how to organize paperwork

Bookshelf with cubbies filled with binders.

Whether your home office has a room of its own or is confined to the dining room or a nook in your bedroom, a system that lets you organize the paper flow is crucial to staying on top of your personal and professional responsibilities.

Keeping good records not only helps you find critical documents quickly, but it also saves time and eliminates headaches.

And with everything neatly filed away, or in its rightful place, your work area suddenly seems a model of efficiency. 

Here's how to organize paperwork so you can find what you need when you need it.

How to Organize Paperwork at Home

How to organize paperwork? For starters, you will need a few business basics. These include an easy-to-use filing system (a file drawer or cabinet with hanging files, manila file folders, and plenty of stick-on tab labels.

Next, make sure that whatever space you've chosen is safe from curious little fingers, the dog's teeth, or the cat's claws. If you have a separate office, a closed door should keep all the little ones out.

If your desk is a table in the corner, a lidded box that can be shut tight will protect your paperwork at night. Or consider file drawers or a hanging file basket with a lid. 

File folders with neatly printed labels.

How to organize paperwork? Easy. Organize your papers into categories that make sense to you. New Year? New Files!

As a general rule, get a jump on the paper chase by beginning new folders each year and archiving the past year's folders. 

For most families, there are four types of paperwork to be culled and considered. (Make that five, if you run a home business.) You'll need to create a separate filing system or area for each.

It can be as simple as assigning each paperwork type its unique color. You could use green for financial, for example, and red for household.

Here are the three major categories to be consider and how to organize paperwork inside them.

How to Organize Paperwork: Financial Papers

Here's what you'll need in your financial filets keep a handle on everything going on in your family's financial life:

Financial cheat sheet. This is a guide to all your papers, financial advisers, documents, location of safe deposit box key, and other information. It should include copies of what's in the safe deposit box, and what to do - and who to contact first - in case of emergency.

If anything happens to you (or the bill payer), this document can help the surviving spouse through the first few days. 

Safe deposit box or fireproof strongbox. What goes in here? Anything critical that would be very difficult to replace.

Usually, the list includes titles; birth, death, and marriage certificates; copies of wills and deeds; inventory videos of household goods for insurance purposes; and passports.

Bank and credit card statement folders. Easy, right?

Bill folders. Title this so that you can get what you need, fast. I name files in a way that makes sense to me and would (hopefully) to anyone else on the prowl for them. 

For example, though our gas bill payment goes to "Southern California Edison," I file the gas bills under "G" in a file tagged "Gas Company" instead of "S" for "Southern."

Credit card list. Compile a full list of the names and numbers of each credit card in the family. (This includes bank card numbers.) Include the toll-free numbers for reporting loss or theft of said cards.

Credit card receipt catcher. Reserve a folder, envelope, drawer, or other dumping ground for family credit card receipts and online order confirmations.

Estate planning folder. Even if you're planning to plan your estate, you've got a place to file the information.

Investment folders. In these folders, store information on stocks, bonds, and mutual funds. Your records should show the purchase price, sales price, and commissions.

They may also show any reinvested dividends, stock splits and dividends, load charges, and original issue discount.

Life insurance policies folder. Store life insurance papers here, or you can put these essential papers in your safe deposit box or strongbox.

Loan and mortgage folder.File these papers by bank or lending institution name or simply under "Home Mortgage."

Major expenditure receipt folder. You'll want to put the purchase information for your new Sub Zero fridge and other expensive belongings here.

Pay stub folder or envelope. Each pay period, stash your stub.

Tax records folder. Anything you'll be using on your income tax return should go here. 

Work benefits folder. Just in case you're having trouble sleeping some night and are desperate for something to read, put all those work benefits documents here. 

Here's how to organize paperwork that should be included in your home files:

Household papers cheat sheet. This sheet can be on the computer or in a file. It's a guide to the household paperwork.

Car maintenance records. Use this to hold permits, 20,000-mile service receipts, etc.

Home maintenance records. With these records, you'll know the last time you serviced the air conditioner or had the heating vents vacuumed.

Home repairs file. This includes the names and numbers of repair people, contractors, window washers, etc.

Inventory of household goods. This is for insurance purposes. Some people even make a video of their home and its contents in case of an earthquake, fire, tornado, or some other act of God. A copy should go in the safe deposit box. 

Owner's manuals. This file includes directions and receipts for everything in your home, from the coffeemaker to the washing machine.

What's where list. This is your locator list for what's stored in the attic, the basement, the garage, the storage unit, etc. 

Organize Paperwork by Family Member

Your family files should contain all of these categories. Organize your must-haves in a way that makes them easy for you to grab when you're trying to, say, reconcile your daughter's orthodontic bills with the insurance coverage statements.

Here's a look at what to store and how to keep all the essential papers at your fingertips:

Babysitter file. Here's the place to keep notes and numbers on your favorite sitters, who's in high school, who's in college, their driver's license numbers if they're driving your kids anywhere, and other pertinent information. 

Correspondence. Your cards and letters go here.

House sitter/petsitter file. Store recent bills, brochures, recommendations by friends, etc. here.

Medical and dental records. File these by family member.

Pet records. File these by pet, naturally. 

School records. File these by family member. 

As you can see, that's a lot of paper. Some of it is stored in the computer. To make sure that you can find stuff once you enter it into the computer, set up your computer files as you do your paper files. 

Start with the main folder labeled "My Documents." Then break down the information into four folders for different categories (five if your kid shares your computer). Then make any sub-folders as needed.

If you don't do it in an orderly fashion, your computer will be unnavigable. Trust me. 

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