How to organize important paperwork is a question I actually ask myself from time to time.
With tax season right around the corner (and a stack of tax documents I need to organize staring me in the face) I thought I’d revisit this popular post from last year.
So today I’ve turned to my favorite organizational expert for some guidance and peace of mind on the best way to organize these essential documents.
How To Organize Important Paperwork and Documents at Home
This question of how to organize important paperwork and documents at home comes up a lot around here.
So, naturally, I took this query straight to Emily in order to get her professional insights to share here today…
What to keep, how long to keep it, where to keep it… it can all seem a little overwhelming at times, not to mention boring.
While paper organization can be a real snooze-fest, the physical and mental space you’ll create after thoughtfully putting the right system in place will make it all worth it!
No need to wait for the new year or a spring cleaning, the best time to tackle your paperwork is now.
As a residential organizer, I’ve been organizing clients’ paperwork for over 12 years.
Over the years I’ve learned there’s more than one correct way to organize your important paperwork.
However, there’s some general standards to consider as you figure out what’s right for you.
Finding your paperwork flow develops over time and will change as your space and needs change.
I’m going to walk you through three large paperwork topics and try to break them down for you.
TIPS & RECOMMENDATIONS FOR FILING YOUR PAPERS AND DOCUMENTS:
1.) Reduce the amount of mail you receive.
If you can, go paperless with your bills and statements. Stop the catalogs and magazines (or switch to digital subscriptions). Do it!
As a result, this will cut down on a ton of paper. It’s so worth the effort.
2.) Download and get comfortable with a scanner and digital storage device.
I use Evernote and the Scannable app on my phone. There are countless options to choose from. Having a file system you trust that isn’t paper is always a nice option.
Ideally your digital filing cabinet is on your computer, in the cloud. Remember to back this up.
If you have lots of paper to scan, the Fujitisu Scansnap gets great reviews and my clients love it.
Digitally store inspirational quotes, medical records, and basically anything that has information you want to keep. without taking up space in your home.
3.) Use hanging files for your categories. I like large categories such as “Banking”, “Medical”, “Taxes”, etc. We will dive into these more below.
4.) Add 3.5” file folder tabs to your hanging files. I use this larger size instead of the standard 2” tabs.
They can fit more information and are easier to read. I use my label maker to label them.
5.) Use file folders for your sub categories. For example, subcategories under “Taxes” might include donation receipts and tax forms.
6.) Create a long-term storage spot in your home.
This can be any out of the way space. In my home it’s in our basement in a plastic file box like this.
It contains old taxes, old household files and our house closing documents.
IMPORTANT PAPERS AND DOCUMENTS: ORGANIZE BY “WHAT, WHERE, & FOR HOW LONG”
In my home we have a few places where papers live.
This is what it looks like:
Active papers: Kitchen – keep 1-2 weeks
Papers that are active need to be seen in order to get taken care of. Because, out of sight truly is out of mind.
Therefore, I have a console on the side of my kitchen where these papers go. Kids active school papers and incoming bills live here. We address these throughout the week.
If something doesn’t need to be immediately seen, it moves to the console’s open shelf below. We use a magazine file and label accordingly.
This then gets sorted regularly to keep it current.
Household reference files:
Keep these 1 year to forever.
We have two file drawers in our home office. One is for household files and one is for work files.
Mostly shred at the end of the year.
The only reason we keep these is to occasionally reference what we pay for certain things or for proof of residency. Shred bill at the end of each year.
If any bills are kept, they stay in a folder and go downstairs with our tax returns for the same year.
When we shred the tax returns we shred these bills as well.
Shred bank statements at the end of the year.
Deal with by child. I recycle most at the end of each school year. We have two file folders in each of my kids’ school hanging files.
One is for current year papers which includes login info for apps, calendars, and anything I might need to reference this year. This gets recycled at the end of the school year.
The second file folder is for report cards. This file stays here. As the kids get older and their records move online, this may go away.
I might even digitize their early academic records. For now, this works for us.
Keep forever. I keep one file folder per person. For some families I will create a hanging file for each family member.
For space purposes, this is a great category to scan on to an external hard drive if this category grows. You can also keep this in long term filing. Then only keep very active items in household files for easy access.
Keep for as long as you own the vehicles. We keep one separate folder per car and one folder for tickets (oops!!)
This might be called Vehicles in some homes that have boats, motorcycles, etc.
Again, every vehicle gets its own file folder.
Keep property insurance policies as long as they’re active and until they’re updated.
Keep policies as long as they’re active and until they’re updated.
Home Improvements –
Keep as long as you own the property. If you undergo large scale renovations these may need to be kept in long term storage.
Keep tax records and returns with backups for 5 years (according to my accountant).
I only keep 1 year in my current household file cabinet.
The rest go to our long-term storage until shredding time.
Financial Records –
Depends on the item.
Keep yearly dividend statements and investment certificates in long term storage.
The length of time to keep these items really varies and is best discussed with your accountant or financial planner.
Town Documents –
As long as they’re relevant and useful. Most of this can be found online or scanned but having it handy works for us for now.
Warranties & Receipts –
For large purchases keep until sold or discarded.
Important Documents –
These include personal records such as social security cards, passports, your birth certificate, marriage certificate, religious documents, living trusts, wills, power of attorney, and any death certificates, etc.
Originals should be kept in a fireproof water tight safe or or safety deposit box or in a fireproof document bag like this. Copies can be kept in your household files for easy reference (ideally under lock in a safe place as they contain sensitive information.)
Keep contribution and end of year statements forever. Current year can be kept in your household files for easy filing and moved to long term storage at the end of the year.
Long Term Storage
Basement – keep 5 years to forever
As I mentioned above our long-term files live in our basement.
We have a total of 5 storage bins for paper down there. This is what they are:
Long Term Household Files –
Keep 5 years to forever. We have one plastic file box.
Kids’ memorabilia papers –
Keep until you can give to your kids. I have two plastic file bins, one for each of my kids and the hanging files are labeled: Baby, Toddler, Nursery School, and so on.
Any special papers from these time periods are filed here for them to have one day.
Kids’ artwork storage –
Keep until you’re ready to toss, digitize or give to your kids.
I have two clear bins, one for each child to hold their artwork.
Other items I don’t have files for but are important to note:
Receipts for smaller purchases –
toss immediately unless you might return. For those items I keep the receipt in my wallet.
Once return period is over, toss. Receipts for big ticket items I hold onto.
keep forever. These can be kept in long term storage.
Pay Stubs –
keep until you can match up with W2’s at the end of the year. I would keep these in the “Financial” hanging file.
Contracts and legal documents –
keep until the contract ends. I keep mine online.
HOW TO ORGANIZE YOUR PAPERWORK FLOW AT HOME:
Here’s the rundown of the paperwork flow in my home.
Paper usually enters my home in two ways:
1.) From the mailbox
2.) From my kids’ backpacks
From the mailbox:
Every day I get the mail and open it immediately.
The first step is to toss most of it straight into the recycling bin. If there’s personal information involved, this goes straight to the shredder.
Once all the junk mail is eliminated, this leaves only a couple of pieces of paper to address.
If it’s a bill it goes in my husband’s pile on our kitchen console and it’s paid within days.
The bill then gets shredded or possibly will go into our “Bills” hanging file in our office “Household” file drawer.
If it’s an invitation or something I’d like to circle back to, I’ll add actionable item to my project list in my notebook.
The next step is to then add the event to my digital calendar.
Lastly, I move the invitation to our “Current” Projects” inbox in our office.
From the backpacks of my kids:
When my kids get home, they empty their backpacks and put their papers on the kitchen console table.
Like most moms I work with, I cringe when papers on my kitchen counter pile up.
The battle to keep the paperwork organized at home is constant!
Because this nearby spot is close enough to be seen but also out of the way of food prep, this method is the best way for our family.
Any papers that share info about upcoming events and actionable items stay on this surface.
This way nothing gets “lost “as it remains a visual reminder of this week’s happenings.
As soon as the paper is no longer relevant it goes in the recycle bin.
Usually over the weekend the console surface is clear and ready for the next week.
If a paper comes in and is a reference for the school year, it goes straight into their yearly school file in the office.
Because my kids are still young their “current projects” are typically drawings and artwork.
I imagine as they get older, this will be for larger homework assignments.
We’ll see what evolves and adjust as necessary.
PAPERWORK ORGANIZATION AT HOME CONCLUSION:
One last thing, I feel it’s important to mention – paperwork in my home is pretty easy to maintain. Because my family life, while full, is fairly straightforward.
However, the amount of paperwork in our lives can become overwhelming for many reasons.
Health issues and the loss of a family member are two issues which come to mind.
In these situations, typically, families also have the stress of the situation at hand.
As a result, this makes it much harder to stay on top of important information and maintain personal documents.
In these circumstances, my recommendation is to reach out.
Ask for help if you’re having a tough time figuring out your paperwork systems or even addressing the paper clutter at all.
Talking it out and accepting help from a friend or family member can help alleviate this stress. Additionally, this may help you to come up with systems for short term or long-term needs.
There’s also service providers including organizers, bookkeepers, health claim advocates and others that can help.
Finally, As I tell all my clients, I’m not an accountant. I suggest speaking with yours with any specific questions. This is simply what I do and what works for our family.
This information comes from my own experience over the years from many sources. And, I do my best to share best practices.
Thanks Emily! I hope you all found this as helpful as I did!
Don’t miss Emily’s favorite Amazon organzing products.
And of course, you’ll want to be following Emily on Instagram, her tips are SO helpful!
SHOP IDEAS FOR ORGANIZING YOUR IMPORTANT PAPERWORK AT HOME:
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