How to Organise Your Paperwork - and Not Toss It All in the Fire!

There is something about the early spring sun shining into the dark corners of our home that always prompts a bout of decluttering and reorganising ahead of the inevitable spring cleaning.

Running a busy household and working from home, one of my nightmare areas is paperwork, it is never ending!

However much companies claim to be 'bill-free' and digital, they still send us lots of mashed tree every week, and I know I'm not alone.

What to keep and what to throw can be a minefield, and my dreams of minimalist living recede further and further into the distance...

Photo c/o Luxury Flooring

Whether you work from home, outside the home or are a home-maker, how to organise the piles of paperwork that clutter our living space seems to be a topic of conversation for many women.

For many, finding some sort of organisational system that works can be such a challenge that the daily plop of mail on the mat becomes a major source of stress.

If you are sinking in piles of papyrus, here are our guidelines on how to manage paperwork, and how to deal with the mountains you already have:

Assess the Situation

Check every room in the house for piles of paperwork, post, magazines, catalogues etc etc etc.

Pull it all together and go through to check what you really need.  Be ruthless.

Stand next to the recycling bin and ask yourself for every item if you really need it, or if something needs to be done with it.

If not, recycle it.

Don't be afraid to throw things away.

In our fast-paced modern world the information they contain may already be out of date, and if you do need that information in the future you can find it again.

If you have a huge backlog, tackle just one room at a time, or commit to one pile or even just 10 items a day.

But get it done.

Have four cardboard boxes in front of you and label them: Personal, Home, Finances, and Action.

Scan and sort quickly.  At this stage do not keep any 'to read' items.

Anything in the Action folder needs to be dealt with as soon as possible, then redistributed to one of the other boxes.

Then go through each box and question whether you need each item.

Sort them into sub categories, e.g. Home might become recipes, gardening tips and decorating ideas, as well as your TV licence and house insurance. 

Separate everything out into different sections and again question whether you really need them.

Read the next list to see what you should definitely keep.

If you feel you must keep recipes, travel ideas etc, put them in clearly labelled folders or paste them into scrapbooks.

The same goes for children's birthday cards, drawings, paintings and early writing attempts, scrapbooks are the way to go.

Keep the Essentials

Most paperwork conveys some information to note and can then be discarded, but there are some things you MUST keep, they include:

  • Car registration documents, MOT, log book, insurance certificate, driving licence counterpart
  • Birth, marriage and death certificates
  • Passports
  • Medical cards
  • House deeds, leases and any other agreements, mortgage agreements and last statements
  • Insurance policies (life, house, travel etc)
  • TV licence
  • Wills
  • All bank and building society account numbers (make a list in a finances notebook or keep the latest statement), any rarely used PIN numbers
  • Share certificates, savings books, Premium Bond certificates
  • Credit card numbers and company names (again, make a list or keep just the most recent statement)
  • Loan agreements
  • Receipts and guarantees for major purchases, you do not need to keep all household receipts
  • Degree certificates, diplomas, professional memberships, CRB checks etc
  • Tax returns and receipts (if you are self-employed) for the last 5 years
  • Keep payslips and P45s for 2 years according to HMRC, P60s for ever
  • Pension information

Make sure these documents are somewhere safe but easily accessible, in an easily recognisable, preferably fireproof, filing cabinet or box.  Sort the papers into categories and make or buy a colourful folder for each.

Label clearly and never assign anything to 'miscellaneous'.

N.B. I don't bother to keep utility bills etc as all the information is stored in online accounts.

Deal with What Comes In

Most paperwork that passes through your letterbox or desk can be ranked into four categories: to do, to pay, to file, and to read. 

Organise four suitable baskets, boxes or other containers and label them. 

As paperwork appears, put it straight into the appropriate basket. 

Never let piles mount up on the kitchen counter, the hall table, your desk, the end of the sofa, or any other hot spots. 

And open ALL post immediately, don't let it build up.

When opening post or receiving paperwork, always consider whether you can put it straight in the recycling bin. 

Do you need to look through every catalogue that arrives? 

Do you really need to do something with the change of address notice from your old bank? 

Bin all leaflets, junk mail, brochures and catalogues, or plan that trip/order that dress and then bin them. 

Take a moment to subscribe to the Royal Mail's OPT OUT service to reduce unwanted mail.

Cancel any catalogues you no longer need, or can access online anyway.

Get Organised

The To Pay basket should stay on your desk/kitchen work top and be dealt with as soon as possible. 

The To Do likewise, and always batch tasks together.

Write all letters and cards in one sitting, once a week; pay all the week's bills in one go (set up direct debits or standing orders if possible); make all phone calls at the same time.

I have folders in my To Do basket, with To Write, To Phone and Internet on, so that I can batch tasks together in advance.

Keep the To Read basket near the sofa and give things a quick glance during the ad breaks, or turn the TV off altogether and read for an hour. 

The To File basket should be kept somewhere out of the way, but be emptied and filed regularly. 

Do it often and it won't take long. 

Always make sure you clear out last year's/month's statements/documents when this year's come in.  

You don't need last year's MOT certificate or mortgage statement once you have a new one, shred it.

If You're Self-Employed

If you are self-employed, sort your work receipts as soon as you receive them.

Create a computer document where you record the basic details like date, item, company and expenditure, then put the receipt straight into a monthly envelope.

Just buy 12 A5 or A4 envelopes, write the month and year on the outside and shove your receipts in. 

Do this every day, or at least 2-3 times a week, and come tax return time life will be so much simpler!

Keep the same kind of records for your income, and keep all invoices carefully labelled and filed on your computer, which you will be backing up regularly anyway, of course.

Reading Material

Fold down pages as you read and then visit the website/order the book/note the date in your diary/rip out the recipe before recycling the rest of the magazine.

If there's a great article or you are amassing tips for your trip to Peru, rip them out and collect them all in a book with plastic pockets. 

Perfect reading material for your next train trip/bath/lazy afternoon.

But remember to file them as soon as you rip them out, we don't want piles starting again!

Don't keep old periodicals/magazines/newspapers, there will always be more and your time is limited, so follow the guidelines above and then pass the remainder on to friends, family or the local hospital, or just recycle them. 

You might even ask yourself if you need to buy magazines and newspapers at all. 

Can you get the information you need online, or could you buy a couple of great cookery books instead of half a dozen magazines?

Keep It Up

Follow this system and you will go from a home filled with random clippings and assorted piles of paperwork, to one with serene paper order in a matter of days.

But systems only work if you stick to them, so get into the habit of dealing with your paperwork every day, filing regularly and purging papers that are outdated, unnecessary or obsolete often. 

You can do it!  Start today.

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