Organizing Papers, Ugh! Even More So… Part 2

In our last installment on organizing papers, I was only able to get through what to do with the short-term papers. If you didn’t see that post, don’t fret – you don’t need to have read it in order to read this post. So, that said, we come to an all-too common problem: long-term papers and what to do with them. Do you struggle with that? Don’t be afraid to say so. I know that I’ve struggled with it and overcome it, and helped many people do so, as well.

Long-term papers are those things we need or want to keep. They can be anything from papers we need for filing taxes to recurring bills to the recipes we clip in order to try them. We need to keep the different long-term papers organized with a system that allows us to easily find the various things we might need.

Everyone needs to file taxes, so the papers necessary for this need to find a place and need to be kept. If the size of your tax file is not huge, I recommend a file in a filing cabinet. I make sure to have a tax file for the following year so that anything that arrives during the year can immediately go into the file and it is all together when it is time to prepare taxes.

A few categories that relevant for taxes have a separate file, like the specific business expenses. Medical receipts are another separate category since those need to be itemized and totaled before taxes can be completed.

For some, the paperwork that accumulates for taxes is too large to fit comfortably in a file. One person I know uses manila envelopes to gather each month’s papers together, which are then labeled and kept in a box and organized chronologically. However you choose to keep your tax papers together does not matter as long as it makes sense to you and can be easily accessed.

Any papers that relate to financial investments and property, such as your home and car, need to be kept as well. Credit card statements and pay stubs are often kept; at least until additional paperwork arrives that confirms the important information. Receipts are often necessary for warranties and for valuing your property.

There are many differing philosophies and approaches as to what to keep and for how long. I know some people who keep every utility bill and credit card statement for a certain number of years. I know others who discard these same things as soon as they have paid them. There are plenty of resources available with advice on how long to keep various papers and the most popular one is to consult with your financial advisor. The IRS publication 552 addresses paperwork to keep, if you can slog through the legal-ese!

I am not going to tell you how you should handle your papers. The truth is that it does not matter that much. What is important is that you know where your papers are when you need them. Whether you put them into files, accordion folders or manila folders is completely irrelevant. You need to decide on a system that makes sense to you and how you will look for the items so that you can find them easily when necessary. The system you create needs to work for you.

When I help someone who is starting from scratch to create a filing system, I gather all the relevant papers together, trying to make sure there are no other papers in the pile. I sit on the floor (I find it easier to spread piles around me that way, though as I get older this is less and less appealing!). I then dig into the one big pile, making smaller piles. Each pile is going to become a file in the filing cabinet, so each different kind of paper needs to be separated. I like the hanging folders with categories, so after creating the smaller piles, I would make a list of the files to be created on a sheet of paper. Then I can look through it and divide those into categories for the hanging folders. At this point, I start labeling the hanging folders and file folders, labeling and putting the papers into their files.

Personal preference becomes important, so sharing my system, I have a bank category and each account, even ones with the same bank, will get an individual file to go within the category. My husband’s work papers are put in the company category and then the papers are divided up into files within that. How you decide to organize your papers is dependent on how you will look for them and how many papers exist since you want to watch out for putting too many papers into one file.

One caveat to this process can be the amount or types of papers to be filed. One client I worked with ran a business out of her home, so we divided the initial pile into two large piles. One was for home-related papers while the other was the business. After those were separated out we started making the smaller piles. If there are other types of papers you want to save long term, these kinds of papers can be separated out as well. For example, when I was attending school, those papers were kept in a different drawer and during the initial sorting process would make a general school pile which I would later divide up for the various files within the school category. My vet bills are another example of a file that is not kept with the general household files. This is just my preference, yet provides an example of some things that could be separated from the general household files.

I know many people who have a collection of recipes they have culled from newspapers or magazines, and it is important to find a way to keep track of them and most important have them accessible so you can try out the new recipes. Something as simple as a solitary file folder on a kitchen shelf can work. This was the first stop for one client. The recipe stayed there until she’d tried it, and then she knew if she wanted to keep it. It could get thrown away if she was not impressed or added to a binder if she wanted to make it again. Recipes from magazines are often available online through the magazines website, and I save paper by copying any recipes I’m interested in to my computer’s hard drive and where I can easily make notes as well.

There are so many types of papers that you might want to save, it would be impossible to cover them all. Let yourself be creative in finding solutions that work and strive to be able to retrieve any papers you might need or want without difficulty. Be sure to set up some routines to maintain control over the never-ending papers coming in your door.

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