Paper Chase: The ABCs of Household Paper Management

organize household paperwork

The tax man cometh ... and he'll be here soon! Do you know where your tax records are?

Chances are, they're swimming in a stack of paper ... somewhere.

Rafts of paper flood into the average home each day.

The mailbox discharges letters and bills and bank statements. Briefcases explode with professional journals, pay stubs and calendars. School backpacks unload children's artwork, meeting notices and sports schedules.

Paper clutter costs money, time and stress. A missing permission slip derails the entire family on the way out the door. Hide-and-seek bills lead to late payment fees. Lose the roster, and it's back to the Yellow Pages each time you need to contact the soccer car pool.

Without a plan for paper management, a household can drown in a rising tide of paper. Take back your time with these simple tips to pull the plug on paper clutter.

Easy as ABC

Efficient paper management is easy as ABC: action, basic and classic file systems.

Working together, these three file locations help you sort paperwork at the source, allow you to to find documents easily, and help you maintain and retrieve important papers in the future.

An ABC household filing system includes:

  • Action File: a tabletop file for daily, short-term filing. Use an action file to organize bills for payment, papers that require response, and information that must be filed.
  • Basic Files: a household's working file system. Kept in a file cart, cabinet or drawer, basic files hold medical insurance records, credit card statements, rent receipts and bank statements. Use basic files for routine activities like bill paying, tax files, medical information and home maintenance.
  • Classic Files: archives for long-term file storage. Copies of tax returns and insurance policies, homeowners' records, medical records, and copies of legal documents belong in classic files. Use file cabinets or records boxes to protect these items for long-term storage. Note: original documents such as insurance policies, legal documents, or tax records should be stored in secure facilities such as safe deposit boxes.

Where to place your ABC files? Set up an action file on a desktop or in a location near the phone to make it easy to drop incoming mail, permission slips and invitations into folders for later action. A simple tabletop file with hanging file folders works well.

Basic files should be accessible when and where you do routine paperwork chores: bill-paying, handling correspondence, or preparing tax returns.

Classic files can be located in a more remote location, such as an attic or closet storage area.

They're the place you'll store records like copies of completed tax returns, prior years' health records, warranties and receipts for safekeeping, but should not need to be consulted often.

Decide to decide

At the bottom of paper pile-ups is deferred decision-making. It's fun to flip through the day's mail at the kitchen table, but if it's left there to molder, it'll have to be sorted again later. Chances are, important items will go missing when the table is swept clear for dinner.

Instead, decide what to do with each piece of paper the first time you handle it. Ask, "Will this item need to be paid, answered, filed?", then drop the paper into the appropriate folder of an Action File. An immediate sort-and-stow operation heads off paper clutter at the source.

Create an Action File!

Make quick work of daily paper management with an Action File.

action file for household paper

Using a small tabletop file, add hanging folders labeled "To Pay", "To Do", and "To File". Include separate folders for each family member, and for religious, sport or school activities.

Each day, sort and drop incoming paperwork into the appropriate file. Bills go to "To Pay", while medical insurance papers are addressed "To File". When it's time to handle weekly deskwork, you'll find it all in the Action File!

Top Tips for Paper Types

household notebook

Try these ideas to manage different types of paper pile-ups in the home:

  • Calendars, Menus and Phone Lists: Save telephone time by keeping calendars, schedules, take-out menus and phone lists into clear page protectors in a 3-ring binder. Flip through the household notebook to quickly check meeting dates or find phone numbers. Create your own forms, or use our free printable Household Notebook forms.
  • Children's Artwork: When you can't see the refrigerator, it's time to triage the flow of children's artwork. Sort each day's papers into an "artwork" folder in the Action File. Each week, select the best work to display as "Refrigerator Art of the Week", and consign last week's entry to a basic file marked with the child's name. At the end of the year, tuck the collection of the year's best works into a large envelope, mark it the year, and add it to the household's classic files. Share extra art projects by writing letters to family members on the backside or using colorful papers to wrap gifts.
  • Cards and Correspondence: Birthdays, celebrations and events are a regular part of life--so why dash to the card store for each occasion? Once a year, purchase an assortment of greeting cards, sympathy notes, and stationery items. Stored together with stamps and pens, they'll handle social correspondence without stress.
  • Daily Mail: Sort each day's mail over the recycling bin to make quick work of unwanted catalogs, coupons or ad circulars. For safety, run credit card applications and financial solicitations through a shredder before recycling.
  • Newspapers and Magazines: Forget placing fanned-out magazines or neatly stacked newspapers on table surfaces. Low-sided baskets or trays use the principle of "controlled clutter" to display readable items without permitting them to overrun the family room at will.
contain newspaper clutter