Much of the world has gone paperless, but the average home will still have lots of paper coming through the door, especially if you have children with permission forms and school notices. You need to have a system in place for handling and filing all those documents, and, no, tossing them in a drawer or moving piles of mail from one room to the next does not count as a system. If you’re in the midst of gathering documents for your taxes, it might be a good time to set up, or revise, a filing system now, so that next year you know exactly where to find everything.
The A-B-C Method
Many professional organizers recommend that you think of filing in terms of A-B-C:
- Action File – This is where you sort and organize all incoming documents and keep any paperwork that requires immediate response
- Basic Files – These files don’t require immediate action, but include important financial, medical, and household documents that you need to reference throughout the year.
- Classic Files — Otherwise known as your household archive, these files are files that you need to keep long-term or permanently, but won’t be accessing as often.
Sorting and Set Up
Start by sorting the papers you have and then create a system that makes sense to you. Go through existing files or piles of paperwork and group them into broad categories. These might include financial documents, medical records, automobile or household maintenance, legal documents, school-related papers, etc.
Next go through each major category and create sub-categories. Each account should have its own file, and be sure to group things by individual when necessary. The result may include files like this:
- Finance – Checking Account – Credit Union – Joint
- Medical – Dentist Bills – Maggie – 2015
- Household – Vet Records – Spot
- Household – Warranties – Computers
- Finance – Taxes – 2012 Returns
Be sure to create folders for your Action files. These will include things like “to Pay,” “to Do,” and “to File.”
You will also want to identify important documents that require secure storage. This may include birth certificates, insurance policies, car titles, stock certificates, etc. You may want to hire a safe deposit box at a bank or purchase a small safe for your home for these documents.
Files & Labeling
Your A-files might be a desktop file box or small drawer in your kitchen or home office. This is where you will file your mail and incoming paperwork each day.
Your B-files can be kept in a file cabinet or drawer where you can sit and process your bills and other paperwork on a weekly basis.
Your C-files may be stored in banker boxes or other archival boxes in a closet or other controlled storage space.
Consider color-coding your files to make it easier for you to find them quickly. Choose one color for each main category, such as green for finance and blue for medical. Ideally you want to purchase file folders to match the color, or you may want to have all manila folders but use color-coded labels.
Browse your local office supply store or surf around the web to see the myriad of folders, labels, label-makers, filing boxes, and archive boxes available. Create a system that makes sense to you.
The Filing Habit
The best filing system is worthless if you don’t build filing into your daily life. It has to become a habit, with daily, weekly, and yearly tasks.
- Daily — Sort all incoming papers into your Action files. It should only take a few moments a day.
- Weekly — “Do” all your actions, whether it’s bill-paying, correspondence, or simply filing papers into the appropriate Basic or Classic folders. Pick one or two days a week and sit down to complete this task. If necessary, block it out on your calendar so you don’t forget.
- Yearly — Move files from Basic to Classic as needed and create files for the next year. Doing this at the beginning of the year will allow you to gather tax-related documents. This is also a good time to destroy archived files that you no longer need. Check with an accountant or lawyer as to how long you need to keep records in case of an audit or legal challenge.
Once you have a system that works for you — and that you work on a regular basis — you’ll see how easy it is to maintain and how much stress is eliminated when you know exactly where to find any piece of paper you need with minimal fuss.