This month JAM Organizing presents another informative article from a guest blogger. Enjoy!
Can you find your last year’s income tax return? Have you secured a copy of your prescriptions in case they get lost – or worse, destroyed? Can you quickly locate your Homeowners insurance policy? Don’t immediately start to panic if you can’t answer ‘yes’ to these questions - it just means that you’re like most of the population. The majority of us don’t even think about an essential document until we need it. The problem is – we never know when we’ll need it! For sure, organizing documents and important paperwork can be a real snooze-fest. But it pays in less time and energy wasted on searching for things and more peace of mind knowing you’ll be able to find what you need in a matter of seconds in case of an emergency.
1. Do a sweep of your home
What's the first step when organizing documents and important paperwork? Gather and go through every bit of paper in your home. Check the piles of paper swarming your kitchen countertops, cramming your home office drawers, and overflowing your desks and tables. Don’t forget to look on your nightstand and bedroom dresser. Also, empty your wallet of all those receipts and your purse or briefcase of any important documents you may be accidentally carrying around. Combing through every nook and cranny will guarantee nothing gets lost or slips through your fingers. Bring everything to one spot, such as a large table or floor, where you have lots of room to spread out.
This is also an excellent time to clear your storage of any crumpled take-out menus, outdated receipts, neighborhood flyers, vacation postcards from 2018, and instruction manuals you may have been stacking. Let’s face it: that felt kinda good, didn't it?
2. Create a filing system
There are plenty of different types of filing systems. However, the best ones always have three things in common: they are logically organized, easily accessible, and spacious enough to fit new documents over time. Color-coded hanging files or an expanding file are two tried-and-true systems that will make hunting through your papers way faster. Add 3.5” file folder tabs (instead of the standard 2” tabs) to your hanging files. These can not only fit more information but are also easier to read. Then, use a marker to label everything. Your subcategories will also need some additional file folders. For instance, subcategories under “Finances” may include "Tax Returns" and "Bills".
Unless you’re someone who loves organizing, this entire process may be a drag. However, disorganization costs you money, as well as be trying on your nerves, and take away your precious time and energy. To make everything easier for yourself, try devising a system that works best for you.
3. Arrange piles
Once you’re sure that you’ve gathered everything, it’s time to start sorting your documents and valuable paperwork into one of the following categories:
It's best to organize your regular financial statements and bills by month or by account. The choice will depend on your preference. When arranging by account, however, it's important to systematize documents chronologically within each file so that they’re easier to locate later on. Staple any receipts for major purchases to the warranty or the instruction manual so that they don’t get misplaced. Then store it into its permanent file. For this purpose, consider getting a classification folder with pocket dividers. This way, you will be able to easily categorize each type of purchase (electronics, furniture, appliances, etc.).
4. Reduce the paper clutter
Switch to digital subscriptions
To reduce the amount of paper mail you receive on a monthly (or daily) basis, it’s best to either stop the magazines and catalogs altogether or at least shift to digital subscriptions. Once you cut down on a ton of paper, you will realize it was worth it.
Get comfortable with a scanner
Although old habits die hard, going paperless is a journey worth taking. For starters, organizing documents and important paperwork digitally poses fewer space challenges. Secondly, it makes accessing documents and data way faster and easier. Apply the same guidelines for digital labels of categories as for physical ones, and your computer’s search tool will quickly help you find what you are looking for. Thirdly, keeping soft copies protects your documents from getting lost or destroyed. Add passwords to improve the security of the data and your confidential information, and back up the files onto an external hard drive (or use a cloud storage service).
You don’t have to keep everything
As you’re combing through your paperwork, notice the time limit on how long you need to keep certain documents on hand. Professional organizers agree that people make this common mistake when it comes to paperwork – they think they need to keep everything. And you really don’t. In fact, this is how you let one of the worst offenders – paper clutter – get the best of you.
That said, there are a few things that you should never get rid of, such as birth certificates. Most documents, however, have a time limit and don’t need to be held on to forever. As an example, you should keep warranties only until they expire. Next, according to the IRS, tax returns and any related paperwork (W-2s, 1099s, trade confirmations) for a minimum of three years. However, it’s best to hang on to these records for up to seven years if you want to be on the safe side and up to ten years if you own a business.
Shred anything you no longer need that contains personal identifying information. Examples include ATM receipts, bank statements, birth certificate copies, canceled and voided checks, etc. Recycle everything else that holds no personal information, such as junk mail, magazines, and newspapers. Decluttering and organizing your filing cabinet, as well as your entire home, can feel liberating. It creates a satisfactory physical and mental space and helps you get a fresh start, which is important, especially if you have moved recently or are planning to move.
5. Separate vital documents
When it comes to arranging relevant documents and paperwork, most can be stored in a portable hanging file box or in a regular filing cabinet. However, difficult-to-replace documents, such as passports, insurance policies, birth and marriage certificates, wills, Social Security cards, etc., should be kept safe in a fireproof box. You should also consider an offsite storage option like a safety deposit box. These documents frequently contain sensitive personal information, which you should protect from becoming compromised by identity thieves. Secondly, in worst-case scenarios, such as your home getting destroyed by flood or fire, you’ll have peace of mind knowing that these vital documents will remain intact.
6. Ongoing maintenance
Once you’re done organizing documents and important paperwork, you’ll need to keep them that way. It’s wise to make a habit of filing any new documents in the appropriate section of your filing system as soon as you pay your bills and handle other affairs. Similarly, re-file any documents you may have removed from your filing system throughout the month. Try to review the records and paperwork in your filing system at least two or three times a year to see what you can purge.
Natalie Hawkins is a blogger and a passionate copywriter with an interest in all things organization and space-saving. She had experience with arranging her own small apartment and now hopes to help others with her advice. When off the clock, Natalie enjoys a good book and freshly squeezed orange juice.
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I'm Jen, a professional organizer ready to help you take charge of your space, free up your time, and lead a more organized life! (Read more about me here)