Confession: paper clutter is one of my biggest home maintenance weaknesses! I have had to work VERY hard to create a paper processing system that works for me and my family. Investing in time-saving tools and minimizing my home filing categories have been critical steps in making the process feel manageable.
I am going to share the exact steps in my paper management system, the home filing categories I use to keep important papers organized, and the tools I recommend investing in to do it yourself.
Your first step is to get all of your paper in one place. The types of paper I am talking about most specifically are:
- Personal Documents
- Financial Records
- Medical Records
- House/Home Documents
- School or Kids Papers
- Sentimental Papers
Some common places for paper clutter to accumulate include:
- Backpacks, Work Bags or Briefcases
- Home office
Sorting and Purging
Before we get into specific home filing categories, we first need to do a high level sort and then purge of all of the papers you have collected.
If you are doing this project for your entire family, the easiest way to start sorting is by family member. Each person gets their own stack of papers that pertain specifically to them.
I also recommend a “general” or “household” stack that includes papers that pertain to the entire household. These could include things like mortgage documents, tax records (depending on how you file), marriage certificate, etc.
Once this initial sort is complete, you will start purging unnecessary documents and determining appropriate subcategories for each person.
Ruthlessly Purge What You No Longer Need
The majority of paper documents do NOT need to be filed and kept. A good rule of thumb for determining what to keep and what to toss is whether or not the information can be easily searched and accessed online.
Product manuals? Don’t need them. Sentimental love letters from your spouse? Those might be tough to replicate!
But don’t let sentiment bog you down – be ruthless! The Hallmark birthday card you received from your distant aunt in 2003 likely doesn’t warrant the storage/filing space required to save it.
Also if you would need to wait in line at a government office to replicate a document (social security cards, marriage certificates, deeds, etc.) then it’s best to keep a hard copy.
To make this part of the process easier for you, I created a Home Filing System Cheat Sheet that you can print and use as a guide.
In the cheat sheet I include my recommended home filing categories as well as how long to keep documents within each category. Plus I denote where you can digitize and shred vs. where you need to keep the original hard copy.
Shred Documents with Personal Information
As you go through the purging process, make sure you shred unnecessary documents with personal information. Envelopes and generic mail can be recycled as-is, but owning a shredder has been key for our family in keeping paper clutter to a minimum.
Below are a few options to consider depending on your needs.
Home Filing Categories
Here I have detailed a basic system that will apply to most households. With that said, I did not specify sub-categories because every family’s filing needs will be a bit different. Your subcategories will likely differ from mine!
I’ll share more thoughts on subcategories in the next section.
- Birth / Death Certificates (keep forever)
- Social Security Cards (keep forever)
- Social Security Statements (keep most recent version)
- Passports and other ID Cards (keep most recent version)
- Marriage License (keep forever)
- Wills / Living Wills / Powers of Attorney (keep forever)
- Life Insurance Policies (until end of term)
- Adoption Papers (keep forever)
- Tax Records and Receipts (digitize and keep 3-7 years)
- Pay Stubs (digitize and keep 1 year and up to 3 years if needed for tax purposes)
- Bank Statements (digitize and keep 1 year and up to 3 years if needed for tax purposes)
- Cancelled Checks (keep for 1 year and up to 3 years if needed for tax purposes)
- Credit Card Statements (digitize and keep latest version)
- Stock Certificates (keep while active)
- Stock Records (digitize and keep while active)
- Retirement Account Statements (keep most recent version)
- Pension and Retirement Plan Documents (keep while active)
- Quarterly Investment Statements (digitize and keep until you receive your annual statement)
- Insurance Policies (keep through end of term)
- Deeds and Mortgage Documents (keep forever)
- Records of Paid Mortgages (keep forever)
- Purchase or Sale Documents (digitize and keep for 6 years after sale)
- Lease Agreement (keep for at least 6 months after lease end date in case of security deposit disputes)
- Insurance (keep through end of term)
- Warranties (digitize and keep as long as you own them)
- Home Repair Documents (digitize and keep at least 3 years after the due date for the tax return that includes income or loss on the asset after selling)
- Utility Bills and Agreements (digitize and keep 6 months to 1 year)
- Title (keep 3-7 years after sale for tax purposes)
- Loan Documents (keep latest or fully paid statement for 3 years)
- Copies of insurance and registration (keep latest version)
- Warranties (digitize and keep as long as you own them)
- Repair Documents (digitize and keep at least 3 years after sale in case of disputes)
- Bills (digitize and keep 1 year after payment in case of disputes)
- Medical Records (digitize and keep forever)
- Prescription Records (digitize and keep latest versions)
- Insurance and Benefits Information (digitize and keep latest version)
What you choose to keep within this category is going to be extremely personal to you. This is usually the toughest category to purge for most people because there isn’t a straight forward formula telling you what to keep and for how long.
With that said, below are a few examples of what might be included in your sentimental category.
- Love letters from your spouse
- Cards or letters from other loved ones
- Children’s artwork (but don’t feel like you have to keep all of it… if you must, go ahead and digitize before you toss!)
- Meaningful school projects
Color Coding Your Files
After researching a number of home paper organization techniques, the simplest by far is color-coding.
Instead of having one hanging file per “main” category, choose a specific color for each main category. Next, use as many hanging files as you need for sub-categories. Simply make each sub-category tab the same color as your “main” category.
The process of determining main and sub-categories is going to be extremely personal and unique to your family’s needs.
For instance, our family’s Personal Documents and Sentimental Documents are sub-categorized by family member. For example:
- My Husband
- My Kids
- My Husband
- My Kids
But our sub-categories for things like Taxes or Auto look a little different. For example:
- One file per year for the past 3-7 years
- My car
- My husband’s car
As you go through the sorting and purging process, categories and subcategories are likely to naturally emerge. If not, feel free to copy mine!
Digitize Everything Worth Keeping
I recommend scanning everything worth keeping even if you also keep the physical copy as a just-in-case measure.
Where you store these digital copies is up to you. I recommend having 2-3 backups of these documents (or any important documents for that matter).
The method that has worked for me is creating folders within a cloud account (Dropbox, Google Drive, and Evernote are good options), then also saving them to my computer’s hard drive (easy to sync with Dropbox and Google Drive), as well as an external hard drive (also easy to sync).
My digital folders and sub-folders match my physical categories. The only difference is, I have a few additional digital sub-folders for items where I don’t need to keep physical copies (see home filing categories section above for details).
What has helped me the most with the digitizing process has been investing in a great scanner and shredder. Below are a few great options:
Filing and Storage
Now you’re finally ready to store away your physical files! The options for file storage are vast, from cardboard file boxes to plastic lidded file boxes to wooden or metal fire-resistant file cabinets.
What you choose for file storage is going to be based entirely on your storage needs and space.
Secure Documents Binder
The one thing I absolutely recommend you consider is investing in a fire-proof safe to securely store documents like identification cards, deeds, and certificates.
An easy way to keep these organized in a safe is by placing them in a “secure documents” binder. Purchase plastic binder sleeves with secure tops to house each document safely and securely within the binder.
Safe and Binder Accessories
Filing Cabinets, Boxes, and More
Now that you have a solution for your most important documents, the rest can be stored in any manner that works for you. This can be a traditional filing cabinet, smaller file boxes, more binders, or an accordion folder.
I personally prefer the look of a single color for all of my hanging files.This option feels less wasteful too because each hanging file can be used and re-purposed for any category in the future.
I then color code by printing my tabs on a colored background. Download a template into Word, then change the background of your tabs to whatever color-coding system you like best.
Alternatively, you could use a marker to create a colorful dot next to each label to color-code. This part doesn’t have to be complicated, it simply has to function!
Now is a good time to develop a system for maintenance! Don’t let all of your hard work categorizing go to waste. I recommend starting with the system detailed below.
Schedule these sessions into your calendar to hold yourself accountable!
Daily (or Weekly) Tasks
- Gather and sort mail.
- Immediately shred and recycle unnecessary documents.
- Scan and file essential documents.
- Shred or delete old bills and bank statements as new ones come in.
- Collect necessary documents for tax purposes.
- Send old/outdated files to the shredder (or delete digital copies).
Filing System Cheat Sheet
Lastly, if you want a printable resource to reference as you’re going through this process, sign up with your email below and I’ll send you my Filing System Cheat Sheet.