Paperwork Organization: Bills, Financials, Mail & More
If you’re like the typical household you are likely buried under paper. Old bills, tax returns, check stubs, receipts, bank statements, notices, magazines, cards – the list goes on and on. It can be hard to decide what’s needed to keep, how long to keep it, how to store it, and how to keep it from overflowing again.
January is a great month to get your paperwork organized. Not only because it’s the start to a new year and that’s always a great time to make new changes, but also because the tax man cometh! You’ll need certain documents in order to file your taxes and after this organization you’ll be able to lay your hands on what you need at the moment you need it.
You’ll want to decide which storage methods are best for you but I suggest picking up:
- At least one accordion file
- A file storage box
- A shredder
- A couple of magazine holders
- An address book (or if you keep contact info electroincally, have the device you use nearby)
- Some labels or a label maker
Once you have your supplies the next thing you’ll want to do is dig out all of your papers (ALL your papers – look in drawers, boxes, your desk, purse, everywhere) and start to sort them. First just sort into two piles: keep and toss (anything with personal information on it should be shredded). When it comes to bills and other financial documents, here are some general guidelines of what you need and for how long.
Financial Record Keeping
- Paychecks or pay stubs – one year (until you file taxes)
- Bills – six months (if you don’t need them for taxes, one year if you do need them for tax purposes)
- Credit card and bank statements – one year
- Tax returns and supporting documents (like W-2s, receipts, etc.) – 7 years
Now that you’ve pared down to just the must (or want) to keeps you can start to further sort and file. I’m all for doing the easier tasks first; you’ll usually feel more accomplished and encouraged to keep working through the task. So collect all the magazines that you want to keep and store them in magazine holders. If you only need a single recipe or article from a magazine, consider tearing out what you need and later adding it to one of the pockets in the accordion file. Next go through and pull out any envelopes or loose addresses that you’ve kept in order to add to your address book and transfer that information now.
Label And Sort
Next label your file storage box. You should have folders for bills, tax returns and supporting documents, personal documents (birth certificates, marriage license, rental agreement/mortgage documents, miscellaneous, and whatever else makes sense for you. Drop the appropriate papers into the corresponding folders. You’re almost done!
Lastly get your current piles organized in the accordion folder. One slot should be for miscellaneous (things like those torn-out recipes you want to try or articles you want to read), menus (if you get a lot of take-out), school stuff, and then one slot for each month (you can also try January/July, February/August as your labels if you’re only planning to keep bills for six months) plus anything else that makes sense for your family.
Tips For Staying Organized
Now that you’re organized you want to stay that way! Here are some suggestions for keeping paper clutter under control:
- Open the mail over the trash; immediately toss junk mail, flyers, and other un-needed items.
- Create a “mail center” for incoming and outgoing mail. Keep stamps, pens, a checkbook, envelopes, and a basket for mail. It will make it easier to take care of tasks immediately.
- If possible, pay bills as they come in. Write a check and stamp the envelope or pay online if you can – it can save you both time and money. If you can’t, add them to the slot in the accordion folder that matches the month they’re due, then mark a day five days before the due date on your calendar (wall calendar, phone calendar, email calendar – whatever you use and check most frequently).
- File away bills, statements, and other “keep” or “keep for now” documents into your accordion file.
- Consider signing up for electronic statements and billing. You’ll reduce the amount of incoming mail and you’ll be able to print only the bills and statements that you need. Plus you should be able to download copies to your hard drive (I recommend also adding them to an external storage drive) which are much easier to store.
Need more inspiration? Check out all of my Organization 2013 posts.
Do you have any suggestions on getting – and staying! – paperwork organized?
*Note – I am not a tax professional or accountant. These are just suggested guidelines.