5 Steps to Eliminating Your Paper Pile

An overflow of paperwork can be one of the most daunting organizing tasks. Even some professional organizers won’t touch it! I actually love to contain the chaos of paper. It looks tough, but it’s actually pretty easy. The more important thing to learn is how to keep it from piling up so that once you have flattened your pile, you never have to do it again.

Step 1: Gather all of the paperwork from around your home and bring it to one location with a lot of room to work. A dining room table works well although I usually end up on the floor of a client’s office and that works too.

Step 2: Sort. Look at each paper and decide the category under which it falls. The list of categories should make sense to you and you shouldn’t spend any time pondering the piece of paper. Just look at it long enough to decide if it is a water bill, appliance receipt or a school assignment from one of your kids. Start making piles for each category. You will likely find photos, cards and other types of memorabilia. Make piles for those too. You will also find things that you need to do or pay. Put that in a separate To Do pile but don’t stop and do those things at the moment.

Step 3: Review each pile in its entirety and decide if this is documentation you need to keep. For example, if your pile is bank statements, do you want to keep those? See my note below on how do you I know if I want to keep something? If the answer is yes, set it aside to create a folder. If the answer is no, put it is in a new pile for recycling or shredding.

Step 4: Create a home for each pile of items you decide to keep. That may be a file folder or in the case of photos or memorabilia, that may be a box. I file simply, alphabetically. File by what makes the most sense for you. When you come to look for insurance documents when you need them will you think “insurance”, “Allstate” “Auto Insurance” or something totally different. Use labels that work for your brain.

Step 5: Revisit that To Do pile and create a home for that as well. This one may be better in a place that is more visible than a file folder. I like standing magazine folders as they keep things visible and tidy at the same time.

Step 6: Enjoy the fruits of your labor by taking in all of that clutter free surface area and make a plan to ensure it never piles up again.

How do I decide if I need to keep this for my files?

  • Is the IRS going to ask for it if I am audited? If yes, you should keep it for 3-7 years depending on your tax status (see IRS.gov for specific details)
  • Do I have access to this item elsewhere? (For example, bank statements can be accessed through your banking website)
  • Is this a critical emergency document like a will, identity verification or insurance document?
  • Do I need to reference this document regularly?
  • Most people keep much more paperwork than they really need. Here are some items I often find that you likely don’t need to keep:

  • Retirement Income Statements
  • Bank Statements
  • Bills
  • Receipts Older Than 30 Days
  • Brochures
  • Insurance Plan Information that Can be Found Online
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