How to Organize Paperwork, Part 1

Domestic CEO reveals 4 steps to get rid of your paper and mail clutter forever!

Amanda Thomas
6-minute read
Episode #19

How to Organize Paperwork, Part 1

by Amanda Thomas

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This week’s tip comes courtesy of a question from Domestic CEO fan Michelle. She asks:

“Do you have any tips for dealing with all the paper clutter that comes in the mail?”

This is a question I get a lot from my clients at Moxie Girl Household Assistants. Remember back when you were a kid and you loved getting mail? As a kid, when an envelope had my name on it, it was either a card with money or a letter from a friend I had met at summer camp. As an adult, though, mail takes on a whole different feeling. While there are still times when an envelope with money appears in the mailbox, it’s much more common that the mail is asking me to send the money. And with the invention of email and social media, the only person I get hand-written notes from anymore is my 92-year-old Grandma (she’s also the only one who sends me cards with money in the mail). Suddenly, as an adult, mail has become a chore.

I’ve worked with many families where mail becomes a source of stress. Piles and piles of mail line table tops, counters, and nearly any horizontal space in the house. In sorting through the piles with my clients, I have found everything from Publisher’s Clearing House forms from the early 2000s to birth certificates and checks for thousands of dollars that expired years ago. When mail isn’t dealt with on a regular basis, important things get lost in the clutter.

We’ll fix that today.

This episode is the first of a two-part series on creating good habits with your mail and paperwork. This first episode will focus on cleaning up any piles of mail and paperwork you have laying around your home. Next week’s Part 2 will focus on the daily and weekly habits you can institute to keep the piles from accumulating again. Even if you are super-organized or only have a small pile of mail in your home or office, make sure to tune in to this episode because a small pile can quickly morph into a big one.

Now, here’s how you tackle that mountain of mail:

Step 1 – Prepare to Move Mountains

The first step in taming the mail beast is to prepare to go through the mountains of mail that you currently have. If you have a table or countertop full of unopened mail, block out a few hours one day in your schedule for this step. You may want to enlist the help of a friend or a paid professional, not because you can’t do it, but because with help, you will be able to get through this tedious step much faster. Plus, scheduling another person to be there with you will also force you to be accountable to this process. It can be intimidating, so do whatever you need to make sure you actually complete this step!

Once you are committed to a time, you also want to make sure you have the proper supplies on hand: large trash bags, sticky notes, paper shredder, file folders, labels, envelopes (both big and small), and a thick black marker.

Step 2 – Find the Trash

When the time comes for you to go through the piles, the first thing you are going to do is look for trash. Just tossing the trash will likely cut your pile by two thirds. Go through each piece of mail, looking for anything that’s classified as junk. Things that can immediately go into the trash bag are old catalogs, solicitation letters from insurance companies, coupon packets, and flyers. Don’t be afraid to toss these right now. The goal is to make this pile disappear, and all these things can be found again if you decide you need them in the future. For example, if you want to change insurance companies, you can comparison shop online for policies. And those special offers and coupons? I promise you that they will show up in your mailbox again soon. For now, toss the ones you have collected and once you are organized, you can start to think about keeping the ones you want.

Credit card offers are another thing that can immediately be tossed, but they should go through the shredder to prevent identity theft. If you don’t own a shredder, toss all the “To Be Shredded” items into a separate bag or box. Once you have everything sorted, you can take this bag or box to your nearest office supply store or printer to have it shredded. Call ahead to make sure they offer the service, but most of them do for a low cost.

See also: How to Prevent Identity Theft

Step 3 – Sort, Sort, Sort

Now that you have the obvious trash removed from your piles, it’s time to go through everything else and find what you’re dealing with. Open every envelope and sort their contents into piles by sender. When I do this process with clients, we typically spread out all over the floor. This is the controlled chaos stage of organizing. You may end up with 50 different piles, depending on how many different bills and statements you have received since your mountain of mail started forming. Use your sticky notes and marker to label general categories, like Utilities, then you and your organizing partner can make sure to put any papers that qualify as that category in the same area of the room.

Once you have the papers sorted into categories and vendors, then go through each pile and sort them by year. For now, paperclip each year’s stack and keep it in the vendor piles. You are going to do more with these in Step 4, so just get them all separated for now.

This step is the most overwhelming, but keep in mind that once you have things sorted, you are 95% done. Push through to your final step, and you will be completely finished in less than 30 minutes!

Step 4 – File and Label

Now that you have all the papers sorted into categories and vendors, it’s time to start creating files to store your paperwork. I prefer to use hanging files for the general category, then 3-tab file folders for the individual vendors within each category. For example, I’d create a Utilities hanging file, then inside I’d have folders for Electricity, Gas, Phone, and any other utility company that is being used. If you own a small-business, I would highly advise talking with your bookkeeper or accountant to make sure that you separate out any categories that can be tax-deductable, but that you pay for out of personal accounts, like medical expenses.

Another way to file paperwork is to create a folder for each vendor, then file them in a drawer alphabetically. This is totally acceptable too. The only goal of these folders is to make it easy for you to find the paperwork if, or when, you need it so organize the files in a way that works for you!

Once the files are all created, put only the current year’s statements into the files. Keeping more than one year in your filing system will only create more clutter for you to go through when you need to find an important piece of paperwork. Instead, put the past years’ paperwork into separate envelopes. Make sure to clearly write what category/vendor is in each envelope, as well as which year the paperwork is from. Put all the envelopes from each year into a bigger envelope, write the year on the front, and then stick it in a storage box. In general, you want to keep receipts for 7 years in case you get audited, so having the envelopes clearly marked will allow you to easily toss the entire year when that 7-year mark passes.

Now that your mountain of paperwork has been tackled, you are ready to maintain the files on an ongoing basis. Check out Part 2 of this series for tips on what you can do daily, weekly, and monthly to keep the mountain from ever returning again!

Do you have a question about anything in this episode? How about an organized file system that you want to show off? Post your questions, comment, or pictures on my Twitter feed or the Domestic CEO Facebook wall!

Until next time, I’m the Domestic CEO, helping you love your home.

Mail and files images courtesy of Shutterstock.