How To Organize Papers Without a Filing Cabinet: 5 Simple Solutions That Work

We all know how quickly papers pile up and become a mountain of clutter. But what if you don’t have — or want — a huge filing cabinet to store everything? Here’s how to organize papers without a filing cabinet and still keep yourself uncluttered.

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Even the most organized people struggle with figuring out how to best manage document storage. Whether it’s keeping receipts for taxes or documents for work, the piles of pages stack up quickly. If you don’t stay on top of it, things can get overwhelming fast.

While filing cabinets are great for storage, they’re big, bulky, and let’s face it — ugly! Chances are you either don’t have space to fit a large filing cabinet or you don’t want to sacrifice your decor. So here are some great options for organizing your papers without a monstrous filing cabinet.

5 Solutions to Organize Papers Without a Filing Cabinet

1. Go Digital

Thanks to technology, you could go almost completely paper-free if that’s what you really want to do. It would take some getting used to at first, but the trade-off of having very little paper to handle can be absolutely worth it!

From switching bills and statements to paperless, to digitizing what does enter your home, this is a great solution for most paper storage problems. 

I recommend the strategy Donnie Lawson describes in the workbook portion of the course Intentional Habits, Organized Home. It’s simple, fuss-free, and doesn’t require any fancy equipment or a long process to learn the simple apps.   

A huge advantage I’ve found with keeping things in digital format is that everything is easy to share with others who need the information. You can share a file directly or email a PDF copy to anyone who needs it.

2. Try Binders

One of the easiest ways to organize papers without a filing cabinet is by using binders. This really is one of my favorites! You can create fully customized storage for nearly any actual paperwork you need to keep. Clearly labeled binders make everything easy to store and access.

All you really need are a few binders, some dividers or different colored paper and a 3-hole punch.

There are many ways to organize papers with a binder — by category, by month, even by year. For this example, we’ll use a yearly organization.

Start by labeling your binder on the spine and cover with the year that you’ll be organizing — 2021 for example. Add your dividers to the inside of the binder for any categories that you wish to organize your papers by — insurance, home expenses, business expenses, groceries, cleaning & home maintenance, menus, etc. 

Once your categories are in place, all you need to do is hole-punch your papers and organize them into the correct section of the binder, close it up, and store it on your shelf! To make things even easier, use page protectors instead of a hole punch. ‘File’ your important papers in the binder as they arrive throughout the year.

Binders make it super easy to search for any documents you may need by date. They can also help make doing your taxes a breeze. The best part? They can be stored on most shelves, and when you no longer need the paperwork for that year or category, they can be stored in boxes or drawers… or you can remove the pages and reuse the binder. 

The one thing you do need to be cautious of is creating too many binders. Remember, the idea here is to deal with less paper overall. If you’re just making a new binder every week or month to store more papers that you don’t really need to keep, you’re defeating the purpose… and taking up more room than a filing cabinet at the same time.

Instead, limit your binders to what you use on a daily basis and/or need to access quickly.

3. Grab a Portable File Box

I love this one because it’s so compact! Even if you go mostly paperless, there will probably be at least some papers that you really need or want to keep. 

A great solution is to use a small, portable file box with a handle. Something about 6-8” deep is perfect if you can pare down your files. You’ll be surprised at just how much you can store in this box using either regular file folders or hanging folders.

The grab-and-go portability is really a plus if you need to transport your files often, or if you worry about having to pack and leave quickly in case of natural disasters, etc. 

If you’re in a position where you absolutely need to keep more than a few files for tax or medical reasons, use a letter/legal size bin with a lid. It approaches a file cabinet drawer in size, but it’s still fairly portable.

4. File in Envelopes

If you’re only holding papers and receipts for your taxes, or you need a super basic way to organize your papers, you really can’t go wrong with some cheap and easy poly envelopes with zip closures to keep everything sorted and held securely. 

To organize your papers using poly envelopes, simply label a new envelope for each category or month or year. Once labeled, sort your papers into the correct envelope.

When all the papers you need to sort are in their new envelopes, tuck them away in a drawer or on a shelf where they are easy for you to access. As you get new papers and receipts, simply toss them into their correct envelope, and that’s it! 

5. Use Accordion Files

Accordion files most closely mimic the organization of a filing cabinet on a smaller and more manageable scale.

Accordion files are expanding folders with a varying number of dividers inside that you can label with whatever categories you choose to organize. 

These are great for taxes as you can keep all your documents and receipts for each year in one large file instead of a bunch of loose file folders. 

Accordion files keep your paper organization in one small, tidy place. If you get the kind of expanding folder with a flap closure, you also don’t have to worry about having pages fall out if they tip over or are stored on their sides. Plus, they fit easily on most shelves or in drawers. 

Do I need to keep hard copies of medical records and taxes?

Well… Do you know how many hospitals and doctor’s offices are going paperless? Most of them, and there’s a very good reason for that!

They save space and have easier access to every record. If hospitals do it, there’s no reason YOU can’t do the same thing!

I get that you want to be able to hold and read your medical records. Maybe you don’t trust technology. Maybe you have handwritten journals of symptoms, medications, etc.

That’s completely understandable! For the papers you simply can’t digitize, I recommend the small file box solution.

What about taxes? Doesn’t the IRS require us to keep hard copies of our tax returns and all supporting documents for, like, EVER?

Here’s the thing… if you digitize the receipts and other tax papers, they will actually last LONGER than a hard copy. Have you noticed how quickly receipts fade? 

Seriously, if you make a purchase in January and want to use the store-printed receipt for your taxes the next spring, you could very well be out of luck. There’s a huge chance that receipt will have faded so badly as to be illegible. 

So… yeah… digitize those receipts and everything else you possibly can when it comes to your taxes. You can always print them out in the unlikely event of an audit.

Oh, and how long do you really need to keep tax stuff? H&R Block recommends 3 years for personal returns, and the IRS has varying limits for business returns

Concluding Thoughts on Paper Organizing Without a File Cabinet

Just because you don’t have space, or don’t want one of those big, ugly filing cabinets in your home doesn’t mean you can’t manage your paper clutter effectively! 

As you’ve just seen, there are several great ways to organize papers without a file cabinet by using specialized folders, binders, file boxes, and digital options.

What is your true goal when it comes to paper? To deal with less in the first place, or to store less on the back end?

This is what I recommend:

  • Go digital as much as possible for daily transactions to eliminate incoming paper piles.
  • Figure out which storage solutions are ideal for your needs and your space.
  • Choose the option you’re most likely to keep on top of. 

Paper clutter can make us feel stressed out, but finding simple ways to manage it is easier than you think!

You’ve got this!

Still want to go with the classic filing cabinet for paper storage? Here’s the best way to organize paper files.

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6 thoughts on “How To Organize Papers Without a Filing Cabinet: 5 Simple Solutions That Work”

  1. Great post. I really love binders for organizing, and I also have a couple of compact file boxes that are small enough to keep me from getting overwhelmed!

  2. Deliska Bradley

    I took 12 gallon zip lock bags, wrote the month on each one, and I keep tax receipts in each month. The bags are in a cloth grocery bag. So easy to keep. It sits by my chair so when I come in with a handful of receipts, just put them in the ziplock bag.

  3. I’ve found after retirement most of us don’t need as much paper. Medicare/Insurance; Property/Taxes/Upkeep; Income are about all I need anymore. Thankfully

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