Keeping Your Papers Organized

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Still Can't Find It

Do you have any suggestions about setting up a filing system at home? I've set up some files alphabetically, but I need more suggestions.

Advice from a Legal Secretary

I am a legal secretary and spend a lot of time filing for a living. I modeled my home system after my office system. I have a four-drawer filing cabinet (I could have gotten away with using a two-drawer cabinet). I took my stack of papers and separated them according to main categories (credit cards, utilities, banking, warranties, taxes, paychecks, medical/Doctors, travel, kids, automobiles, home, etc.). I labeled hanging files, using plastic tabs, with these main categories and filed them in alphabetical order.

Within each of these main categories, I created sub-categories, and labeled manila folders with the name of each sub-category. For example, under automobiles, I made a separate manila folder for insurance/registration, car payments and repairs/upkeep. Under Warranties I made separate manila folders for large kitchen appliances, small kitchen appliances, yard equipment, kids' stuff, etc.

I put the manila folders inside the hanging folders, using as many hanging files as necessary to accommodate the number of manila folders I had. I didn't label each hanging file, only the first one. Not all main categories will have sub-categories (i.e. paychecks).

I keep an empty letterhead box that I got from my office on top of the filing cabinet into which I throw my "to be filed" paperwork, and then I spend an hour every couple of months filing everything. When the files are getting full (usually around the turn of the year), I take the manila folders out and label them with the dates of the paperwork contained in each file, load them all into a box, which I also date/subject label, and store the boxes in the garage. Then I make a new manila folder for that sub-category and start over.

It takes a bit of work up front but it also saves a lot of time and effort over the long haul when you need to put your hands on something quickly!
Valerie W.

I Was the Worst

I think I'm the world's worst paper person, but I have recently (in the last 3 to 4 years) developed a system that works for us.

I gave up on the alphabetical system, because so many were never used. What I have now is folders for the major areas, such as utilities, bank related, one for each kid, one for home ownership items, auto related (both cars in one folder), etc.

By lumping them all together, you don't waste folders, and you can go right to what you need. In my utility folder, because it can get full faster, I put all contents into a large manila envelope once a quarter and mark the envelope with the quarter date marked and put it at the back of the folders.

This has gone so much better than anything I ever did before. Also, there's a great site at and its full of great organizational tips I would have never thought up on my own.

Start by Date

I use two plastic full size file boxes, hanging files, a set of expandable files, and time. It does take time to set up a system and to keep the system up to date.

In one of the file boxes are the last 7 years of tax receipts, one each in the expandable files. Next January, I will shred the oldest one and replace it with this year's. I also have in here some of the papers from when we purchased our house.

The other file box is the working one. I have all my bills arranged by the date they are due front to back, from the first of the month to the end. This includes even the biyearly auto insurance, too. Once the bill is paid the receipt/stub goes into the correct folder. The unpaid bill sits on my desk in a basket that is arranged front to back with the one due next in the front.

I also have any medical/dental receipts in another folder, need those for this years taxes.

Other folders I have included are auto repairs, school announcements (these eventually go to the child's scrap book each year), Vet bills and records, small appliances, large appliances, out door equipment receipts and warranties (the books are in a notebook in the garage where they are used). I also have last year's utility receipts so I can see if we are using more or less this year compared to last. We also have important papers stored in the safe.

This system works for us. I do get my bills paid. The desk top usually is clear and the extras that are included in so many bills are thrown out. If you can get into the habit of filing things right away and not hold on to the extras it can be easy to use.

By Family Member and Subject

I think of myself as disorganized, but I can usually find the important paper when it's needed, so here goes.

I have a file for each family member. There's a lot of weird stuff in those files, such as school reports, papers they were saving, their Social Security numbers, some medical info. If I can't find something elsewhere, it's probably there. For instance, the flyer that came with their prescription will be there.

I have a file for home improvements and repairs, so I know when the sewer was last cleaned out, and who put the roof on, and how much the awning cost.

I have another file for the mortgage and insurance information about the house.

I have a file labeled "giving." It contains receipts for donations, and little slips of paper to note when I put a dollar or two in the Salvation Army pot. It also has lists of what we gave away, with values put on the items. I use very low values, but it all adds up at tax time. Every year, I start over.

There's a file labeled "cat" for veterinarian info, and a file labeled "computer" for game codes and stuff that seem to show up around the house. (Now that the kids are grown and gone, I think I can dump that one.)

Basically, the idea is to see what papers you have and make up some files that make sense. The family member files were suggested in a book I read a long time ago, and have been very helpful. I even have files for our parents, with copies of wills, etc., in them. If a file gets too full, you divide it. I have them alphabetized, but the system has to suit the user. When stuff that you want to keep piles up, make a new file (one for school photos has been handy).

The advantages of filing aren't always what you think. My file called "food" has all sorts of recipes and stuff that I should pitch. But it "works" in its own stupid way. It keeps the stuff out of the way of the papers I really need.

Just keep relabeling until you hit on a system that keys into your brain cells. It's really a good feeling when an absolutely vital paper is right where it should be, findable on the first try.
Bonita K.


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