How to Organize Papers | Get Rid of Clutter (part 1)
For many, it’s the desktops, file cabinets, and those dreaded attic bins that overflow with the most intimidating clutter category — paper. Concerns about identity theft, fears of an IRS audit, and the constant appearance of new bills, manuals and records conspire to make paperwork a major challenge.
Heather Poduska, a business coach based in Massachusetts, recently found herself struggling to manage both home and business paperwork that was spilling out of her file cabinets. “I was very busy at the time, and pretty overwhelmed looking at the piles I needed to go through,” she said. With the help of a professional organizer, Poduska implemented a system that keeps her cabinets clutter-free, and both her home and professional lives organized.
Get a handle on your paper clutter with these expert tips.
Know What to Keep (and for How Long)
Everyone should hold on to tax returns and their supporting documents for seven years, says Estee Dorfman, a certified public accountant (CPA) based in Massachusetts. Dorfman says some CPAs retain copies of their clients’ information, but it is the taxpayer’s responsibility to provide all documentation in the event of an IRS audit.
Home bills such as the mortgage, electric and cable, as well as monthly medical statements, can be kept for either one or three years, depending on your preference. Or, track those bills electronically using secure logins with your providers. Expired insurance policies and statements should be kept for four years. Expired warranty information should be discarded.
Discard with Care
“Never throw away any documents with your social security number, account numbers, or other identifying information,” recommends Dorfman. One credit card statement in a recycle bin can lead to identity theft. She recommends shredding documents or burning them in a fireplace or other safe fire. Alternatively, you can bring your records to a professional paper disposal company. Be sure to confirm the company has strong security practices. Some banks also offer free shredding services.
Create a Conveyor Belt
Professional organizers often say that if something new is coming into your space, something else needs to go out. Organizing your tax paperwork by year, for example, makes it easy to shred or burn the least recent year’s materials when you file next year’s return. For other types of papers — medical test results, for example — consider scanning the paperwork using a smartphone camera or scanning machine, and saving it using a cloud service provider like Dropbox, or to a thumb drive or DVD, to save yourself filing cabinet space.
No matter how tall and teetering your “to file” stack has become, you are not alone in letting your paperwork go from helpful resource to desk-clogging clutter. Trust in your new system, and set your sights on an organized, well-managed future.
Poduska reconnects with her professional organizer regularly so she can rest easy knowing the clutter isn’t creeping back into the cabinet. She says, “I consider it house maintenance just like getting the gutters cleaned or the windows washed, except no window washer ever helped me stress less at tax time!”
Read rest of this series:
- How to Clear Emotional Clutter | Get Rid of Clutter (part 2)
- Kids Left But Their Stuff Hasn’t | Get Rid of Clutter (part 3)
- How to Declutter Your Room | Get Rid of Clutter (part 4)
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Photo by Andrew Pons