Paper Management, Part 4

Developing a Simple and Effective Household Filing System

Managing the piles of paper and multitude of important documents in our “information age”  is a major home organization challenge for most people. It’s time to tackle that challenge and your Basic Household Filing System. It’s time to change your thinking a bit, get organized, and simplify. Does it sound like a daunting task? It doesn’t have to be!

You should be able to retrieve any paper or important document in less than one minute—if that’s not the case, it may be time to revamp that old system and start anew. Unless you already have a system that’s at least 75 percent effective, I recommend starting from scratch. Then incorporate your old files into your new system.

If you can retrieve any paper in less than a minute, you have an organized and effective filing system and you can stop reading. Congratulations!

The first step in developing an effective household filing system is to understand both what it is and what it is not. These files are different than your Quick Access Files, which hold information that you need to access often and quickly. Many times, quick access files are used for a season and then discarded or updated. Occasionally, if they contain documents or information that you will want to keep in your permanent files, they can be transferred to your basic household filing system. Some examples of information found in your Quick Access Files are invitations, schedules, announcements, appointment reminders, and take out menus. You need to access these files daily and quickly, and for that reason, they should be kept in the hub of the home. Check out part 2 of my Paper Management series,  “Quick Access Files: Don’t Live an Organized Life Without Them!”

Your Household Filing System, on the other hand, does not need to be accessed as often. These files are your basic household working files, which hold current, important documents and records used for routine activities like bill paying, tax and financial statement documentation, medical information, and home maintenance. They need to be accessible, but not located in the hub of the home. Generally, when you are writing bills or dealing with your household paperwork, you need a bit of quiet. For this reason, consider finding space in your home office, or even a quiet corner of your bedroom.

The secret to a good filing system is to keep it simple. Whatever system you use should make it easy to find what you need, be easy to maintain, and make sense to everyone who may need to use it. If it isn’t simple and effective, it won’t get used.

Filing is not about storage, but rather it is about finding what you need when you need it. Instead of trying to figure out what you can toss, determine what you need to keep. There is a huge difference! 80% of the papers that we file away will never get looked at again. If you aren’t sure what to save, ask yourself the following questions – if you don’t answer yes, toss it.

  • Are there tax/legal reasons to keep it?
  • Will it help me complete a project I’m working on right now?
  • Do I have time to do anything with this piece of paper in the future?
  • If I ever needed it again, would it be hard to get from someone else?
  • Is the information up-to-date?
  • Would my work/life change if I didn’t have it?
  • Is the same information easily accessible online?

Document Retention guides are available online. Just google household document retention guides, and you will find a number of them to choose from.  Use them as a guideline, and be sure to check with your accountant or lawyer to get advice about a particular situation or document.

“Man’s best friend, aside from the dog, is the wastebasket”.      Business Week

Remember this truth and always have your friend with you when dealing with paperwork!

With these tips in mind, let’s begin!

First, separate your filing system into 3-5 basic subjects: I generally use 3 Main subjects: 1. Family and Personal, 2. Possessions, and 3. Finances. You can separate each category by placing them in separate drawers, by using separate color hanging files for each subject area, or by simply staggering the location of your filing tabs (Family and Personal to the left, Possessions in the center, and Finances to the right).

Your next step is to assign broad categories within each subject, and place each broad category in it’s own hanging file.

Family and Personal – Create Broad Categories for: Each Person in your family, Medical Insurance, Each Pet or Animal in your family, and Each Organization that you are associated with.

For example: Within the subject of “Family and Personal”, I may have hanging folders for the following broad categories:

  • Family Members (1 hanging file for each family member)
  • Pets (1 hanging file for each pet)
  • Relatives and/or Contacts
  • Memberships
  • Insurance
  • Church/Ministry
  • Volunteer Organizations

Possessions– Include anything you OWN – Create Broad Categories for Automobiles, Home Purchases, Home Improvements, Large Appliances, Small Appliances, Large Electronics, Small Electronics, Your Current Home, Home Utilities, Home Services

Finances – Include anything having to do with your finances – Create Broad Categories for Bank Accounts, Credit Accounts, Investments, and College Savings Plan

Finally, assign specific categories within each broad category and place each specific category in it’s own manila folder in the hanging folder. For example: Within the broad category of each family member, I place 3-4 manila folders labeled; Personal, Health, Education, and Employment. The Personal file will hold birth certificate, social security card, passport, and other important certificates. The Health file will hold important health records, dental records and immunization records. The Education file will house permanent test results, transcripts, degrees, letters of recommendations, awards, and any other permanent records. Finally, the Employment file will hold resumes, contracts, benefits, retirement information, and social security records.

Of course your family filing system will change as your life changes. You won’t have an Education or Employment file for your newborn, but can add those as the need arises in the years to come. Likewise, you may have additional files for the family member(s) who are in the workforce for a long period of time. You may have categories of Employment, Past Employment, Future Employment Goals etc. The beauty of creating your own, personalized filing system is the ability to tailor it to your own needs.

For this reason, I do not recommend purchasing a pre-designed filing system. It WON’T be simple. At least not for you. You will have to spend time fitting your categories into their categories. It is much easier to create your own categories, with titles that make sense to you so that you will be able to remember them. I also don’t recommend filing alphabetically. It’s way too much to remember for my pee brain! Is my VW Bug filed under V for VW, B for Bug, A for Auto, or C for Car?

It takes a bit of work on the front end, but your efforts in developing a household filing system will save you countless hours and frustration in the long run.

Happy Filing!


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