How to Set Up a Home Filing System

Organized home filing system

The Spruce / Margot Cavin

Overview
  • Skill Level: Beginner

Managing important documents and paper clutter can be a struggle. So it's crucial to set up a functional home filing system that you will actually use. Your filing system must account for all the different types of paperwork you have, and you have to stay on top of getting rid of the papers you don't need to streamline the storage.

This project will help you with the initial setup of your home filing system. The steps are easy to follow, though the time you spend on it can vary widely depending on how much paperwork you need to sort through and organize. But if you put in the initial effort, you should end up with a filing system that works seamlessly for you.

Filing system supplies
The Spruce / Margot Cavin

What You'll Need

Equipment / Tools

  • Recycling bin
  • Shredder
  • Label maker or writing utensil

Materials

  • File folders
  • Filing cabinet, file box, or other storage space for file folders
  • Fireproof box or safe (optional)
  • Binder (optional)
  • Inbox tray (optional)

Instructions

  1. Gather All of Your Papers in One Spot

    The first step in setting up a home filing system is to corral all of your paperwork in the same space, so you can sort through it. Besides taking papers from obvious locations, such as your desk drawers and filing cabinets, do a sweep of the rest of your home to make sure you've accounted for everything.

    Check common places where paperwork can accumulate, such as the kitchen counter or inside a work bag. Bring it all to one spot where you have lots of room to spread out. Sorting papers on the floor or a large table can be effective.

    Gather papers for filing system
    The Spruce / Margot Cavin
  2. Separate Your Papers Into 5 Categories

    Now it's time to sort all of your paperwork. Each document will go into one of these five categories: action, archive, household, recycle, and shred. Here's what to put into each of these categories:

    • Action: 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 include invitations, parking tickets, appointment reminders, homework, and bills.
    • Archive: This category includes papers you need to hang on to but don’t need to reference more than once or twice a year. Examples are tax returns, medical records, academic records, deeds, leases, warranties, and contracts.
    • Household: These are papers you use to keep your house (and life) running. Examples include coupons, recipes, user manuals, receipts for this year's taxes, and documents for upcoming travel.
    • Recycle: These are papers that don’t fall into any of the categories above and contain no personal information. Examples include junk mail, newspapers, magazines, old homework you don’t need, and used envelopes.
    • Shred: This category includes papers that don't fall into the first three categories but do contain personal identifying information. Examples are credit card offers, old bank statements, and bills.
    Separated papers in 5 categories
    The Spruce / Margot Cavin
  3. Discard Documents You Don't Need

    Now that you've divided your paperwork into the five categories, you can clear some space by discarding the papers you don't need. Take out the recycling pile first, as this should be easy and just involve you dropping it into a recycling bin. Next, shred the sensitive documents you're getting rid of. When you're done, you only should have the papers you need to file left sitting in front of you.

    Shredding paperwork
     The Spruce / Margot Cavin
  4. Organize the Archive File

    First, tackle the archive pile of paperwork. This pile can include very important documents, such as your passport or social security card. So it's ideal to put these papers in a fireproof box or safe to protect them.

    Split your archive pile into subcategories for more efficient organization, such as academic, car, employment, financial, health, insurance, personal identification, and real estate documents. Use a labeled file folder for each of your subcategories. Then, put those folders into the safe, fireproof box, or other spot where you plan to keep them.

    Archive files
    The Spruce / Margot Cavin
  5. Arrange the Household File

    Now it's time for your household paperwork pile. You can keep these papers in file folders stored in a filing cabinet or other accessible spot. But many people prefer to keep their household papers in a binder with various sections and pockets. The main benefits of a binder is it doesn't take up much space, and it can be stored and moved to wherever you need it.

    For instance, you could create a binder with sections for coupons, vouchers, and gift cards; rewards and loyalty cards; receipts you're still referencing; and user manuals you occasionally need to check. Divide the paperwork into categories that best fit your lifestyle.

    Arrange household files
    The Spruce / Margot Cavin
  6. Set Up the Action File

    Finally, you'll address your action category of paperwork. Because these papers involve items that need to be addressed, it can be helpful to store them out in the open as a visual reminder for yourself, rather than tucked away in a filing cabinet. A desktop inbox tray can be a good option for storing action paperwork, but you also can simply put the papers in a file folder that you keep accessible.

    You could divide your action paperwork into categories, such as bills, letters that need a response, etc. However, it's often easiest to toss all of these papers in the same file and plan to go through that file at least once a week. At that point, you should take the appropriate action for each item. Then, you should recycle or shred the items you're done with and put anything you need to keep into your household or archive files. The goal is to keep your action file as small as possible.

    Action category files
    The Spruce / Margot Cavin