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.

Organizing Papers, Ugh! Part 1

Papers never stop arriving. The mail is delivered 6 days a week barring a holiday and even if most of it is junk mail that you throw away, there is bound to be papers that you end up with. If you are well organized then they will not clutter up your home, but how many of us are THAT organized? There are so many ways to organize your papers and the different kinds of papers that you may decide to keep, whether short term or indefinitely.

Everyone has a system for dealing with those papers coming in, although whether it is working well is another matter. It is a system even if the papers are piled or dropped somewhere. Most critical for the system is whether you know where to find things easily and are paying your bills on time. Yet, this often is not enough.

The first step is to figure out what you want to keep. Period. Start this simple. Is there a reason to hold onto something right now? If there is no reason to hold onto it, throw it away.

Next, with the things that you are keeping for right now, what is short-term and what is long-term?

Starting with the short-term papers: coupons, catalogs, and sometimes magazines are easily put into this category. Coupons and catalogs expire or become outdated. Find a place to hold onto these short-term papers where you know where to look for them. Make a point to look through the catalogs within a short time and decide whether it is now trash or something to hold onto for a while longer.

Some people keep catalogs until the next one arrives. If you want to do this, find a relatively small place to keep them. I have seen catalogs kept in a small drawer, an upright magazine holder, and in-box container just for them, to name a few. Creating a place to keep them that helps contain them temporarily helps to make sure that the older version can easily be thrown away after the newer one arrives.

Similarly, with coupons, if there is a small place you keep them, you can see when it is time to review them, purging anything that has expired, and reminding yourself what you want to use. They can be kept in an envelope, a small bin, in your purse, or wherever you find convenient and logical.

Magazines ideally are read before the next one arrives. If you enjoy the magazine and are loathe to just throw away the unread magazines, stop getting more until you are caught up and you can always start getting it again. Canceling a subscription or not renewing it is important in avoiding unnecessary clutter when you do not have time to read them. Try to be realistic about what you can read regularly; no one else can determine that for you.

Deciding what to do with the magazines after you have read them varies from person to person as well as the type of magazine. I am a fan of tearing out articles that you want to keep and finding a way to organize them that way. There are times when you want to keep the whole magazine though. My husband and I have a combination of both these approaches.

If there are articles you want to keep, one option that saves space in your home is to find them online and save them on your computer, where you can do keyword searches for them. If you keep the paper copies, create a way to organize them. You can put them into files with appropriate labels so can find them easily or create binders that keep them altogether.

If you are keeping the magazine as a whole, you also need to find a way to keep them organized. Theoretically, if you decide it is important enough to keep, you are going to want to have access to it at a later point or you do not want them to be ruined. They make binders that are designed to hold magazines without damaging them or what I like using are the magazine holders. The magazine holders can be as decorative or plain as you want and in different materials, from heavy cardboard to plastic, to metal ones. I use each holder for a specific magazine after it has been read and been moved into the keep category and they can be kept altogether.

Organizing papers is a detail-oriented process and I will begin the section on long-term papers in the next post.

More Chores. Just Less Frequent.

Routines are something I advocate.  Life is simpler when we have some in place to keep things running smoothly and more importantly gives our minds space and peace not having to track that additional data.

I already talked about the chores we need to do daily or weekly, but what about the less frequent, yet still regular tasks on our lists?

This is where the idea of routines I think becomes even more powerful.  Those things we do every other week, once a month, or quarterly can easily become nagging worries.  Do we remember when we last changed the oil in the car?  Or changed the toothbrushes?  Has the pile of paperwork that needs filing started toppling over?

When you set routines, combine the tasks that happen at the same interval together.  It reduces the amount of thinking required of you and eliminates the worry about trying to remember them.

Be careful not to make it overwhelming though.  You want to make it relatively simple.  If there are a number of monthly tasks that could make it to your list; think about breaking them into two chunks.  

I dislike filing and I am not a proponent of immediate filing (though it works well for some people), but find it makes a decent monthly chore.  At that level, it is not overwhelming and quite simple and straightforward to accomplish.  I also need to run vinegar and water through the coffee pot once a month (again not necessarily the frequency of anyone else) so I do these two things once a month.  

Later in the month, I have several other monthly tasks that I do.  I break up the filing from some of these other tasks since I do not enjoy filing and need to make it easier.  Another monthly task is time consuming and becomes something that feels a little tedious, so that goes into the other group.

When was the last time you changed your toothbrush?  I don’t know about any of you, but I would struggle to remember when I was supposed to change them again or even when I last changed them.  My intentions were always good, but amidst all of life, it would slip my mind.  The American Dental Association recommends changing them every three to four months depending on how the bristles are wearing.

By coordinating changing the toothbrushes with the changing of the seasons, it became something I no longer had to think or worry about anymore.  I already put out seasonal decorations, so I just connected these tasks together and changing the toothbrush becomes automatic.

Setting up routines, whether for the regular chores or in coordinating your tasks, is about ways to make your life simpler.  It also allows your mind to have that much less to try to keep track of and offer you the chance to focus on the things that matter to you.

What are you going to do to make your life simpler?

Chores. Ugh.

Let’s face it, nobody likes chores.  The word evokes not-so-fond memories of childhood, with your parents as taskmasters, keeping you from having fun by making you dry the dishes, clean up after the dog, or clean the toilet.  Yuck.

Now that you’re an adult, you know that they’re necessary to keep your household running smoothly, but that doesn’t make it any better.

I recently got some additional insight into chores.

You see, after several busy days, I had a full day to work on things around the house and time to run errands.  I had planned the day to accomplish things.  As I was working on those things, a friend called, inviting me to breakfast, and I decided to add that to my day, knowing I had the time.  She found out that I had been working on chores and asked what was on my agenda.  I listed a few of the items and she commented that then she did not feel bad pulling me away from them.

It struck me how she seemed to view the tasks I had set for myself as “chores.”  She comments fairly regularly to me when we go out that she really should be running errands or working on things around the house, but she’d rather hang out with me.  Her chores are burdens and she struggles with feeling them hanging over her head.

When you need to play catch-up with standard tasks is when they become tedious.  Life in general can start to feel out of control and overwhelming when you know that there are so many things waiting on your action, especially chores.  Then you make time to catch up, only to let them get out of control again.  Laundry is always accumulating and dishes are always getting dirty again.

The solution for this is to create a system to keep dishes, laundry, or other chores from piling up, so they don’t have the power to overwhelm you, a process so you can keep up and avoid worrying about being behind.

Part of creating your system is making time for each task that can grow to become a burden, and think about what each task requires to keep it under control.  How many loads of laundry would you need to do each week to maintain decent levels for your family? 

That does not mean you need to do all those loads on one day, unless that is what works best for you.  Yet, it does mean that you will know where you stand.  If you have done only one load and it is Friday, but you have five loads you still wanted to wash, you might start to feel overwhelmed.  While on the other hand, you have accomplished four loads, you can rest easy knowing that there is only one other load you wanted to get done.  You can start to figure out how to integrate laundry into your schedule at intervals that work for you and your schedule.

I have found that actually assigning specific days for certain tasks can be helpful, but you want to avoid being too rigid about it, for then it can become a chore again.  I know someone who chose two days a week to accomplish four loads of laundry.  The days were specific, but the key is that she knows if one of those days does not end up working for laundry she just changes the day to another one that week that works better.  She decided on a routine for herself and will know automatically that she will need to modify her laundry day when another appointment arises.  She shared that by having this system and being able to modify it to fit her schedule without falling behind actually helps her feel more successful.  She can be flexible with her routines and does not feel controlled by them.

Routine household tasks are not invigorating or exciting.  However, by staying on top of them, finding a way to fit them into daily life, they do not become burdens.  An amazing peace of mind and sense of tranquility can come from setting up routines for yourself.

How are you going to reclaim some control over your chores?