Organizing your filing – part 1

A lot of people, it seems, have a hard time knowing how to organize their filing systems at home.  A big problem is that there are different theories about what you should toss and what you should keep and for how long.  Some people recommend one thing and other people recommend another and it’s nearly impossible to really know which one is the One To Follow.  So people tend to either toss it all or keep it all or find some place on the spectrum in between.  And probably always feel like they’re doing it wrong.

I’m not an accountant and I’m not incredibly knowledgeable about all the different financial problems and circumstances that can happen with home finances and paperwork, but let me tell you about some of the things that I found to be useful and how I’ve organized it to work for me.  This is going to be a multi-post series because it’s a big, complicated concept.  But, hopefully, I’ll be able to keep it from being too boring and maybe even share some ideas that you’ll be able to use in your own home.

Now, let me say this first:  Everybody faces their finances differently and handles their organizing differently.  The system I’m going to describe works well for me, but it might need some major tweaking to work for you.  I’ll try to include options as I go through this so you can see other options that might work better for you.  But keep in mind that this is just an option and you can take from it what you like and leave the rest.  (And I did warn you ahead of time, so don’t get upset at me if you decide later on that you wish you hadn’t thrown away that thingamabob.)

In my opinion, after knowing what to keep and what to toss, the biggest problem with establishing and maintaining a filing system is that filing is boring.  It’s dull.  No one likes to file.  Some of us like to have a wonderful filing system, but no one likes to sit there and put papers into folders.  It’s DULL.  So it’s important to find a way to make it so you’ll actually sit down and file the papers that you need to keep.  For me, this means having a beautiful filing cabinet that’s organized in a way that works well for me and is located right in my office next to a comfortable chair.  Once I get a pile of things to file, I’ll sit on my comfortable chair, work my way through it, and be done.  But if I had to stand there and file things in a place that doesn’t make me as happy as my office, I doubt I’d ever do it.  I had to find a place that was comfortable and peaceful for me to keep my filing cabinet so I’d actually sit down and take care of things.

Next, for the most part, there are three different expiration dates for papers – 1 year, 7 years, and lifetime.  Things like bills, if you decide to keep them (and I’ll get to that soon-ish), you should keep for a year.  If the Auditors ever come a-calling, to my understanding, they’re interested in your finances back as far as 5-7 years, but, generally, not any further than that.  And then things like birth certificates, social security cards, and those things you should keep for the lifetime of whoever they’re for, and things like car titles and house deeds and major electronics receipts and paperwork, you should keep for the lifetime of the item.

And, of course, if there are items of significant sentimental value, you should feel comfortable to keep those as well – just so long as you understand the line between keeping sentimental items and hoarding everything.  There’s a huge line there and it crosses into mental illness so if you think you might have a hoarding problem, please seek psychological help.

Okay, I want to keep these from getting too long so that’s where I’m going to end it for today.  But let’s recap quickly:

  • There are different theories about how to handle filing systems, but I’m going to try to sort through them and give you a straight-forward way to handle the whole thing.
  • You should try to find a place to keep your filing that is comfortable and where you will actually sit (or stand) and take care of it.
  • Generally, you should keep papers for 1 year, 7 years, or a lifetime.  We’ll get into what falls into what category in the following posts.

Your homework for today is to think about where you keep your current files (if you have any) or where you’d like to establish your filing and decide if that’s actually a place where you will go to take care of this.  If it isn’t, then try to brainstorm places where you’d feel more comfortable.  Don’t worry if the answer is “In front of the TV” because I can work with that!  Just hang onto your boots!  We’re going to get filing!

Clutter

I just read an amusing article over at Unclutterer called “What clutter affects an unclutterer?”  The writer is an organizer, but she talked about the areas in her life where she has a hard time keeping things uncluttered.

I thought I’d drop in quickly and share a little bit of mine.

One of the places that I have the hardest time keeping organized is my desk.  I have a small little desk in my office that has three drawers on the left side and a pencil drawer across the lap of the person sitting there.  I have the hardest time keeping those drawers cleaned out.  What’s supposed to happen is that the bottom drawer has photography things – prints and frames and CDs and manuals.  The middle drawer holds office items like extra printer ink, note paper, clip-boards, etc.  The top drawer holds my address book and my Nintendo DS and my music box.  And the pencil drawer holds my pens, pencils, stapler, tape dispenser, etc.

It’s never as tidy as all that.  I’ve got papers in the top two drawers that I need to read and figure out what I’m doing to do with them, but I haven’t gotten around to reading them yet.  Justin’s transcripts from college are still sitting in my middle drawer from when I was trying to decrypt them back in November or so.  I don’t know why I’m holding on to the prints and whatever else is hiding in the bottom drawer.  I’ve got a whole box of photographs up in my closet, too, that I just need to send to a scanner and get put onto discs.  I’ve got more pens and pencils and scissors than I know what to do with.

What I really need to do is get rid of the desk entirely and work on a table that doesn’t have any drawers.  That way I can’t hide anything in there.

So, that’s my long-term tidiness issue.  My short-term problems are:

  • The bathroom, where I tend to drop clothes or whatever else was in my hand when I went to change into exercise clothes or pajamas.  I have a hook on the wall and the back of the door and they tend to get covered in clothing before the end of the week . . . if they make it there from off the floor and the counter.
  • The flat surfaces in my office, where bills, paperwork, and other things that should go in there somewhere just get thrown until I have time to go back and try to put them into the right places.  I have a desk, a table, a trunk, a filing cabinet, and a chair that are all good candidates for having things thrown on them.
  • The front door, where I throw sweaters, jackets, purses, lunch bags, shopping bags, and shoes as I come in the door.  I really need a set of hooks there so I stop throwing them over the shoe rack and the hamper.  Shoes are my biggest culprit.  I keep some shoes downstairs and most of my dress shoes upstairs, but by the end of the week, almost all of my shoes are downstairs.

I usually find time once or twice a week to clean up these problems, especially on Friday afternoons when I get off work early.  But they build up again in a few days if I’m not really diligent about it.  The kitchen could maybe go on this list, if it’s been a busy week and I’ve not felt up to keeping it clean, but the kitchen is an area where I sincerely try to keep it as clean as I can.

Anyway!  Some of my struggles as an organizer.

Organizing my file cabinet!!

So this is the truly geekiness that is my love for organizing.  I spent almost my entire weekend (the last three days) organizing my file cabinet.

It’s a 2-drawer, double-width file cabinet.  The top drawer is active files or files that are important enough to have up top.  And the bottom is the archive space for things that need to be kept for a while but I don’t need to see, possibly ever again.  But it was a mess!  The last time I went through was probably this time last year.  Things seemed pretty organized up through September of last year in a lot of cases.

The big exception was what was taking up most of the bottom drawer.  Several months ago, we got a box full of paperwork from Justin’s mom—medical records, school loans paperwork, all these things that I’d been wondering where they were hiding and suddenly I had them!  Which was great!  But I didn’t have places to put them yet, so they got stuck randomly into folders and stashed away, with the plans of organizing them “soon.”

Friday afternoon I got home, paid the bills, balanced the checkbook, and decided it was Time to Tackle the Mess.

It’s amazing how something as thin as paper can make such a heavy mess.

Also, it’s sometimes really complicated to work someone else’s filing system into your own.

And yeah, it took me from Friday afternoon all the way through Sunday afternoon to finish it up.  But now that I’m done? Ooooooh . . . .  It’s a thing of beauty.

(Geek!)

Anyway, some thoughts about organizing and how I managed my project.  First off, I went through the active files to see what was happening there.  Mostly they were good.  There were a few that hadn’t had anything added for a while, either it’s someone we don’t use anymore or we’ve gone paperless or something.  If the file wasn’t used in 2009, I pulled it to put with the archived info.  And then I separated the data from previous years and paper clipped them together with a sticky note telling which year it was for.  This one thing is going to be a HUGE time saver later on.

And then I figured out how I was going to categorize the files.  I’d started to do this last time—I had a bills section and a loans section, each holding things that had to do with bills (water, electric, cable) or loans (credit cards, school loans, car loan).  Now I also have Automobile, Banking, and Work categories, and a few others.

I didn’t finish up on the top, though, before I hit the bottom.  I pulled out the things that were basically already organized first, just because I felt like doing the easy stuff first and then the harder, but that’s totally up to personal preference.  Again, I sorted out by year so I could see what was what, labeling with sticky notes for easy reference.  I also put sticky notes on the hanging folders so I could flip through quickly.  This one took me a while to figure out but after digging and digging and digging to find the stupid VSAC folders, I finally just put notes on all of the folders and saved myself much time and frustration.

Slowly, I made my way through old bank statements, medical expenses, pay stubs, and so many other things.  I had to take the papers from my mother in law and integrate them into my own system, which probably took me the longest.  Some of what she sent was duplicates of information I already had, some was integrated, but not duplicated, and a lot of it was totally new to me.  So I found what it was, how it fit into the scheme, and organized it by year.

And then I made up a label template on Word, typed up the labels for all the new folders, categorized into sections, naturally, and printed them off.  A little bit of cutting and labeling, and now my file cabinet is fantastic!

There are still a handful of things I need to address—like how long to keep a few things.  I’d assume I could throw them away, but I’m going to double-check it before I do.  Plus, it’s good research.  I didn’t go through one of the folders yet just because it was more than my brain could handle in one weekend, but I’m planning to get through it “soon.”  I promise!

But it’s absurd how very pleased I am with myself about this project.  I kept dragging Justin in to look at my progress.  I had papers strewn all over the floor of my office, stacks of full and empty folders on my trunk and the top of the file cabinet, and paperclips and sticky notes and pens everywhere.  But the files didn’t have paper popping out of the top and I could find what I was looking for and they’re all paper clipped together with sticky notes saying the year!

And did I mention that the reason that’s helpful is because at the end of the year, I’ll pull out the papers from this year, paper clip them together with a 2009 sticky note and put them in the archived folder, pull out anything past its expiration date, and be done with organizing for the (first half) of the year in less than 30 minutes?  Yeah.  That’s going to be sweet.

These are the kind of things that get me excited.

Pictures!

This is my file cabinet
This is my file cabinet
This is the top drawer.
This is the top drawer.
This is the bottom drawer!
This is the bottom drawer!
This is what I'm shredding so far.
This is what I'm shredding so far.
This is what I'm recycling.
This is what I'm recycling.
And for giggles, this is a paperweight.
And for giggles, this is a paperweight.

Worst case situation books

I’m still thrilling about the awesomeness of the community library.  Let me tell you, I never really enjoyed the nonfiction section of my library when I was younger, but now I’m piling in all these books and doing some serious learning and researching.

I picked up a book last week called Get it Together. It’s about getting everything in order in case of your incapacitation or death.  I didn’t know that’s what it was about when I picked it up–I though it was about file cabinets.  But it’s been a really interesting read.  It came with a CD with worksheets.  What you do is work through the worksheets and build a binder that has everything anyone could possibly need in case you end up in a coma or pass on.  So things you’d think about, like assets and children, all the information about how to handle those are written down.  If a plot has already been purchased or any of those arrangements already made, it’s all in the book.  And other things, like employer’s phone numbers and benefit’s information or what bills are going to be due on the house, are all in there.  The people picking up the pieces have a perfect manual to follow and can focus on their own grieving instead of trying to figure out what Fluffy is supposed to have for dinner and whether it has medication to take.

It’s not an easy book to work through, that’s for sure.  There are things that are just uncomfortable to think about, like a letter in the front of the book for the people reading it.  And there are things that will require the use of an attorney.  But it’s really good stuff and I think it’s useful.

And I could use this in my business!  There are a lot of elderly people in the area who maybe haven’t really found the time to work through all of this information.  If I can figure out how to get this all lined up and all, I could help people get this started.  They’ll have to end up talking with their lawyer, but I could help them find all the paperwork that they’ll need to get that started.

Another thing I’ve been working on is a hurricane evacuation plan.  It is hurricane season and if the word goes out to head inland, then there isn’t a lot of time to get everything together and get out of town.  So having a plan is really important.  I’ve been pulling together information from Fly Lady‘s Control Journal idea and a special edition of the Savannah Morning News.  What I’m trying to do is create something that I can fit right into the front pages of my address book.  It’s got all the important information like doctor info, insurance info, directions to Luke’s, lists of things we need to grab, everything.  Most of the information is duplicated info because I carry most of that with me in my purse, but it’s the sort of situation where having it really easy to find is key.

I have a checklist that I have to work through and see if I can get any of that prepared ahead of time and tucked away so it’s a grab and go situation.  So we grab the address book, grab the folder of important papers, grab the box of prepared stuff, and then focus on the rest of the list that couldn’t get done ahead of time.

And this is another thing that I could help people do.  I could help them find the information that they’ll need to have on hand, pack up their grab and go box, get them the checklist of other things to take care of if they have to leave, basically do as much as I can so if they have to leave, they have a plan and they’re ready to go.

And,  really, the two things fit together–the folder of important information if you die and the preparedness for evacuation.  All the important papers that you’d want to take with you if you leave the house in a hurry is exactly the same paperwork that you’d pull together for the book for your death.  It could all be one book, one “if the worst thing happens, this is where you look” book.  I haven’t started putting either one together, so I’m not sure it would really work all together, but it’s an interesting thought.

And I think people might be interested in getting some help to get these things together.

Of course, the first step to actually get as much of my own information put together.  So that’s what I’ve been up to the last couple days.  And that’s what I’m going back to work on now.

If anyone has any recommendations on these types of books and information, I would love to hear about it!  And if you’d like to get started on these and would like some information from me about, drop me a line and we’ll get started!

Cheers!

Filing cabinets 101

Hooray for a fully organized music collection and a synchronized portable music box!

Now to refresh the music on my mini player for exercising and I’m SET!  🙂

This morning I went to help the children’s pastor at my church organize her office some more.  We did the main part of her office the first time I went.  We did her file cabinet this time.  And next time we’ll hit the storage room.  She had a four-drawer file cabinet and was only effectively using one drawer.  All the other drawers were filled with information from the woman who held the office before she did–four years ago.

So we took it all out and sorted out what was actually usable and useful.  Information available on the internet?  Don’t need a paper copy.  Notes from 2004?  Not necessary.  Forms for the people working in the children’s section?  Put into a folder and easily accessible.

All in all, we recycled three trash-cans full of paper.  And then we got her curriculum folders set up, got the volunteer information sorted, got her conference information sorted and accessible.  She had one drawer in her desk filled with folders, too.  So of the 5 drawers available, she was using 2.  She’s now able to use all 5 of those, one of which is just for personal storage (purse, umbrella) and the others are all separated into folders so she can get into things and keep things easily filed and findable.

It was great!  I think it’s going to work out really well for her.

For anyone looking at trying to organize your folders, here’s a few tips for you:

  • LABEL ALL YOUR FOLDERS.  If you’re not doing this, you’re never going to be able to find anything and then what’s the point of filing it?
  • If you’re using hanging folders, put the tab on the front of the folder.  That way, when you go to find the folder, you can just pull the tab toward you and open the folder.  This is really effective for things that you do monthly, like bills.  Just slide the folder open, drop in the latest bill, and you’re done!  If you need to go back and find information, it’s all already in chronological order, with the most recent information at the front of the folder.
  • If you keep information that you only want to have on hand for a set length of time, separate it in sections that fit that period.  For example, if you want to keep 3 years of your bills (and, by the way, you don’t need to do this–I’ll come back some time and write a post about what is and isn’t important to save and for how long), separate each  year.  Put them in their own folders, put them in manila envelopes, put them in separate sections of a 3-ring binder, whatever works for you, just make it obvious when one year ends and the other begins.  This way, when you start a new year, you can pull out the papers from the dates furthest back without having to sort through.  Just pull and toss (shred, recycle, etc.).
  • Go through your folders every year.  Just skim through and check that the information is being put into the right folders, that the information isn’t obsolete, that things are looking like they should.  It’ll also refresh your memory about what you’re keeping and why.  None of this, “Oh!  I forgot I had that!  That’s important!”
  • If you keep important papers in your home–marriage license, death certificate, birth certificate, social security card, passport, any of those papers that are vital and would be difficult to replace in the case of fire or flooding, put them into a place where they are easy to grab in case of sudden evacuation.  Make sure that everyone in the house knows where to find them.

I was tempted to write that you try not to keep papers that aren’t really necessary, but that’s really up to you.  Mostly, it’s up to whether you can keep everything organized with everything you’re keeping.  If you can maintain several drawers filled with paper, finding what you need, not creating chaos with the amount you’re holding onto, then that’s great!  Knock yourself out!

But if you’re drowning and not able to find anything and not able to maintain any sort of system, then I would recommend trying to sort out what you don’t need to keep.  This article is a great place to start if you’re wondering what you should keep and what you can get rid of.  I highly recommend it.

Do you have anything that’s worked really well for you in your filing system?  Do you have any questions about how you could approach your filing differently?  Please leave a comment!

Happy filing!