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 This way, you’ll keep your files up to date instead of wasting space by storing outdated information.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.