In my 10 years of financial organizing / daily money management, I have seen the good, the bad, and the ugly when it comes to people’s attempts at paper-organizing.
Here are the top paper-organizing challenges that have tripped up my clients, and the solutions I have shared with them and helped them implement:
No “landing strip” for your mail.
One of the first questions I ask a new client is, “Where do you put mail when it arrives?” Often, the answer is “I don’t know,” or “Wherever.”
Solution: To ensure you don’t miss important mail, and to keep clutter at bay, set up one bin, box, tray or other receptacle in a designated place in your home or home office for incoming mail. Often you can repurpose a bin you already have. If it helps, clearly label it: “New Mail Here.”
2) Confused about what to keep and what to toss.
“I would do this myself, if I only knew what to keep and what to toss.” Is that you?
Solution: Paper retention guides abound (along with shredding guidelines). I always suggest starting with your own tax preparer. What financial records would he or she like you to keep (and for how long) in case the IRS audits you? Other resources are the IRS website with a series of publications on the topic specific to your tax situation. Paper-organizing not related to taxes has its own rules, which I will address in another article. Often, the solution is to ask yourself, Will I ever need to find this paper again? Sometimes, it makes more sense to take the information you need (like dates of a medical procedure or other life event, for example) and put it in an easier-to-read format.
3) Clogging your files with older papers.
Solution: Think of your file cabinets as real estate. The most handy ones are the most valuable. Those drawers should be reserved for the papers you need most often. This means, for example, that you should keep 2014 taxes and papers related to a home sale five years ago in archive files in a more distant file cabinet, a closet, or attic. Use this concept for bills paid, too. Reserve a “Bills to Pay” file on your desk for unpaid bills ONLY. Once they’re paid (and marked as such) move them out into files dedicated to that vendor or, temporarily, into a “To File” file that you no longer need at your fingertips.
4) Keeping papers that can easily be accessed online.
Solution – paperless paper-organizing: If online access is an option, investigate how long your financial institution keeps your statements. Or, set up a system to save them on your computer or online (check out “FileThis” at https://filethis.com, for example.) Some banks provide a “rolling” seven years of statements on line, others only 18 months. Know this before you purge files. Keep in mind that financial institutions sometimes merge or go out of business, putting your records out of reach.
5) Choosing the wrong storage options for your papers.
Solution: Both online and “brick-and-mortar” office supply stores offer a multitude of paper storage options. Financial statements that come 3-hole-punched can be stored in binders if you have more shelf space than drawer space. Magazine boxes can also work for papers stored on a shelf. Look at your choices for desktop storage. Ask yourself: Which would best “tame” the papers I am working on now? How many files do I need visible? Am I a filer or a piler? A little trial and error can help you find the best solutions.