While learning how to keep papers organized can seem overwhelming, it doesn’t have to be if you take it one step at a time. Today, let’s talk about some tips for the best way to organize paper files.
Just so we’re clear, this isn’t a post about organizing all of your paper PILES. Rather, this is about paper FILES. Even in this increasingly digital world, most of us still need an easy way to organize and store paper files. If you need ways to hold ALL of your different types of paper, check out my complete recommendations for paper organizing tools.
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If you tend to keep every incoming paper ‘for your records,’ then you absolutely WILL end up with many, many files. Let’s discuss how to reduce that load, and then how you can keep your filing system structured and organized. The goal is to get to the point where maintaining your files takes little time and effort and you can always find what you need almost instantly.
Yes, this is just one part of a complete paper management system… and it’s one people often stress over much more than necessary. So let’s keep this simple.
Here are the things you need to know and do for organized files…
Tips for Organizing Paper Files
Let’s say you’re organizing household papers from scratch. Even if you have a filing cabinet stuffed full, now is a great time to go through all of those files, clean them out as much as possible, and begin fresh.
1. Embrace Minimalist File Organization
The thing about long-term file storage is that you want to store as little as possible. Deal with and discard most of the papers that come into your home instead of filing every single thing in a bank of massive 4-drawer cabinets.
Keeping an extensive filing system will discourage you from using it and actually knowing what’s in there because there’s just.too.much.
I recommend keeping a couple of decorative file folders in an upright box near where you open the mail and pay bills. Those folders can hold ‘in-process’ paperwork. However, try to keep most of the paper from migrating from those folders into your main files.
Do as much as possible online, and store digital copies of important paperwork that doesn’t actually have to be in print. Less paper means it will be easier for you to find what you’re searching for when you need it. Also, you’ll require a smaller paper file storage solution.
In fact, I recommend going as minimalist as possible when it comes to file storage.
2. How to Store Paper Files
You don’t want your files scattered haphazardly around your home, so you need a place to keep your files safe, contained, and organized.
A filing cabinet or a document box stores files in a way that you can access them efficiently. Every folder is kept upright, which makes it easy to go through them and insert or pull documents out without removing the entire folder. This stops you from toppling a stack of files if you have to go searching for a particular document.
Filing cabinets and plastic document boxes are usually sturdy and secure, so they keep your important paperwork safe from most of the damage they might encounter just lying around the house. Some also have locks if privacy is an issue.
However, instead of JUST a file cabinet OR a document box, I use a slightly different method, which I call a hybrid file system.
Yes, I do have a 2-drawer file cabinet… but I only need one drawer for files. They are my easy-access files.
I also have a plastic file box for tax records, stored from most-recent at the front to oldest at the rear. Keeping tax files in this box makes my filing cabinet easier to use. For quick reference, I keep the current year and two previous years in my file cabinet.
Every year after I’ve filed our taxes, I move the oldest one from the file cabinet to the tax box. Then I remove the oldest file from the tax box and burn or shred everything inside the folder. I have our tax returns for the past many years in digital format, so there is no reason to keep the paper copies.
Just like the tax box, I have a school memory box for each of my children that holds their school records, papers, and memorabilia.
Tip: If you’re working on sorting and filing a lot of paperwork, you may like this idea: Purchase several plastic file boxes — at least 4, possibly 6-8 if you are also sorting school papers for your children — and place them next to each other on a counter or worktable.
This way you can easily add files, sort papers, and group your files without having to constantly open and close file drawers to access different folders. When you’re finished, you may end up not needing a filing cabinet at all!
3. Sort and Label Your Files YOUR Way
Part of creating a workable personal file system is to sort and label your files, boxes, and drawers in a way that makes sense to you.
I use hanging files for everything, and I prefer the style with plastic tabs and inserts for labels. I’ve found myself rearranging files often enough to appreciate the functionality of that type of file. 😉
I also buy matching or plain manilla regular file folders in case I want to ‘subdivide’ my hanging folders. This way I can have organized files without the bulk of a bajillion hanging files that might only hold 2-3 pieces of paper each.
The two main systems for filing are alphabetical and chronological.
Once again, just like WHERE I store my files, I also use a hybrid method of ordering and labeling. There’s no rule that says you HAVE to label and sort your files ONLY one way. But however you choose to do it, make it simple for you to locate any paper you might need.
For example, I have a hanging file labeled ‘Utilities.’ Inside I have regular folders with the important information we need for propane, phone and internet, cell phone service, and electricity.
Or, if you ALWAYS save receipts, you might create a folder labeled ‘Receipts.’ From there, you could do the ‘subdiving’ thing and have separate folders based on the year you made the purchase or the store it came from.
Another option for receipts would be to keep something like this expanding file right inside your filing cabinet. Then, when it’s tax time, you can store the entire thing with your tax paperwork, or clear it out and start fresh for a new year.
I don’t stick to a strict A-Z filing system. Instead, I try to sort by topic or ‘section.’ Sometimes I file alphabetically within each section, but I don’t obsess over it.
The broad sections I use are:
- Children’s paperwork that doesn’t belong in their memory boxes
- Taxes — current year + 2 previous years
- Medical records and insurance information
- Financial paperwork
- Household stuff — utilities, property information, vehicles, etc.
- Specific but miscellaneous files
So… it’s not a ‘perfect’ paper filing system by classic standards. But I’ve used it for many years, streamlining and reducing as I’m able to do more and more online. For me, it’s the best way to organize paper files because I can easily maintain it and lay my hands on just about whatever I need very quickly
Which brings us to the most important part — sticking to the habit of maintaining your system.
4. Maintain Your Paper File Organization
However you decide to implement organizing paper files, it won’t do any good if things don’t STAY organized. As you file new papers, make sure you place them in the correct file or make a new one if necessary.
I highly recommend NOT creating one general miscellaneous file. It’s very tempting to throw most of your papers into it and then you’ll find you’ve created a monster nearly as frightening as that stuffed-full 4-drawer cabinet.
Don’t allow incoming papers to pile up. Remember that separate file box I mentioned earlier that you should keep near where you open mail and pay bills? It should have a folder in it to hold papers that have been dealt with but need to be filed.
Set a reminder on your phone or in your planner once a week or month to file those papers. While you’re at it, make another reminder for once a year to clean out old papers from your files. Believe me, you’ll be glad you thought ahead! 😉
More Organizing Resources
More Items to Keep Organized Files
If you’re concerned about damp or bugs, this weathertight plastic file box is a good choice for important files.
Need SOME file storage but you really want it to look pretty? This seagrass rolling file cabinet is about the size of one file drawer, plus it’s portable and blends into your home’s decor.
These plastic hanging files with magnified labels are great for anyone who might have difficulty reading the print on small file tabs. It might be cost-prohibitive to organize an entire file cabinet with them, but I would certainly consider them for frequently-used files.
If you want your subdividing files to look nice and neat, these Avery 8593 1/3-cut printable labels will do the job. You can even use Avery’s design software to customize and print your own pretty labels.
Concluding Thoughts on Organizing Your Files
With the right tools, these tips, and some planning, you can create your perfect file storage system pretty easily.
Remember to minimize your filing needs, choose the storage system you prefer, and clearly label everything. And with regular maintenance, your files will be streamlined and efficient in no time. No more piles of files!
You’ve got this!