Spring cleaning: top paperwork-organizing tips

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Whether it's the receipts buried at the bottom of their bag or the piles of bills and other documents covering their desk, many people may feel like they're drowning in paperwork. Professional organizer and author of Unstuff Your Life! [Avery], Andrew Mellen, has smart advice on how to file those papers so you can finally clear the clutter and make it easier to find something next time you need it.

Start by creating a system. All you need are a few simple baskets or trays on your desk and a filing cabinet. Place any paperwork you receive into one of the baskets, which you might categorize by person or by type of paperwork, whichever suits your needs best. And to avoid pileup, get in the habit of looking through the baskets every week.

For your filing cabinet, Mellen recommends keeping these ideas in mind:

  • Keep it simple. Create a filing system that is simple but detailed enough to be clear to you and anyone else who might need access to your files in an emergency.
  • Categorize. Get started by creating larger categories with subcategories within them. For example, begin with a large category like Finances. Inside that folder, make a subfolder called Taxes. And inside that subfolder, create an additional folder for each year needed.
  • Take time to label. Make sure to correctly label the files immediately. Temporarily naming something "receipt" or "current project" almost guarantees it won't get filed properly.

"As with all things, when it comes to organizing and simplifying, a little bit of mindful planning in the beginning will pay tremendous dividends when you begin to implement something later," says Mellen in an interview conducted by Athene.

Tackle your tasks. Once you're finished with a task — paying the bill, signing the contract or reviewing a statement — put the paperwork in a labeled folder for the filing cabinet, store it digitally or discard it. If there's something you really don't feel like tackling, you can make an appointment on your calendar to revisit it later.

Decide whether to file, save or toss. Before filing away any paperwork, confirm that it's something you're not going to need anytime soon. "Filing cabinets are where papers go to die," says Mellen. "No one should be going in and out of filing cabinets on a daily basis."

Mellen also suggests asking yourself if each document really needs a physical copy or needs to be kept permanently at all. If the answer to either of those questions is no, you probably don't need to file it in the cabinet.

As for what paperwork you should definitely keep, Mellen recommends holding onto original paper copies of these important documents:

  • birth certificates
  • Social Security cards
  • driver's licenses
  • titles to cars and vehicles
  • deeds to property
  • marriage, divorce and death certificates

Tax returns should be kept indefinitely. Most people can get rid of supporting documents three years after filing. If you're self-employed or running a business, you can get rid of them seven years after filing. For all other paperwork, Mellen has a handy list of how long to hold onto most documents. For example, ATM and bank deposit/withdrawal slips can be safely discarded after they’re reconciled with your monthly statement, and the statements themselves can be shredded after a year.

Remember your digital files. Many documents, like bank and credit card statements or bills and invoices, can be saved digitally. But like items that require hard copies, digital files need a system too. Consider creating a digital filing system on your computer that mirrors your paper-filing system, and then remember to file your digital records accordingly.

With your digital files, it's fine to store them on a password-protected computer, as long as you also have a backup. Mellen suggests backing up to a cloud and an external hard drive. Backup to your hard drive on a daily schedule if you work on your computer every day. If you don't use your computer as much, once a week should be enough. Or simply set it on a 24-hour loop so the backup is automatic.

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