Managing Paperwork

What's the Homemaking September ShapeUp! all about?

I know it's October and this is a bit late in coming, it was the most involved post to put together. Hopefully, I've covered most everything.

The last bit to tackle is paperwork. How often are people buried by mounds of paperwork, not knowing what they have to keep so they keep everything! Just in case...

Do you ever feel like this?  I used to.

Let's attack paperwork in three phases. The first phase is the trash, shred and sort phase; the second is the file and scan phase; and, the third is the maintenance phase. If you have an entire afternoon free to get up close and personal with your paperwork, feel free to combine them.  Otherwise, get the first phase done, and spread phase two out over a month and start phase three right away to keep on top of everything.

Now, when I say spread the file and scan phase out over two months, I don't mean leave the piles all over your dining room table! Just take the piles and put them directly in files, then each day pick a catagory, for instance Tax Pile. Pull your tax pile folder(s), separate the file into piles by year, label file folders according to each year, scan in anything you want to keep electronically, put the appropriate pile into the appropriate folder and refile. This way you won't have piles on your dining room table, and it's somewhat organized until you take the time to sort through it. Within a month you'll have an organized system going forward.

So, let's get started.

Trash, Shred and Sort

First, let's gather all our paper work together. Grab a trash bag, recycle bin and a collecting bin and go through your paper gathering areas, kitchen, mail drop, offices, etc. and gather all the paper items. This includes all paper items: bills, lists, magazines, catalogs, schoolwork, birthday cards, everything paper... The exception would be paper for scrapbooking or other hobbies that are in their rightful places. Throw away or recycle the glaringly obvious items: catalogs, junk mail, flyers, empty envelopes, etc. and put everything else in the bin. Most paper can be recycled, check with your recycling center to find out if they have any restrictions. (Definite restrictions: Manilla envelopes - the dark yellowish-brown ones, and flourescent paper)

If the room you'll be filing it away in has enough room to spread out, take your bin, trash bag and shredder to that room. Otherwise, use a room that you can spread out in, don't spread out until you can tackle it all at once.

We'll start sorting through the bin. Most people will have a few basic piles, but include others as they are needed, especially for those running a business out of your home.

Action Items pile: These are items that have not been addressed and something needs to be done with it. For instance, bills to be paid, tags to be put on your vehicle, notes regarding phone calls to be returned, taxes to be filed, receipts to be turned in for reimbursement, etc.

Tax Related Items pile: Any items related to taxes and tax deductions, bills or credit card statements with tax deductible items listed, work related receipts you are not reimbursed for in other manners, donation receipts, medical expense receipts, 1099's, sales tax credit receipts (some states, ND is one, has a cap on sales tax, but it's up to the purchaser to file for it), etc. Pay stubs: Until you get your W-2 keep all in the current year, then shred all but the last 5. The last 5 can be shredded after you get your first 5 in the next year. You want to keep them though in case you end up looking for a new job or applying for a loan.

Loan Documentation pile: Any documents regarding loans or mortgages, including anything that was signed and copies of any lien waivers.

Proof of Warranty pile: Any bills or receipts needed for proof of warranty, and any warranty related paperwork. If you no longer own the items or the warranty is expired, shred the documents.

Manuals pile: Only if you currently own the product, otherwise toss it.

Insurance pile: All current insurance related on your life, house, car, other recreational vehicles, medical, dental, etc. This includes receipts related to big ticket items no longer covered under warranty for proof of value, for instance: electronics, jewelry, appliances, art, collectibles... If you no longer own it, unless you have open claims on the policy, there is no need to keep the policy information or related cards for vehicles. Shred anything insurance related that is not current.

Pension Plan/Retirement/Investment Account pile: All stock certificates, year-end statements, anything related to the current year, documentation regarding vestment schedules, signed documents or letters regarding rights to future retirement benefits. All other documentation can be shredded, if in doubt, ask your accountant.

Bills pile: Any bills that are current and paid, but payment has not yet been verified; any bills currently in dispute; and, any bills consisting of prepayment or advanced payment for long-term on-going projects. All other bills, not previously addressed, should be shredded. Once payment has been made on a bill and you have verified payment has cleared the bank, shred the bill.

Receipts pile: Receipts not related to a warranty, but still within the timeframe for an exchange or refund. Most other receipts can be tossed, or shredded if there is account/customer information on them.

Bank Statements pile: All bank and credit card statements, not in a previous pile. Once the charges, checks, deposits etc are verified these can be shredded. Since you are disposing of all receipts, if you want to maintain a record somehow. Scan these items in, then shred them. You don't need to keep them.

House pile: Anything related to house maintenance, as long as you still own the house.

Vehicle pile: Anything related to vehicle maintenance, as long as you still own the vehicle.

Work piles: If you work from home, tailor these piles to what you do and determine what you need to keep.

Technically, that's the end of what we HAVE to keep... If we stopped there most people would still have a large chunk of papers left in their bin.

Your Schoolwork pile: If it's your school work from college, keep the papers for the current term, toss them once you receive your report card. I can understand wanting to keep a Master's Thesis, or some papers which may be a part of a class which will be built on in another semester. However, once you have your degree, consider letting it all go.

Your Kid's Schoolwork pile: You can't keep everything and they won't want it all later. I recommend a top ten scenario and let the kids choose! Keep each week's papers, at the end of the week, pick the top two choices. They may not be the best grades, so let them pick what means the most to them. At the end of the month, of all the ones chosen, have them pick their favorite 5. At the end of the quarter, have them narrow it down to five again, and again at the end of the semester. By the end of the year, you will have the top 5 from each semester. If you have a favorite few that they haven't chosen, keep them aside, but you shouldn't have more than 3 favorites that weren't chosen by your child each year. For large projects, take pictures and ask your child to write a bit about it (Science fair projects come to mind), keep that instead of the large foam board stand-up's, volcano's or other large created items.

Momentos pile: You don't need these items at all, they are kept for sentimental reasons. I'm not going to tell you to toss it all, I'm not heartless. Toss anything that has no meaning for you.

Magazines and Newspapers pile: Clip items out that you want to keep, the rest should be donated or tossed after it's read. If this pile is overwhelming, be realistic about what you can really read, consider changing your subscription. We changed our newspaper to a weekend/holiday subscription. As much as I'd like to, I don't have time to read a newspaper daily. If you are getting far more magazines that you can realistically absorb in a month, consider cancelling your remaining subscription, or having it forwarded to a friend or relative that may like it. I'm whittling through my magazines, this pile was the hardest for me to own up to.

Catalog pile: You can find almost everything in a catalog online, flip through it, if you like, but don't keep it. You'll get another soon enough. If you get a lot of catalogs, especially ones that you never order from or if they have complete shops online, consider calling the company and ask them to stop sending you catalogs.

If you are like me you probably need a Recipe pile and a Inspiration/Decorating/Furniture Notes pile, go ahead and create them.

You may have other papers at this point, address them as needed, but be reasonable and if you are wondering whether you HAVE to keep it, do a quick search online.

Back to the top

File and Scan

Congratulations, you've gotten through the sorting of it all! Now for the filing and scanning of it all.

First, you'll need file folders, look at your piles and figure out how many files you will need. Make sure to count one for each tax year, one for each loan, etc.

Pretty File Folder Options:
Anthropologie has some gorgeous options, I'm particularly fond of the top one. Who wouldn't like filing in these?

Wallpaper Designer File Folders
Emma Designer File Folders
Sophie Designer File Folders
William Morris Clover File Folders
White Roses Decorative File Folders

Now you'll wonder why I call this section file and scan. I'm guessing a lot of people don't feel comfortable trashing a lot of the bills and other things I said to throw away. Here's where the scanner comes in, rather than saving all those pieces of paper, scan them in, then feel free to throw them. Now, don't just scan these to your desktop, give it some thought and set up a folder structure to make it easier to find everything later. I recommend using file names that are a combination of bill name and date in the format YYMMDD, you can then sort by name and it will sort nicely for you.

Scanning is the perfect option for a lot of the schoolwork pieces you want to keep, that don't make the final cut.

For now, filing will be a quicker option, but try to set aside 10-15 minutes a few times a week to get through the items you can't let go of, but really don't need to keep.

Also, you need to have a plan for the momentos so they don't get lost or damaged. If they are that important to you that you want to keep them, keep a memory box or something to store them in. Consider digital scrapbooking to preserve some of these items. You'll have the item scanned and the memory, without having to store the paper it's on. If you have items of significant value intended for long-term archiving, use acid-free archival storage for it to help prevent degradation over the years. Just remember that if the items being stored aren't acid-free, this will help slow degradation, but will not prevent it.

Acid-Free Tissue Paper
Acid-Free Box

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1) Setup an inbox area
2) Commit to 15 minutes twice a week to take care of action items
  • Pay bills
  • RSVP to invitations
  • Place catalog orders (Discard the catalog afterwards)
3) Commit 15 minutes once a week to file and scan
4) Be ruthless, I open my mail by the trash and nothing comes into the house that I don't need.

Back to the top

It's easier to stay organized than it is to get organized. Hopefully, this will help you develop a manageable paperwork handling system.

View the Guide


  1. WONDERFUL! Thank you for all the time and thought you put into this post. Wanna come 'tackle' my pile(s)?

  2. Great post! That must have taken some time to put together, but very, very helpful!!!

  3. I love the picture. And know the feeling of all the piles well. Thanks for you tips.

  4. Thanks! It did take quite a while to put together, there were so many things to think about! Glad everyone thinks it's helpful though! That makes it worth it :)

  5. Hey you didn't tell me you were using a picture of my office LOL! Seriously, great post - very well thought out!

  6. WOW! What an amazingly well-written and detailed post about organizing our paperwork! Thank you for that. And thank you for the references of where to get cute folders. I never see them anywhere, but now I know where to find them! Thanks again for that and I hope to see you next week!

  7. Barbara, I've been thinking about this post since you first posted it. I am pretty organized about my files but I had not thought about the scanning to reduce the amount of paper in the files. I have only scanned my children's art work before but now I see a wider scope for using my scanner. Thanks for all the work you put into this post and your other posts too. You consistently inspire me and give me lots to think about. Susan

  8. Thanks Susan! I think paper can be the hardest thing to deal with. I don't even want to think about all the trees that have been sacrificed for my junk mail alone. At least now at least 50% goes directly to the recycle bin. You know, they should pass a law requiring junk mail to be printed on 100% recycled paper only. Although I suppose everyone's opinion of what constitutes junk mail differs.


Thank you so much for commenting. I love every single one!