File Box – A slightly prettier version of a file box with a slot for a label for easy identification.
organizing paperwork

I ended up using both a file box and a cascading organizer for my filing system. The majority of my folders ended up in the file box, while I use the cascading organizer to house some of the short-term folders (including “Bills To Pay,” “This Week,” and others.

Splitting up your files might make sense to you, or it might seem more complicated. Remember, the very best filing system is the one that makes sense and is useful to YOU!

organizing paperwork

Using The 3 Stations Together

Finally, let’s quickly explore how all of the pieces of this puzzle fit together. As new paperwork or mail comes into your house, it should go right into your inbox (AKA Station 1).

It’ll be your job to go through the contents of your inbox on a regular basis and sort them into piles. Make one pile for junk/trash, one for reading material, and one for things you need to keep.

Put the junk pile in your recycling bin, put the reading material pile into your “reading container” (AKA Station 2), and take the rest to your filing system (AKA Station 3). File the remaining papers into the appropriate file folders, and you’re done!

2 Bonus Tips For Reducing Paper Clutter

organizing paperwork

1. Go Paperless

If bills make up a significant portion of your paper clutter, take an hour or two to switch over to paperless billing for as many of those services as you can. The vast majority of companies now offer a paperless billing option that allows you to receive your bills or statements via email (and you might even get a small discount for making the switch!)

organizing paperwork

2. Scan Everything

Another highly effective way to cut back on paper clutter is to turn your physical documents into digital ones. You don’t need a fancy flatbed scanner or even a laptop to do it—all you need is your smartphone!

Apps like Evernote Scannable, Scanner Pro, and Scanbot use your smartphone’s camera to create digital images of your documents that you can save on your phone, computer, or the cloud. Most scanner apps automatically enhance the images to correct perspective and make text more readable, and some even offer text recognition that can make your documents searchable.

If you have an iPhone, you can skip the downloads, because you already have a powerful document scanner right at your fingertips! Learn more about the document scanner tool and other useful features hidden in the Notes app here.

How do you keep your paperwork organized?

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Jill Nystul (aka Jillee)

Jill Nystul is an accomplished writer and author who founded the blog One Good Thing by Jillee in 2011. With over 30 years of experience in homemaking, she has become a trusted resource for contemporary homemakers by offering practical solutions to everyday household challenges.I share creative homemaking and lifestyle solutions that make your life easier and more enjoyable!

About Jillee

Jill Nystul

Jill’s 30 years of homemaking experience, make her the trusted source for practical household solutions.

About Jillee

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Bright Ideas

  • Here is another suggestion that makes things a little easier for people other than yourself. When I get an appliance or item that is worth documentation for future use, I make a plastic sleeve in which I put the manual, installation instructions and other pertinent items. I always put the installation date on the top of the manual. And just to be safe, be sure to scan a copy of your receipt as insurance against the original’s ink fading away. Then I affix the plastic bag/sleeve to the item in an unobtrusive manner where it won’t get messed up, dirty or misplaced. For items like ranges, cooktops, disposers and ovens that might not be optional for these documents I have a 2-gallon, resealable, plastic bag in a kitchen drawer that everybody knows about. This makes it easy to keep track of the documentation as well as keep records up to date when an item replaced. Easy-Peasy!

  • Hi Jill,

    I’ve switched to paperless billing for almost everything and it’s great not to have all of those loose papers to deal with. I made a spread sheet online to keep track of monthly expenses and where the payment comes out of, either a credit card or my checking account. This allows me to observe any changes in monthly use of utilities or anything else.

    For the paper things remaining I use three binders with sectional dividers and pockets. One is for medical, one for taxes, HOA, and finances, and the third is for anything else.

    I have the inbox, located close to the kitchen, and after immediately sorting the mail, anything requiring further attention goes in to be dealt with once a week.

    The reading basket is next to my favorite chair. I also keep a covered rattan box to hold Buddhist journals that I want to save and re-read.

    Tax materials that must be kept for several years have their own box in the garage and since I use H & R Block, they also keep a digital record on file.

    I have a practice of checking credit card and banking activity several times a week online which only takes a few moments and alerts me of anything I need to attend to.

    I set up this system after moving to Florida four years ago and it took almost an entire month to sort, shred, and combine old filing systems and eliminate duplicate folders. I use two large rattan boxes with hanging folders for previous years’ documents that I don’t need to refer to but need to have on hand. I keep a list of the documents stored in the safe deposit box on my phone.

    Part of my project included setting up a will, health care proxy, determining emergency contacts, an executrix, and a listing of accounts and resources, and finally, sending everyone a listing of all names and contact information. I have a master list in another binder and that location is included on the contact sheet.

    Running a house is like running a small business and that last part requires a village! The good thing about setting up a system is that once in place, it’s easy to maintain.

  • Jill that’s awesome! I did something similar recently but need to come up with a reading basket/bin – I can see that now – great tip! I thought you might like to see the desktop filing container I made though – it’s from a Better Homes and Gardens post about Creative Organizing Tips and it’s made from a wire dish drainer from Target! No kidding – very cool looking too! You can see it here:

    http://www.bhg.com/decorating/storage/organization-basics/quick-creative-organization-projects/#page=10

    The one I found was black, so it looks different from the photo in the post, but I love it and it looks great on my desk. I got some decorative file folders and I am styling big time! Hope you like it!

  • Organizing My New Home Office With Martha Stewart! Plus, Win a $100 Gift Card To Staples! | One Good Thing by Jillee says:

    […] Files. These are going to come in handy for my organization system. The fact that they stand freely for easy sorting and filing will make them the perfect replacement […]

  • Just wanted to throw my two cents in. Filing cabinets have never worked for me..the papers get all mushed/bend/lost and the file folders are just a pain. So when I sorted through my files I tried using binders with dividers and page protectors. I have a binder for taxes (each year gets a page protector), a binder that has manuals for house stuff and each member of the family has a binder with sections for medical,dental,school records ect. Everything is neat,tidy and easy to get to! Now I don’t need a filing cabinet either, they can sit nicely on a shelf in the office and save floor space if I don’t feel the hiding the. I also have a “vitals” binder in my safe that has credit cards/birth certificates/SS cards/legal papers and anything else irreplaceable. I can’t tell you how comforting it is to know that in case of an emergency I know where everything is!

  • not sure how the math works, but i was able to organize 2 separate desks into one filing system today. i love it; i love it; i love it!!!

    my little organizer heart sings!

  • I myself am a professional organizer and this is very similar to the system I recommend to all of my clients with paper issues. (And believe me when I say that this is the most common issue EVERYONE seems to have!) One additional suggestion I would give you, though, is to store your reading pile in a tote bag that can be easily grabbed on your way out the door to appointments where you might be waiting so that you can make the most of your wait time.

    Your “After” photos look great…keep up the good work!

  • 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.

    • 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.

  • 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!

  • 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.

  • 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!

  • 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.

  • 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!!!
    xxxxx

  • 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!

  • 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.

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