Filing in the New Year

January 17, 2012

by Ann Waterman

January is the best time to to get your files in order: Incoming 2012 paperwork will need a home, and tax time is just around the corner, so you’ll want to be ready with all pertinent documents at your fingertips.

Back in the day, I kept my important papers in a couple of folders in a file tray. After graduating from college and getting a job, there was suddenly more paperwork in my life, so I upgraded to a file box. Then I got married and was faced with merging my files with my husband’s… It was time to get serious. Thankfully, my time as a business manager at a non-profit gave me plenty of paperwork practice, and I was able to apply that experience to the task of creating a home filing system.

In the interest of full disclosure, I am no organizational guru. I still struggle with organizing things that require action and tend to pile them on my desk as a reminder that I need to address them — until I forget why they’re there in the first place. I’ve heard good things about David Allen’s Getting Things Done system, which is supposed to address this problem, and I hope to implement it this year; maybe I’ll take you along for the ride. When it comes to filing paperwork, though, I’m now all over it: Name a document, and I can find it in 5 seconds flat.

Here are my tips for creating an organized filing system:

  • If you have more than a box-worth of paperwork, consider getting a 4-drawer filing cabinet. It may sound like overkill, but with time, you almost always acquire more paperwork no matter how careful you are about culling it. It’s also nice to have the extra space for archived paperwork that you need to hang on to long term, like tax returns. I always tell people to get a legal-sized cabinet, not a letter-sized one — not all paperwork is letter-sized, and a legal-sized cabinet will accommodate many different sizes of paper.
  • Personally, I’ve embraced the industrial look of metal filing cabinets for the home office, but if you can’t fathom such an eyesore in your home, consider prettying it up with a little fabric or wallpaper like this:

  • Or think outside of the box and find an alternative place to house your files, like this chest converted into a filing/work station:

  • Before you start a large filing project, make sure you have the right supplies on hand, or you won’t get very far. You’ll need plenty of hanging file folders, lots of regular file folders (letter-sized, 1/3 cut tab, assorted tab position are my preference), hanging file tabs (get the longest size available to accommodate long file names), and file tab refills.
  •  Consider buying a labeler, even if your handwriting is impeccable. Mine happens to be chicken scratch, but aesthetics aside, the act of labeling really makes you think about the file you’re creating and whether it fits in your filing system. And once you get one, you’ll find so many other uses for it around the home.
  • There’s no right way to organize paperwork. When you do pick a method, though, stick with it and be consistent. I prefer to organize my files by pertinent categories: Bank, credit card, insurance, utilities, retirement, employment, taxes, etc. I create file tabs for each of these categories, attach them to my hanging folders, and add the corresponding files to the folders.
  • Don’t overstuff your files or hanging file folders; it makes it difficult to find and retrieve papers. Move excess files into another hanging folder, or create a second file if one isn’t enough to contain all your documents — another reason to keep lots of both on hand.
  • Wondering which documents to keep? Here’s a nice summary of which ones to hold on to and which to pitch.

What are your favorite tips for organizing paperwork?

Images: 1, 2, 3

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1 Zoe Saint-Paul January 18, 2012 at 12:33 pm

I seem to be a magnet for paper and I’m going to totally blame it on the paper.

I’ve had a four-drawer industrial filing cabinet for a while, but would love to change it up to something more attractive — I’ve seen some made from wood that are lovely.

My filing problem is knowing what to toss and what to keep — and then taking the time to shred everything. Because of my tax situation, I need to keep a lot of things for 7 years, which makes for a lot of files and boxes when you have no storage. Right now, my files are busting at the seems and I’ve got to clean them out and re-organize, but I keep procrastinating.

Your idea of a labeler is great — it sure would make files look better and neater.

Your post has reminded me that this needs to go on my 2012 resolution list. Now I just need to figure out how to motivate myself to do it!


Ann Waterman 2 Ann January 18, 2012 at 1:48 pm

Zoe, if a wood cabinet isn’t in your immediate future, maybe this filing cabinet makeover could work in the meantime:

I’m wondering if it would help to scan some of your paper work. Of course, that’s a chore in itself, but at least it would resolved the space problem.


3 LL January 20, 2012 at 10:36 pm

Ann, do you give in-home consultations? :)


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