How to Organize a Home Filing System in 7 Steps

  • 01 of 07

    How to Set Up a Paper Filing and Storage System

    White office shelves with folders and different stationery, close up
    belchonock / Getty Images

    The struggle is real: managing papers 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 home filing system needs to be flexible to accommodate for lifestyle changes, and it needs to be simple so you will actually keep it up.

    This is a weekend project. Don't start this on a weeknight after a long day of work/school, etc. 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

    Continue to 2 of 7 below.
  • 02 of 07

    Gather All of Your Papers Together in One Spot

    A sorted filing system
    Steve Heap/Getty Images

    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:

    1. It will keep you focused on the task at hand: When you try to accomplish a task you're not too excited about (like filing), any excuse to wander and start on another new project. If you have all of your supplies (listed here) and all of your papers in one place, you really have no excuse but to dig in.
    2. You'll be more thorough: Doing a sweep of your home up front 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.

    A few places to look for papers (other than your obvious desk drawers, filing cabinets, and mail pile):

    1. The living room: Papers tend to pile up in the living room because we often don't have an idea of what to do with them. This is why you should always put papers you're not sure what to do with yet in my mail inbox. 
    2. Bags: Backpacks, work bags, handbags, gym bags, and suitcases.
    3. 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 to when we walk through the door.  

    Choose a good spot with a hard surface on which you can create 5 piles. This may be the kitchen table, the guest room bed, or your desk if it’s large enough. If you don’t have a surface large enough, the floor works, too.

    If you have so many papers your piles may topple over, then use bins or even cardboard boxes. Label them to keep them separate and to avoid mistakes like accidentally tossing last year’s tax returns into the “recycle” box.

    Continue to 3 of 7 below.
  • 03 of 07

    Separate Your Papers Into Five Categories

    Papers stacked and separated into five categories
    Getty Images

    You must make a decision about each piece of paper. It’s going to go into one of these 5 categories:

    1. Action: Papers you need to take action on and then discard. Don’t confuse these with what we refer to in a category below as “Household”. Household documents are filed permanently, Action files are going to be used once and then discarded. 
      Examples: invitations, parking tickets, appointment reminders, homework, bills, etc.

    2. Archive: Papers or documents you need to hang onto but you don’t need to reference or use more than once or twice a year. 
      Examples: tax returns, medical records, academic records, proof you participated in jury duty, deeds, leases, contracts, etc.

    3. Household: These are papers you use to keep your house (and life) running.
      Examples: coupons, recipes, user manuals, receipts for this years’ taxes, documents for upcoming travel, etc. 

    4. Recycle: 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, used envelopes, etc.

    5. Shred: Papers and documents that do not fall into categories 1-3 but do contain personal identifying information.
      Example: Credit card offers, old bank statements, bills, etc.

    Continue to 4 of 7 below.
  • 04 of 07

    Declutter and Discard Documents and Files You No Longer Need

    Paper filing system
    dra_schwartz/Getty Images

    Your biggest pile will be recycle. Recycle those first—the object here is to whittle down the amount of paper you’re dealing with as quickly as possible.

    Next, shred the shredders—this should include anything that identifies you beyond your name and address.

    Alternatively, this Guard Your ID Roller from The Container Store is fairly priced and practical for those who are sick of having your shredder jam. This way you can simply stamp over your ID info and recycle mail and documents with personal information on them instead of shredding. 

    Now that you’ve tossed the junk, it’s time to get down to setting up a system that is:

    1. Easy to use, so you’ll actually use it;
    2. Flexible enough to accommodate life changes and new projects; and,
    3. Secure so when you need to find something fast, you can find 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.

    Continue to 5 of 7 below.
  • 05 of 07

    Set up an Archive File for Your Home Filing System

    An archive file
    Carolyn Hebbard/Getty Images

    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.

    Here’s a list of basics to keep in this file:

    • Tax returns
    • Medical records
    • Academic records
    • Proof you served jury duty
    • Deeds
    • Leases
    • Contracts
    • Passports
    • Social security cards
    • Employment records
    • Baptismal certificates
    • Life insurance/retirement documents

    Store these papers in a file box in labelled folders. Consider buying a fireproof box once you begin acquiring more "stuff" to keep safe. 

    Keep the files you use often (aka a few times a year) in the front. Resist the urge to over-organize this space because if you get too specific it actually makes it harder to find things when you really, really need them.  Generally, if you’re dipping into your Archive file, you need that piece of paper to make it as easy on yourself as possible.

    Here are the important categories:

    • Academic
    • Car
    • Employment
    • Financial
    • Health
    • ID
    • Insurance
    • Real Estate

    Organize them alphabetically, but keep the ID file upfront. This has things like your birth certificate, passport, social security card and baptismal certificate. This is also where you should keep your marriage license.

    To store these papers, strongly consider a High-Security Deed Box which at less than $50, is a great value*. Another option is the ​High-Security Prescription Box. This one is designed for medical supplies but could easily hold several can’t-lose papers.

    You can set up your own DIY your own file, or you can use FileSolutions Home Filing System.

    *If you lose these files, you’ll end up paying much, much more to get copies from Registrars, Town/City Clerks, Academic Institutions, etc, so $50 is a worthwhile, smart investment.

    Continue to 6 of 7 below.
  • 06 of 07

    Arrange a Household File

    Folders arranged on shelves
    Sappington Todd/Getty Images

    Here’s a good rule of thumb for what you should store into your Household File: Anything you may need in the future, but you don’t need to take action on right now, that doesn't belong in your Archive file. Use your own Household file (called Household Workbook) as an example so you get a better idea of what to store in this file and what not to.

    First off, instead of a file box or bin, we created a binder with sections and then pockets to store things like coupons and gift cards. You can use a binder and have sections for the following:

    • Coupons/Groupons
    • Gift cards
    • Documents for upcoming trips/travel
    • Rebates I’ve submitted and am waiting to receive my check back
    • Receipts for big-ticket items like an appliance or large piece of furniture
    • Have a pocket for all of your rewards cards
    • Notes and reference materials for upcoming projects you're working on
    • Recipes*
    • Receipts for taxes
    • Car/home/renter's insurance policies

    You could probably just scan most of these into an Evernote account, but then when you need them you'd have to print it again, so file it in this notebook and call it your Household Workbook.

    *Keep a separate file for recipes you want to return someday but have not. 

    Continue to 7 of 7 below.
  • 07 of 07

    Set Up An Action File

    Packets separated by paper clips
    Utamaru Kido/Getty Images

    The Action file is the papers you need to take action on and then discard. Any documents or paper that need to be filed permanently or for a long period of time (over a month), probably belong in your Household file.

    Action files are:

    • Going to be used once and then discarded; or,
    • Files you are waiting to take action on.

    Use a box to hold these papers, specifically, and we recommend this box. Choose orange because it’s a flashy color and the thinking is, it will get you to go through the box at least once a week. This can also double as your In Box to help manage mail.

    Here are examples of what to keep in your Action file:

    Incoming mail:

    • Anything you receive in the mail goes in this file
    • Any piece of paper someone hands you or you grab and shove in your handbag goes in here

    Calendar items:

    • Invitations for upcoming events and any directions or response cards that come with them
    • Bills to pay and then shred or recycle
    • Permission slips to sign
    • Appointment reminders

    Items to pay:

    • Parking tickets to pay
    • Bills to pay

    Items you are waiting on:

    • Receipts for anything you've recently purchased in case you decide to return. For instance, if you get a package from Amazon, you toss the packing slip in this bin in case the products don’t work out and you have to return it. Ditto for other packages you receive.
    • Receipts for anything you're waiting on. For instance, if you submitted a bill to your insurance company and you're waiting for the reimbursement, it goes in this file.  If you've returned something and you're waiting to see the refund appear in your bank statement or on my credit card bill, it goes in this box.

    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 Archive or Household and action 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 highly recommend adding this task into your Personal Weekly Organizing Routine, this way you're filing and storing a relatively small amount of papers once a week rather than