The struggle is real: Managing important documents and paper clutter is the pits. That’s why it’s crucial to set up an easy, doable home filing system that you will actually use––a personal filing system only works if you keep up with it!
This is a weekend project. Don't start it on a weeknight after a long day of work or school. Start this one on a Saturday or Sunday morning armed with a cup of coffee or tea, and a let’s-get-this-done attitude.
What You’ll Need
- Filing cabinet or file box
- Hanging file folders
- Desktop file holder
- Recycling bin
- File folders
- Label maker or pen
Gather All of Your Papers Together in One Spot
The first step in setting up a home filing system is to corral all of your files and papers into the same space so you can sort, recycle, and shred. Having everything in one spot has the following advantages:
- It will keep you focused on the task at hand. If you have all of your supplies and all of your papers in one place, you really have no excuse but to dig in.
- You'll be more thorough. Doing a sweep of your home upfront means you won't have to repeat the task a few weeks from now when you find a forgotten stack of papers in the laundry room.
There are a few places to look for papers, other than the obvious desk drawers, filing cabinets, and mail pile:
- The living room: Papers tend to pile up in the living room when we don't know what to do with them.
- Bags: Backpacks, work bags, handbags, gym bags, and suitcases all have a tendency to accumulate papers.
- The Kitchen: Paper piles have a way of ending up in the kitchen. This is because the kitchen is often the first place we head when we come home.
Choose a good spot where you can create five piles. This may be the kitchen table, the guest room bed, or your desk if it’s large enough. The floor works, too.
If you have so many papers your piles may topple over, use bins or cardboard boxes. Label them to keep them separate and to avoid mistakes like accidentally tossing last year’s tax returns into the recycle box.
Separate Your Papers Into Five Categories
Make a decision about each piece of paper––no putting it off and saving it for later. Every document will go into one of these five categories:
These are the papers you need to take action on and then discard. Don’t confuse these with documents that go in the household category. Household documents are filed permanently; action files are used once and then discarded.
Examples: invitations, parking tickets, appointment reminders, homework, and bills
Papers or documents you need to hang onto, but you don’t need to reference more than once or twice a year.
Examples: tax returns, medical records, academic records, proof you participated in jury duty, deeds, leases, warranties, and contracts
These are papers you use to keep your house (and life) running.
Examples: coupons, recipes, user manuals, receipts for this years’ taxes, and documents for upcoming travel
Papers and documents that don’t fall into any of the categories above and contain no personal information.
Examples: junk mail, worksheets from a seminar you’re no longer interested in, newspapers, magazines, old homework you don’t need, and used envelopes
Papers and documents that do not fall into the first three categories, but contain personal identifying information.
Example: credit card offers, old bank statements, and bills
Declutter and Discard Documents and Files You No Longer Need
Your biggest pile will be recycling. Recycle these papers first—the goal here is to whittle down the amount of paper you’re dealing with as quickly as possible.
Next, shred the documents that need to be destroyed—this includes anything that identifies you beyond your name and address.
Now that you’ve tossed the junk, it’s time to get down to setting up a system that is:
- Easy to use, so you’ll actually use it
- Flexible enough to accommodate life changes and new projects
- Sensibly organized, so when you need to find something fast, you can locate it
The beauty here is that you can break these categories down further depending on the amount of paper that comes in and out of your home or office.
Set up an Archive File for Your Home Filing System
It’s pretty easy to decide which papers go into your archive file. These are the most important papers you own. They are proof you and your family exist, pay your taxes, own homes and cars, graduated from college, can travel outside your country on a passport or visa. If you’re a business owner or own more than one property, this file will be even bigger.
Basics to keep in this file include:
- Tax returns
- Medical records
- Academic records
- Proof you served jury duty
- Social security cards
- Employment records
- Baptismal certificates
- Life insurance and retirement documents
Store these papers in a fireproof box, in labeled file folders. Your personal filing system should include the following categories:
- Real Estate
Organize them alphabetically, but keep the ID file, with your birth certificate, passport, social security cards, and anything else you use often at the front of the file box.
Arrange a Household File
Here’s a good rule of thumb for what you should store into your household file: Anything you may need in the future, but don’t need to take action on right now and that doesn't belong in your archive file.
Instead of a file box or bin, create a binder with sections and then pockets to store things like coupons and gift cards. Make sections for the following:
- Coupons and vouchers
- Gift cards
- Pending rebates
- Receipts for big-ticket items like appliances or furniture
- Rewards and loyalty cards
- Notes and reference materials for upcoming projects you're working on
- Receipts for taxes
- Car/home/renter's insurance policies
Set up an Action File
The action file is the papers you need to take action on and then discard. Any important document that needs to be filed permanently or for a long period of time belongs in your household file. Action files are physical reminders of things you need to do.
Use a desktop inbox to hold these papers. Choose something fun and colorful so you never forget that the box is there––and that the items inside need action! You can also use this box to manage mail.
Here are examples of what to keep in your action file:
- Incoming mail
- Invitations for upcoming events and any response cards that come with them
- Bills to pay and then shred or recycle
- Permission slips to sign
- Appointment reminders
- Receipts for anything you've recently purchased in case you decide to return
- Receipts for anything you're waiting to receive
You could break this file down into more categories, but it's easier to just toss everything in this box and then go through it once, twice, or three times a week. At that point, you can recycle or shred anything you no longer need, file anything that belongs in the archive or household files, and take action on anything that needs to be responded to. The goal is to keep this file as small as possible.
The trick is that you have to go through this file at least once a week, preferably more often. We recommend adding this task into your personal weekly organizing routine to help you stay caught up.