How do you organize paper files at home?

I love paper. I love coupons and recipes. I love newsletters from the school. I love all the pictures and stories my children create.

I need paper. I need a marriage license and all the birth certificates. I need the paper that shows we have paid for and registered our van. I need the papers that tell when the children (and the dog) got their shots. I need the unpaid bills and the receipts or canceled checks from the paid bills. I can’t seem to escape paper.

At some point in our lives, unless we are born organized, we all discover that great mounds of paper can quickly become useless when we can’t find what we want among all the papers we need for later. If you’ve come to that point, it’s time to organize your paper. How can you get started?

Round up all the loose paper in your house

If you have a few papers posted as reminders, leave them alone for now; you don’t want to forget anything important before you finish this task. Also leave in place any papers that are already filed, even if your system leaves a lot to be desired. For now, just round up the loose papers and place them all in one box.

Find a way to store all of those papers neatly

This way, you can locate any paper you want on a moment’s notice. Plan on storing all of the paper you have. (You won’t keep it all, but there will be more coming in so you’ll want the space.) Plan on one large box (either a paper box from the office or a plastic under-the-bed box) per child to store school papers. And select your system depending on how much paper you need to store.

A small family with a simple lifestyle might be able to file everything important into one or two notebooks with pocket folders. If everything you have fits into a shoe box, that may be the way to go.

A family with a few more paper producing activities (investments, a home business, more than two children) might want a small portable file box, a package of regular file folders and maybe 10 hanging files.

After that you’re are talking one or more file drawers in a desk or filing cabinet, again with regular file folders and hanging files. Go out and get those right away. If you wait you may not do it.

Sit down, where you can spread the papers out

The floor in front of the TV seems to work especially well because a person who is slightly distracted is more likely to toss useless papers than to take the time to read everything. You won’t toss anything vital. Many of the most
important papers can be replaced easily enough anyhow for a price.

Take a paper from the top of the pile and think of a category for it

Write the category name on a file folder in pencil. (It may change slightly before you are finished.) Sort the bills to be paid from the bills already paid. (You can toss old bills once you are sure the payment has been recorded.). Use categories that make sense to you. Keep sorting until the box is empty.

Sort school papers by person

Then allow the children to store most of their own (except for report cards and any special items you really want to hang on to). They can use scrapbooks if the papers will fit or a covered plastic box if there is textured artwork or irregularly sized paper. If the box gets too full, go through it with the child and choose a few favorite papers and either toss the rest or select a few to send to friends and family. If your child learns to choose a few keepers and to get rid of the rest, you might prevent the pack rat tendency.

Aim for a small handful of paper in each folder

If some are stuffed, try to think of categories to divide them. If some have only one or two papers, try to group those in with a related category. If that isn’t possible, then just relax. Sometimes, that’s just the way it is.
If you are using hanging files, group your file folders into logical groups. You can group by person or by place or anything that seems logical to you. Now put a name on each of your hanging file folders and file those alphabetically.
Now go back and create a list of the folders in the order they are stored. This will be the key for anyone else who might need to use your filing system when you aren’t around. Include a short description of each file for those who think totally different and who might not understand your categories. (I have learned that we are not all wired the same and that what seems perfectly logical and straightforward to me might totally confuse someone else. Just accept it.)

Keep the index in a place where it can easily be found

You might leave it on top of everything, laying flat in a box or drawer. You might make it a folder of it’s own and file it as the very first file. You might tape it to the inside front cover of a notebook system or punch holes in it and make it the first page. Whatever you do, don’t file it under ‘I’ for index: it has to be in plain sight.

Remember to go through and rearrange the files as your needs change

Get rid of old papers when they are no longer useful or meaningful. Add or subtract categories as needed. It’s your system.
Take a deep breath. Slowly let it out. You are now the proud owner of your own custom designed filing system.

Congratulations. You’re getting organized!