Paper is one of the easiest things to take over your life — if you don’t have a system in place to handle it — because it comes constantly. It’s always in the mailbox, at work, at church, at school, etc.

The good thing is, paper is cyclical. You get the same bills, insurance policies, etc. So, if you can set up a system for all of the paper you’ll be receiving, you’ll be able to manage this. Having a system will help save you time (because you won’t be looking for items) and money (no more late fees or replacing documents).

Explore: What’s working and what’s not working?

Don’t change what’s working for you and your family. Now is the time to identify what’s not working, so you can make changes for improvement.

Merge: Put like items together.

I think of paper in four categories:

  • Vital documents: Birth certificate, marriage license, etc. (Check out our blog post on how to organize and store these).
  • Reference papers: Items you legally have to keep, such as taxes or real estate documents.
  • Current documents: Taxes, bank statements, insurance policies, anything that is current for this year.
  • Action items: Papers that need you to complete something before you can get rid of them.

If this is a system that would work for you, start sorting your papers in this manner.

Edit: What are you going to keep, recycle, or shred?

Lots of people are confused about what how long to keep paperwork. Here is a general guide to follow regarding each category of paper, but ultimately you should ask your CPA or tax preparer what they suggest for your unique situation.

Knowing what to shred is about your comfort level. Some of you might want to shred everything that has a name or an address on it, while others may stick to shredding only items that include a social security number.

Depending on how many items you need to shred, you might consider getting a personal shredder to keep at home or using a shredding service in town. Follow us on Instagram and Facebook for upcoming Baton Rouge shred events.

Nest: Where will your documents be stored?

Depending on how you sorted your paper, you will likely have different locations for different types of paper:

  • Vital documents: Keep these in a fireproof safe.
  • Reference: Store on a shelf, under a bed, an extra file cabinet (anywhere out of the way)
  • Current: This is the file you’ll want close to you; maybe wherever you open mail and pay bills.
  • Action: These documents will likely be “out and about” until it’s paid or the action is taken and you can file it or get rid of it.

Develop: How are you going to maintain the paper system?

For reference files, you should consult with a professional depending on the type of document. For example, talk to your CPA about when to toss your specific tax documents. Everyone’s situation is different, so there’s not a blanket answer.

For all the reference papers that you are keeping, you might want to sort by year. The main purpose of keeping these documents is to support your taxes. Consider separating them into years and storing them with the tax return for that year.  This would make it easier if you were audited and/or when you’re ready to shred documents by year.

For the current files, it’s only files for the current year — be strict about this. If an item doesn’t support your taxes, you can likely get rid of it. For example, if you’re paying the electric bill and you’re not planning on writing that off for a home office, you can get rid of it.

Don’t fall into a habit of making a “To be filed” file. Take the few extra seconds to put the paper in its correct file folder so it doesn’t get out of control (then you’ll really not want to tackle it).

For action items, you don’t want to file them away until the action is completed. If you put it in a file folder and store it away, it will be out of sight and out of mind. Of course, if the action pile gets too high, it will be overwhelming, and you might ignore it entirely.

People tend to keep papers out as visual reminders of action that needs to be taken. What ends up happening is that there are so many papers out that it all blends together and you don’t even see the action that needs to take place anymore. Ask yourself if the physical paper that you are keeping as a reminder is necessary to complete the action. If not, consider writing the action down — whether in an app, a planner, or on sticky notes — and tossing the paper. By writing them down and grouping action items together, you are creating a clutter-free way to access what action needs to be taken and in what priority order they should be done.

In the long-term, it’s also a good idea to add yourself to the Do Not Mail List along with removing yourself from any mailing lists for catalogues you no longer want to receive.

You can also make it a habit to be more thoughtful about printing things at home. Being aware that every time you press “print,” you are creating more paper clutter in your home. Consider saving electronic versions when possible.

And finally, read more about how to organize kids’ school projects and artwork in our previous blog post here — if that’s a common source of clutter in your home.

Jan. 24 is another installment of the “Get Organized” series at the Main Library on Goodwood. Join Alyssa for the third session: “Organizing Your Photos and Memorabilia” at 3pm.