In today's fast-paced and digital world, it's easy to overlook the importance of organizing our personal documents and important papers. Yet, having a well-structured and efficient file system can save us from unnecessary stress, time-consuming searches, and even potential financial losses.
Whether it's vital documents like insurance policies, warranties, or essential paperwork such as tax records and personal correspondence, setting up a good file system is not just a mundane task; it's an investment in peace of mind and a safeguard for our future. An organizational system for our personal papers can enhance our productivity, ensure preparedness, and provide us with a sense of control over our important information. So, let's set up a well-organized and stress-free document management strategy!
Getting started with the right supplies:
Having the appropriate supplies will make the task of getting organized simple.
You will need:
- 1 file cabinet or file boxes
- 2 boxes of hanging file folders.
You may find you need more, depending on how many categories you have.
- 2 boxes of manila folders.
Again, you may find you need more.
- 4 small boxes.
These will hold one or two years’ worth of records. I prefer the small paper cardboard boxes you get from the copy places or when buying a small case of paper (3 reams). How many you need will depend on the amount of paper saved per year. I prefer to store two years per box. You will be storing seven years of past records.
- Small plastic bin or a shoe box
This will be used as your “To Be Filed” basket.
(See Figure 1.1 for a picture). This is where you toss in your papers to be filed. A large shoe box works just as well, and it is FREE!
Purchase a small shredder that fits on the top of a small trashcan. This will be stored on top of the filing cabinet, so the compact type is best. (see Figure 1.1).
- Find a space for your filing system.
A walk-in closet is a great spot that is out of the way and out of view. Set aside a day to get the file system set up and another day to file in order to make this task less overwhelming.
Colored files and folders are more expensive; however, you can make it easier to find the files by assigning types of files a specific color. That is up to you. I went years with standard green files before switching to colored ones. This is just a personal preference on how “pretty” you want your files. See the box about colored folders in the next page before making that decision.
Setting up your filing system
On top of your filing cabinet, place your “to-be-filed” container (A) to catch all the papers that need to be filed. Keep the trashcan (B) there, too. Paper that needs to be shredded goes into the trash can; or if you have room, keep the shredder handy so you can shred as you need to.
Since I use a compact shredder, I keep it in the trashcan and toss in papers that need to be shredded until it gets full and do it all at once.
Now it is time to set up the files. Label a hanging folder for each of the categories listed below. Some hanging folders will require manila folders inside to divide the contents for maximum efficiency and organization. For ease in setting them up, each category is listed in the following format:
Hanging file name
Manila file folder name - if needed
items in blue italics need to be replaced with the specific person, company or account name.
Optional color system:
Using colored files isn’t really necessary since everything is filed alphabetically. I have gone years using this filing system without a color-coded system. In fact none of my folders match, and I reuse folders over and over.However, if you want to add another layer of organization to your system, you can add in color-coding.
For example: medical files (blue), debt files (red), asset files (yellow), etc. Use one color (standard green) as a catch-all for files that don’t fit your main categories. If you are going to use a color system, write down your categories below before starting:
Blue = _________________________ Yellow = _________________________ etc...
As you set up your files, select the colored folder based on your color system.Note: you may have to buy many more boxes of hanging files if you are using this system in order to have enough to match your color system. Boxes of colored hanging folders usually come with 5 of each of 5 colors, so keep that in mind. You might use a lot of one color and a few of another, so this is definitely a more expensive option than just using standard green files.
Cheaper Alternative: A cheaper alternative is to purchase a pack of colored markers or highlighters and color the tab labels. Your choice is based on how “pretty” you want it to be.
Main drawer files
The first three files are special files and are placed at the front of your filing cabinet for ease in finding them:
Safe Deposit Box
To Go To Safe Deposit Box
Place items that need to go to the safe deposit box into the manila folder so it can be quickly grabbed and taken to your bank. Keep a list of items you have in your safe deposit box in this folder so you will have a good record of what is in there.
Wills, titles, passports, birth certificates, copies of insurance policies, and other important papers that need to be kept in a safe secure location should be kept in a safe deposit box, not at home. If you don’t have one, you might add that to your “to-do” list.
Family Member Name
Label manila folders for each member of your family and put in this hanging folder.
These folders should contain copies of birth certificates, copies of professional licenses, copies of social security cards, and important information that should stay permanently in this file for easy access.
Keep - Name
Example: Keep - Melinda
There should be a hanging file for each member of the family. This is a “catch-all” file for birthday cards, Christmas cards, event programs, and special papers you want to keep. Any special drawings/projects the kids make, report cards, etc. go in their files. At the end of the year, go through this file and move the contents to the appropriate memory box (See article: Memory Boxes: Organizing Keepsakes for a Lifetime).
Use my files labels to make this faster and easier. Just print and cut them so they are ready to put in the tabs.
Not all the following may apply to you, so make the ones that do; i.e., if you don’t own a pet, don’t make a pet folder. Once you are done filing all your papers, see what is left and whether it requires a new category to fit your needs. The following files will be in alphabetical order.
401K - Name of Family Member or Name of Plan
Manila folders should be made for each 401K or IRA you or your family has and put inside this hanging folder. You can use the company name or family member for the manila folder heading. The quarterly/monthly/yearly reports should be filed here for each account.
General Information Statements Check Registers/Checks File bank statements, account information, or any other bank correspondence you would like to hang on to for the year in case you need to go back and reference it.
Divide with manila folders in any way that works for you. If you use more than one bank, make a separate hanging folder for each.
Model, Make and Year
Use one manila folder for each car you own. In here should be any maintenance work receipts so you have a record of things that have been done on your car. Manuals can also go in here if you don’t keep them in your car.
All information regarding benefits from your workplace should be kept in this file. You can divide this folder with manila folders if needed. However, I tend to stick it all in the hanging folder since I don’t need to refer to it often.
Name of Credit Card
Use one manila folder per credit card. It is a good idea to keep the current year’s worth of statements in case you need to go back and look for something. Keep the information they send with the credit card in this folder. Now if you need to cancel a lost card, you can quickly access the necessary information to do so. Directories School, club, and neighborhood directories can be stored here if you don’t need them frequently or just don’t want them kept by the phone. Now if you need it, you will know where to find it.
Always file the most current information in the front of the file.
CONTRACTORS YOU USE
File folders will depend on which companies you use - For example, “Hardwood Floor - ABC Installers”.
SECURITY SYSTEM - Company that installed your security system
KITCHEN UPDATE - Company that remodeled the kitchen for you This file is for large improvement projects. Keep these files in this folder forever as a reference if you need to get back in contact with the company for repairs or another project. Keep the receipts of the work done and any contact information.
Home Maintenance File
CONTRACTORS YOU USE
Folders will depend on which companies you use for regular services. Lawn Maintenance - Lawn Maintenance Company Pest Control - Pest Control Company Lawn service receipts, repair receipts, and anything to do with general repair/maintenance for the house is kept in these files. These are services you get on a regular basis. Keep the records for one year in case you want to see how often they came or need the price to compare with another company.
Insurance – Cars
Car Insurance - Name of Insurance Carrier
Policies and premium payment information go here. As you receive a new updated policy, you can replace the old one in the folder so this file is always up-to-date. Keep old ones if you would like to be able to refer back to past years to see rate changes, but keep the current one in the front.
Insurance – Health - Name of Family Member
Current Year Medical Records
Health Record - Name
Make one hanging file folder for each member of the family and put his/her name in the title of the folder.
Inside each hanging folder there should be two file folders.
1) “Current Year Records” is for storing all medical visit receipts and prescription information for each person for the year.
2) “Medical History” contains information that stays in that folder forever, such as shot records, allergy information, etc. Include those great height/weight sheets from the kids’ annual checkups in their folders for a record of their growth.
Insurance – Home
A copy of your policy should be here AND in your safe deposit box in case of a fire. If you don’t have a safe deposit box for important records, I would again suggest getting one.
Insurance – Life
Policy - Name of Family Member
Example: Policy - ABC Life - Melinda Life insurance policies go here. Make a manila folder for each policy.
LOAN - Financial Institution
One manila folder per loan. Label with the name of the lender. All paperwork associated with loans should be in these files. For example: car loans, home equity lines of credit, etc. Don’t file your mortgage information here; it has its own file.
A folder of local restaurant menus for ease in ordering for pickup or takeout.
Quarterly statements, closing papers, and anything else having to do with your mortgage should be included in this folder. You may find you need a second hanging folder due to the massive paperwork associated with mortgages. Divide the paper with manila folders as you like. I would suggest a manila folder to hold monthly/ yearly statements, and store the more permanent records in another file.
Keep copies of your pay stubs here.
Name of Pet
File vet information, shot records, receipts from checkups, etc. here.
This is for important receipts you want to hang on to for a short time (such as gift receipts). If you keep all receipts, I suggest making folders or envelopes for each month. The receipts for large purchases, such as a dryer, are stapled to the warranty/instruction booklet and filed in “warranties” (explained later on).
Name of School School and/or Name of Child
If you have school-age children, make one hanging file folder per school. Divide contents into manila folders if you choose (newsletters, policies, etc.). To make this folder a great quick resource, write the following on the front of the manila folder for quick reference: names of teachers, school phone numbers, class schedules, teacher email addresses, and any other information that can be accessed quickly from the front of the folder.
Stock certificates should be kept in a safe deposit box. However, if you receive statements on company stock or updates from your investments, file them in this file.
Taxes - Current Year
Current Year Taxes
Example “2005 Taxes” File any donation receipts or tax information as it comes in. This makes doing taxes a breeze because 100% of the information should already be together in this file.
Taxes - Past Year
Keep last year’s tax folder in this file for easy reference and comparison.
Store brochures on places you want to visit or places where you want to return.
Cable Phone Water Keep copies of bills for phone, cable, internet, electric, etc. All these can be tossed at the end of the year unless you need them for business expense reasons. Divide up in folders if you prefer.
Warranties/Instructions drawer files
The following probably needs its own file box or filing cabinet drawer since it tends to take up a lot of room. Divide these into categories and use hanging file folders to keep each category’s paperwork together. This will make it easier to find that instruction booklet you need.
Again, the following categories may not all apply to you, and you may find you need to add others based on your needs. Here are examples of how you can divide all that information in order to find it more easily:
Baby Stuff - File information on all those great baby things that have assembly directions, such as strollers, car seats, cribs, playpens, etc. This comes in handy if you want to take something apart to wash it (car seats especially) so you will remember how to get it back together.
Cameras/Video Cameras - Digital and video camera booklets, warranties, etc.
Catalogs - Keep a file of catalogs you want to hang on to for future reference.
Computers - Make a separate file for each computer you own. Keep any documentation specific to that one computer in this file.
Furniture - Receipts, booklets, etc. for furniture purchases.
Game consoles - Booklets and warranties.
Garage - Garage door opener, lawn mower, lawn tools, grill, etc.
Jewelry - Receipts for jewelry, appraisals, and any paperwork that comes with them. Also instructions on how to use that complicated watch you got for Christmas.
Kitchen Appliances - Small Blender, mixer, toaster oven, etc. Large Appliances Washer, dryer, refrigerator, stove, dishwasher, etc. Musical Instruments Any receipts or paperwork for instruments (piano, violin, etc.).
When you purchase an appliance, electronic equipment, etc., staple the sales receipt to the warranty/information booklet in case you need it in the future.
Office Equipment - Printers, scanners, etc. Phones House phones and cell phones. All those great instruction booklets can be filed here.
Small Electronics - Catch-all file for any little electronics that come with paperwork you want to keep. For example: humidifiers, digital thermometers, etc.
Software - Any odd paperwork on software you own. Books about the software programs are too big and should be on a bookshelf. However smaller programs that just have one page of instructions with them could be stored here.
Sports Equipment - Basketball goal instructions, laser tag gun directions, etc. that just need a place in case you need to refer to them again. Anything with assembly or use instructions should be kept.
Stereo Equipment - CD players, DVD player, speaker information, etc.
Tools - Hand saws, drills, etc. Toys Instructions for toys that you want to keep TVs Manuals/warranty information for all TVs Vacuums Steam cleaners, vacuum cleaners, etc.
The warranty files do need to be reviewed once a year or so. Toss out the instructions for things you don’t own anymore to keep it up-todate. If you get a new vacuum cleaner and toss the old one, toss the instructions, too, when you file
File all your paperwork
Now your filling system is ready to be used. Gather all that paperwork you have scattered around the house and start joyfully filing away. Listen to some music or watch a movie while you sort papers to help keep this from being a boring experience.
Anything that is over a year old and isn’t something that needs to be kept in the file cabinet should be placed to the side in piles by the year. For example: if you are working on 2016 paperwork that goes in your filing cabinet, make piles for the papers that don’t go in there by year (2014 pile, 2015 pile, etc.) The intimidating pile of paper will be transformed into an organized filing system.
Now that everything is neatly in the filing cabinet, what do you do with those “other years” piles? See the next section to take care of them.
You can keep one to three years’ worth of paper per box depending on how much paperwork you need to store. If you fill a box with one year’s paperwork, you are probably holding on to too much, and you need to reevaluate what you are keeping. I like to keep two years’ worth of paperwork per box. You should have seven years listed on your boxes.
When a new year comes along, simply add in a year and take out the oldest year so you are always storing seven years of records. Now your boxes are labeled, and you need to finish filing all the paperwork that was too old to go into the filing cabinet. I think it is easier to sort it all by year into piles...then rubber band them together or stick them inside a folder with the year marked on the front. Place the bundle in the appropriate year box. If you have stuff that is older than 7 years...you can toss that. (see section 1.7). Find a place in a closet that you can line up or stack the boxes so you can clearly see the year labels.
Pat yourself on the back! Now your paperwork is organized! If you need to get the past three years of tax files, you know right where to find them.
Records over seven years old - the exception
The only categories I keep forever are tax records and school records. With tax records, I toss out all the instruction booklets and receipts and keep only the tax form that was actually filed. I have a separate box just for these. In it I also keep permanent records such as college transcripts, or any other important documents that I want to hold on to forever. Everything else should be shredded and tossed. Label manila folders with the tax year and put them in the “forever” box. File them chronologically in the box.
Shred documents that have your social security number, account information, and other important personal information. Shredded paper also makes great packing material, so you might want to hold on to a bag of it.
January file cleanup
Now that you are organized, January file cleanup shouldn’t take more than a half hour to complete.
- Go through each folder and decide what you will keep in the YEAR box and what isn’t necessary.
- Bundle up all the bank statements and check registers, rubber band them together, and toss them into the year box. Keep the basic information that stays in the folder; take out only the stuff that pertains to that specific year. For example, I keep all the basic credit card information and move the statements to the YEAR box. Make sure you write the year on the side of the YEAR box you are placing the papers in.
- Remember those miscellaneous “KEEP” folders at the front of your filing cabinet for each family member? The contents for each person should be put into a folder with his/her name and the year on the front. You can rubber band the stack to hold it together if it isn’t too much. It will be placed in each person’s memory box, so set it aside for now. See the article on Creating Memory Boxes
- Now you have 8 years of records in your YEAR boxes. You can remove the oldest year’s paperwork and cross the year off the box. Keep only the tax form you filed. Toss out the instructions, receipts, etc. Only keep the copy of what you filed, and put it in the box containing old tax records. The rest of the items you can shred and toss (but take a quick look through the pile to make sure there isn’t anything else you should hang on to).
- Review the contents of your safe deposit box, and make sure all paperwork is up-to-date.
- Once you do your taxes, file your reference year (Past year’s tax folder) in the correct YEAR box and the ones you just did should replace them in your Past Year Tax folder as reference for next year.