In my blog series "How To Adult", we tackle some tough-to-manage grown up things, and paper storage is always a struggle. Being adults, we have Important Papers, and we don't have our parents to hold on to them like when we were little. Nope, it's time to grow up, be a proper adult, and have a safe, accessible spot for Important Papers to be stored.
That being said, I can tell you that many, many of my clients don't know where their passport is. I know this because I find passports ALL THE TIME. And not in filing cabinets.
Most people have some semblance of a filing cabinet, usually metal, always ugly, usually overfilled, generally not up to date, always unsatisfying to work with, always meant to be cleaned out, and never cleaned out.
Yeah, I had one, too, until about 6 years ago when I systematically pulled the whole thing apart and reorganized it all. So I know exactly how they work.
I have since used a combination system that has worked profoundly well for me, and I can tell you the biggest reason why: it's pretty. It's also rainbow. It's also easy. It's also streamlined.
So think of all of your paperwork in your house right now. It all should fall into one of three categories:
1. ACTIVE: stuff you need to look at, pay, take note of, sign, return, follow up on. It's the paper that you need to do something about. These papers go in your Sunday Basket.
2. REFERENCED: stuff you need to keep, frequently reference, but don't need to do anything with. It's the auto, home and life insurance policies, mortgage statements, tax bills, retirement statements, manuals and warranties, large home repair bills, holiday information, medical information, big purchase receipts. These papers go in Binders.
3. ARCHIVE: stuff you need to keep just in case but never look at. It's the house purchase paperwork, mortgage origination papers, the car loan payoff information, tax returns (7 years worth), marriage certificates, social security cards, legal papers of any kind. These papers go into a filing cabinet.
Here is the flow of paper from mailbox to storage: it comes in the house, is sorted into my Sunday Basket "To File" folder, then is sorted into either a binder or file folder depending on what it is.
My binders are what keep me motivated. I bought them from Staples and they are super sturdy. I keep them in my home office in a closet, separated by a pot lid rack. Take a look:
In case you can't clearly read my binders, I have the following labels on them.
1. Christmas- recipes, card lists, notes
(I will cover what's in this binder in detail closer to the holidays- it's a life saver!!)
2. Insurance - home, auto, personal
3. Taxes - school, property, mortgage statements
4. Retirement - 401 (K), IRA, Life Insurance
5. Home - alarm, mechanical, appliances
6. Home- inside and outside items
7. Home - improvements and furnishings
8. Budget - monthly expenses
This is a system I made based on the papers I had. Yours may be a little different or a lot different. You can absolutely make a binder for medical information, car maintenance and repairs, or any other category you feel is missing, like veterinary information and records ( we don't have any pets). We have few medical issues (thank goodness) so those papers are in a file in our filing cabinet; the same goes for car maintenance and repairs. You can make up your own rules for what works for you.
Inside the binders I have a table of contents and dividers which I heavily lean on to keep this system working smoothly. It's a bit of a bear to set everything up, but so worth it when it's done. I have lots of sheet protectors for the Home binders, which separates the manuals and warranties so there is no need to hole punch them. Regular paper statements are just hole punched and popped inside the right binder section.
Again, like everything in organization, it's about the maintenance. You have to file the papers into the right spot. This takes time. Be patient. Spend a small chunk of time each month filing things away. You'll only have to go through the binders 1-2 times per year and take out the old stuff (replace a new car insurance policy with the expired car insurance policy). The filing cabinet only has to be looked at every few years and see if the categories are still relevant or need to be fine tuned.
The reality is that most papers in your filing cabinet will never be accessed. Be thoughtful about what you are keeping and why. Yes, it takes a little time to really think about papers and categories and how long to keep things. Most people keep way more than they need to keep in long term storage.
Another option that organizers are helping clients implement is to scan important papers instead of filing them. Obviously some you need to have originals of but many others you don't. As the world moves increasingly toward a digital platform, this is a very space-efficient way to go, but be cautious that you have both totally secure back ups and a system to avoid digital cutter filling up your hard drive, making it difficult to find and access what you are looking for. I'm a little more old school and feel more comfortable having the hard copies of papers I'll keep.
All of my MOST important papers (Social Security cards, birth certificates, passports, legal papers, etc.) are in a Grab and Go Binder that I keep in our firesafe. Click here to see how I set that up.
If your papers are a mess, give me or another professional organizer a call for some help. We can provide structure, encouragement and advice on how to best set up a system that works for you.
If you are interested in the Sunday Basket system for your active papers, I offer virtual workshops online to set one up. You can see on my Workshops page on my website the September and October workshop dates. I'd love to see you there!