Paperwork, filing, taxes -- there must be some people who enjoy dealing with these, right? I’m not one of them and I suspect you aren’t either. Unfortunately, with tax day coming up next month, piles of paper are a reality for many of us.
What are the top causes of this paper pileup?
What are the solutions to these problems?
Paperwork, specifically incoming mail, is a top complaint of my organizing clients. Why do we get so much junk mail?! It takes time and effort to process, and we end up tossing most of it.
In my blog about strategies to reduce paperwork, I detail some steps you can take to get rid of incoming junk, but today I want to help you get rid of the junkiest of junk mail.
Supermarket Circulars: the junk mail bane of my existence!
I hate getting those newsprint flyers. They go straight from my mail slot into my recycling bin. What a colossal waste!
Have you been diligently slogging through your paperwork this month? Have you gathered together the tax info, submitted and received forms, shredded outdated information, and created a filing system that you can maintain going forward?
If so, good job! If not, check out my last blog for a helpful framework on the ART of filing.
Most likely, one of the reasons you struggle with paperwork is because you are just inundated with too much of it. Despite the fact that we live in the digital age, physical paper still abounds. Here are the three best strategies to reduce it.
Strategy #1: Autopay
Autopay has been the best tool for me personally in reducing the amount of time I spend processing bills and paperwork. I used to sit down once a week to process all incoming bills. What a headache that was! Now I never have to do that.
How does autopay work? Just sign up with the payee (utility company, cell phone, even credit card) to have your bill automatically deducted on your due date each month from the account you select, either a bank account or a credit card.
Reap the benefits:
Avoid the drawbacks:
Note: When setting credit cards up for autopay, start by having only the minimum due paid automatically. That way, you won’t worry about forgetting to make a payment and incurring late fees, but you also won’t have to worry about your bank account being overdrawn by a giant payment. As you get more used to automatic payments and saving up funds to cover them, you can switch to having the full balance automatically deducted.
Strategy #2: Paperless
Are you worried about going paperless? Don’t be! You’ll still get bills and statements, but they’ll be sent via email instead of snail mail.
Unless they affect your taxes, you probably don’t need to save copies of the bills because you can access them online. Check with the payee to see how long you’ll have online access to the records.
If you want to save the bills for yourself, file them digitally. Set up an email folder called “Bills” (creative, right?) and save the emails there, or download copies of the statements (or save the emails as pdf files) and store them in a folder marked “Bills 2019,” creating one folder per year. Resist the temptation to print them out!
Strategy #3: Opt Out
I love opting out of receiving mail! Why? Because it puts me in control of what information comes into my home.
As a bonus, it’s an immediate way to reduce so much waste: wasted paper, wasted ink, wasted stamps, wasted money, wasted effort (both in getting it to me and in getting rid of it.
So how do you opt out of getting all this mail? These are my favorite tools:
The mail won’t be reduced overnight, but if you stick with using these services, you’ll see a dramatic reduction of incoming mail over the course of a couple of months. I used to get stacks of mail, but now only have a few pieces of mail each day and occasionally I get no mail at all. When the catalogs and solicitations start creeping into my mailbox again, I use PaperKarma again to banish them.
I’d love to hear from you!
What is your best strategy to reduce the time you spend with paperwork?
Do you enjoy getting catalogs or do you find they create dissatisfaction and “wanting?”
With the old year over and tax preparation looming, February is the perfect month to tackle the piles, both physical and digital, of records that have accumulated over the past year (or years!).
I’ll admit it, I do not love dealing with paperwork. As with other necessary tasks I don’t enjoy, such as laundry, my approach is to handle paperwork quickly and get it over with.
I find that the biggest hurdle people face with paperwork is knowing how to create a framework for separating, storing, and acting upon all the different types of papers that enter our lives.
To solve this problem, use my simple acronym to help you create an easy, 3-part file system:
ART = Archive, Reference, To Do
A is for Archive
Goal: Safely store these documents so you can get to them when you need them but in a place where they won’t clutter up your daily space.
What goes into your archive? Records you need to keep but you rarely need to access, such as
Store these securely, but not necessarily close at hand. I store these types of things in a safe (for the documents) and in an expanding file case (for tax returns). You could also use a hanging file box or a banker’s box tucked away somewhere in your home. If you already have a file cabinet, use the least-accessible bottom drawer as your Archive drawer.
R is for Reference
Goal: Organize reference information so filing it is quick and retrieval is easy.
Reference papers come into your home regularly but are not frequently used, although you might have to refer to them at tax time or when you need to look up information. Some examples of reference files are:
Whenever possible, go paperless with these types of files. If you need to store records for tax purposes, just download the statements and keep them on a server with a backup copy elsewhere.
Many reference files are also “replacement” files. For example, when the new insurance policy arrives, shred the old one and replace it with the new. This way, you’ll keep your files up to date instead of wasting space by storing outdated information.
Store reference files somewhere that’s relatively easy to access, so as to make filing easier and more likely to happen. I use an expanding file case that sits on a shelf under my desk within easy reach. If you have a file cabinet, the top or middle drawer would be a good place.
Some reference files might be needed for your income taxes. If so, having them neatly organized here will give you easy access when it’s time to prepare your taxes. Once the taxes are done, store the supporting reference files with the returns in your Archive area.
T is for To Do
To Do papers are the items that seem to give people the most trouble. They can’t be put away because we need to act on them but then they pile up and sometimes even get lost!
Goal: Organize your To Do’s in an easy-to-reach place so you actually DO them!
To Do’s are things such as:
As with Reference, go paperless with as many To Do’s as possible. For bills, take it off your To Do list by setting up auto-pay. When the e-bill arrives, just note the payment date and check that you have the funds in your account.
How to store To Do’s? A desktop file (best without a lid) keeps them in view without being unsightly. Other options are stadium files and wall pocket or cascading files. Unlike a single (usually overflowing) inbox, these storage solutions allow you to categorize your To Do’s by type (e.g. bills, forms, reading, travel), due date (e.g. dates of the month 1-7, 8-14, 15-21, 22-31), or time it takes to complete the task (e.g. 5 minutes, 15 minutes, ½ hour, 1+ hour).
Now you’re ready to turn your papers into a work of ART!
How’s your paperwork shaping up this tax season? Are you all electronic, all paper, or somewhere in between? I’d love to hear your comments and answer your questions.
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Some of my favorites are:
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The calendar just rolled over to a new year, so it's time to start fresh with some new files. This goes for you whether you're mostly digital, mostly paper, or somewhere in the middle.
If you keep digital files, I recommend downloading pdf copies of the statements as a backup and keeping them in folders on your computer and backed up on a cloud server (I use dropbox, but there are many good options out there.). Now is the time to create new folders labeled with the new year so you'll be ready when this year's downloads are available.
If you keep paper files, now is the time to label some fresh new folders. If you have a file drawer, one good option is to keep two-year's worth of files available at a time so you can just rotate the files for the new year. One set of files will be labeled "odd" for odd years, and the other "even." When the new year rolls around, bring the new year's set of files to the front of the drawer, emptying them out by discarding anything no longer need to store and placing items for long-term storage (Check the IRS website for a reference list.) in an archive file location such as a less-accessible file drawer or a box in a closet, attic, or basement (Use plastic bins if moisture is a problem.).
Another option for paper files is my expanding file system. Each year, I start fresh with a new 19-pocket expanding file. For the first part of the year, while I'm preparing for taxes, I keep last year's file handy. After April 15th, it goes down to my basement on a shelf with 7 others. I store 7 years' worth of files (that's how long to save tax-related info) plus one expanding file for permanent information (tax returns, home repairs, major medical info, etc.). I like this system because it's easy, compact, and never has to be purged. After 7 years, the files get shredded and I can reuse the expanding file.
How will you make a fresh start with files this year?
Looking for an easy way to reduce the dreaded task of filing? Go paperless!
Whenever possible, whether it's utility bills or bank statements, sign up for the paperless option. Don't worry, your statements and account information will all be available to you online, but you'll no longer have to handle and store the paper files.
You'll still be able to reconcile your bank statements and keep track of payments because the statements will come to your email address. If you really feel the need, you can file these digitally in a special email folder. At least that kind of filing takes just a click and doesn't take up any physical space.
Want to streamline things even further? Sign up for automatic payments of recurring bills. You'll be given at least several days' notice about exactly how much will be deducted from your bank account or charged to your credit card, so you have time to transfer the funds as needed. You'll never be late on a payment again!
Way back in the fall, I wrote about how to set up a system to deal with all those pesky papers that come home from school.
The basic weekly system is this:
1. Immediately deal with any notifications (add to calendar, write a check, sign a form).
2. Recycle anything not worth saving (worksheets, scribbles, spelling tests, coloring pages).
3. Display this week’s artwork and accomplishments in your temporary display space (fridge, frame, bulletin board, clothesline strung across a window).
4. Stash last week’s displayed work in an art portfolio or other bin.*
*This is the time to weed out anything that, after one week’s display, can be recycled. Try to save only the best items, such as the unusually detailed drawing, the very clever essay, or the spelling/math test that was a true victory.
Now that you’ve been diligently checking the backpack every week and keeping up with all the papers, what do you do with the stash that has accumulated in the portfolio?
That’s what we’ll tackle today!
As soon as school is over for the year (Don’t delay or the time will get away from you!), make some space on a table or floor and dump out that stash.
Side note: It’s up to you whether you want your child involved in this sorting process or whether it will go more smoothly if you do it yourself. Just remember, you are really saving this stuff for you, not for your child. When kids are adults, they almost always say, “Why did you save all this stuff? I don’t even remember that!” It’s the rare adult child who wants any of it. You are saving these memories for you, so keep what is meaningful to you.
Ready...set...start sorting! Make one pile for recycling and one for the (possible) keepers. Try to go through it as quickly as possible. Right now, you are just eliminating the obvious non-keepers.
Shove that pile of non-keepers into the recycling bin immediately! Don’t look back!
Now for the hard part: finding the treasures.
During that first sorting process, you only identified the possible keepers, now you have to cull the collection even more, leaving only the true gems: the few pieces of art that show your child’s progress over the year, the story your child wrote about your family vacation, the test that was such a struggle but ended in triumph, the piece that completely sums up who your child is at this age.
In order to help you figure out exactly how much you can save and how much you’ll have to cut, you need a long-term storage solution.
I suggest either a pre-made school years scrapbook or a keepsake portfolio. The key is that it shouldn’t be too big (not a box, because you don’t want to end up with a dozen of those – one for every grade!). It should have pockets big enough to hold construction paper (even if you have to fold some) but not so big that you can avoid deciding what to keep and just shove everything in it. You also don’t need something with slots for every grade, Pre-K through 12, because after 5th grade the paper trail drops off considerably. Phew!
Click here for an example of a school years scrapbook.
Click here and here for examples of keepsake portfolios.
The scrapbook has the advantage of being something you can keep on a bookshelf and of having space for children to contribute thoughts about the past year (favorite subject, friends, school photos, etc.). Kids also enjoy looking through scrapbooks of their past school years.
The portfolio has the advantage of being able to hold larger (and more) papers and of being easier to fill because you just slip the papers in the large slot and don’t have pages to fill out.
Are you worried because your child is already in second grade and you don’t know what to do with the giant backlog of papers from past years that you have thrown into large bins to avoid sorting? Have no fear! Make a date with yourself (schedule it on your calendar) to go through the stuff, enjoy reminiscing about your child’s early years, populate your new school scrapbook or portfolio, and reclaim the space in those bins!
Need to organize a desk, vanity, or other shallow drawer? You could spend a lot of money on fancy-looking organizers or spend a lot of time devising a custom-organizer box plan, but how much work does organizing a messy drawer really need to be?
I like these simple, plastic drawer organizers from the Container Store.
They cost only $5.99 for the small size and $7.99 for the large and are pre-sectioned to hold items of varying size and have a sliding top section that can hold items you frequently need to grab. Another plus is that they are smooth plastic with rounded corners so they are easy to clean.
With other drawer organizers, I often find that they don’t have the right type of sections for the job – too many small sections or too many large sections or just not the right mix. These organizers seem to have just what I need for so many different organizing tasks: makeup, skincare products, medicine, first aid supplies, arts and crafts tools, etc.