How to Sort, Toss, and Store All of Your Paper Records
Shoved into drawers or heaped into piles, mail and documents can quickly crowd a workspace and stifle productivity. While the rest of your home may be easier to keep in order, we're betting you don't devote the same level of attention and thought to the organization of bills and photocopied forms. While it may be tempting to tuck paperwork away until you need the reference each piece again, you shouldn't put off sorting your paper piles for another year. Here's how to do it once and for all, according to an organizing expert.
Start at the door.
Before different documents begin traveling throughout your home, Malaika Lubega—a professional organizer, interior decorator, and the owner of Huza Home Concepts—says you can figure out if you need to sort, toss, or store them as soon as you walk through your front door. "Creating a simple 'drop zone' helps keep paper clutter at bay," she says. "In my own home, I use what I call my 'honey do box' to contain, maintain, and reduce paper clutter." Lubega points to her own Made by Design Plastic File Crate with Lid ($11, target.com) as a product for anyone to use since there's no mess if it accidentally gets knocked over. "I designate one day a week to sort through this bin, file away, shred, and recycle whatever else won't be staying," she adds.
Create a sorting system.
One way to aide your sorting process is by creating a filing system. This doesn't have to be complex. In fact, Lubega says this will actually help you track documents that need immediate attention versus ones that you just need to file. She recommends using a budget-friendly cube organizer, such as Threshold's Four-Cube Organizer Shelf ($50, target.com), along with magazine file bins, like Project's 62 Metal Magazine Filer ($13, target.com), and fabric bins, such as Threshold's Cube Storage Bins ($10, target.com), to keep everything in order. From here, label each magazine bin based on the paperwork type or priority level. Lubega sorts each with these labels: bills, to do, and to file. Starting with the bills, she says to sort them all in their own separate file to track each that needs attention, like utility bills. Put the "to do" paperwork, which could be anything from HOA notices and refinancing options to upcoming school events and other documents that don't need immediate notice, in an individual bin. Then after you've paid any bills, completed taxes for the year, or want to stow away memorable projects from a member of the family, put it all in a "to file" bin.
Store for the long haul.
In addition to your sorting system, add separate folders for easy storage and access to your most important documents, like gas, electric, and water bills; paperwork for each of your credit cards and banks; and housing-related files. "Within the folders, order records chronologically (most recent to the front)," notes Lubega. "It can help you track how long something has been in the folder, and you can just empty it from the back, scan, and shred after a year."
Always keep hard copies of your legal paperwork, like birth certificates, passports, property titles, and social security cards, she says. "These can be stored in a safe at a bank or an at-home safe," Lubega explains. "If at home, they should be kept in a waterproof and fireproof safe that can be easily grabbed and taken in case of an emergency, like a tornado, flood, or fire." Since it can get completely and costly to replace these documents, she suggests investing in a chest, like the Honeywell Lite Weight Waterproof Chest ($119.98, lowes.com).
Toss out "junk mail."
If you receive any "junk mail" like flyers or advertisements, Lubega says these can usually be recycled immediately. "If it's addressed to 'Current Resident,' it can go!" she says. "However, if it has your name and address on it, it's worth shredding for security purposes." Other items to recycle? Coupons are one, especially since many can be found online.
After documents have been filed for a certain amount of time, you can digitize them. You'll want to hold on to paid bills, bank statements, mortgage papers for about a year, while you'll want to keep medical records or tax information on hand for five years. Once that window of time has passed, Lubega says to scan and keep a digital copy of them. "Many monthly statements (like bills, bank statements, etc.) have paperless options, allowing customers to access and pay statements electronically," Lubega says. "Similarly, many doctors' offices (including some veterinarians) have patient portals that will securely hold onto medical records and statements, too." Since you can access these types of statements and receipts online, you'll be able to keep you home organized without excess paper.
Pro tip? She recommends logging passwords in a book, like the Peter Pauper Press Personal Internet Address and Password Logbook ($7.95, amazon.com), since there's plenty of spaces to jot down confidential information and you can always hold onto rather than a device. "While almost all paperless services will allow you to pay with a credit card, double check to see if there are any fees associated with paying via credit rather than a direct withdrawal from your checking account," she advises. "The latter is almost always a free option."