I hate to admit this. My husband and I have worked hard, and reduced the clutter in the main areas of our home for a while … except the paper problem. And it wasn’t just a small problem with papers. We let it grow into a huge problem that was not easy to fix. I know some of you may be able to relate, and have shied away from the overwhelming task of decluttering papers! I want to share with you the list we came up with of what to keep and what to toss.
Things have gotten easier at our house since we began decluttering. It doesn’t take hours to clean up before someone comes over. We can generally find the things we need. The kids have even gotten better about cleaning up their own things. But we still had this desk with a perpetual pile of paper on it, as well as other papers around the house:
This picture was taken on a very good day. But guess what’s in those file drawers? Unorganized papers. And the cube ottoman underneath? Another attempt at hiding papers!
When we decided to clean, we would either just dump all the papers in a box “to go through later” or maybe pull out a few important things, set them aside, and dump the rest in a box… I know, it was BAD. The problem is, I had no clue what to do with the papers, and no time to figure it out. We needed a system that was easy to follow to keep this from happening!
Since we are working toward clearing out ALL the unnecessary clutter, we have decided to go paperless as much as possible, and scan a lot of things. However, there are some things where it is better to just keep the originals.
In this post, I’ll share our system for keeping the house free of piles of paper and paper clutter, including what to keep, what you can scan, and what you can toss, plus some tips on getting papers where they belong.
Important documents – keep original copies:
This first category of papers is things you will need to keep for a long time. You can file them, but I really love the idea of creating a binder for these items. Just grab a binder and some clear plastic sheet protectors, and you can slide the documents in or take them out as needed.
These are your most important documents, so you might want to consider keeping your binder in a fire-proof safe or box. After each item, I have listed how long you need to keep them.
- Marriage/birth/adoption papers – forever
- Death certificates, wills, and advance directives – forever
- Social Security cards, military papers, passport or citizenship documents – forever
- Receipt of paid-off mortgage or other large debts – forever
- Contracts – as long as they are valid (or in dispute).
- Property records, vehicle titles (including property tax records) – three years after selling.
Keep these original documents temporarily
These documents are important to keep as well, though you do not need to keep them as long.
- Pay check stubs – until you check for discrepancies with W-2’s and file your taxes for the year.
- All tax documents – for three years – as long as you disclosed everything on your taxes this is how long the IRS can audit you. (Tax documents include tax returns, w-2’s, 1099’s, insurance policies – including canceled ones, bank statements – if used for tax accounting, medical bills, and anything else you need to claim on your taxes – see a tax advisor for a full list).
Keep Digitally if Possible (or keep physical copy)
- Medical Records (especially reactions, allergies, blood workups, and procedures) – forever
- Pet Medical Records – forever
- Bills – keep for one year.
- Bills you are disputing – until they are resolved.
- Credit card, investment, and bank statements – keep for one year, keep annual investment statements as long as you have the investment, and for three years after selling or cashing out.
- Receipts (this includes invoices or packing slips for items purchased online) – you can scan right away, or keep the original for 30 days, then scan:
- Items with a longer return period than 30 days
- Items with a warranty or care plan
- Receipts you will need for tax accounting.
- Receipts for high value items (for insurance)
- Note: Don’t try to hold on to original receipts for more than 30 days, because receipts fade quickly and may not be legible when you need them!
- List of all bill accounts with addresses and contact numbers.
- Education Records
- Employment Records
- Monthly budget
- List of bank accounts, investments, and retirement accounts
- List of important website logins and passwords
Recycle these items (don’t even set them down in your house):
- Junk mail/ads – you can find most ads and coupons online!
- Catalogs – again, view these online instead.
- Magazines – can you switch to a digital subscription? If you want to keep it, give yourself a time limit to read it, then recycle or pass it on.
- Invitations – unless it is sentimental, write down all the information in your planner (better yet, in a digital planner like Google Calendar), then toss it.
Putting it Together – How to Get Things Where they Belong
The hardest part is starting, and getting through the mess you might have right now. This was one of the last things we conquered in our home, because it didn’t feel so overwhelming to go through papers once most of our other clutter was out of the way.
If you need help getting started, make sure you check out our Minimalism Motivation Workbook. Whatever level of decluttering you are trying to achieve, it helps to put your priorities in order and think about the really deep reasons for wanting to do this. Knowing your deep reasons can help you stay motivated to keep going!
We decided to create a binder of important papers, scan the documents we could keep digitally, start an accordion file for current tax paperwork and check stubs, and another accordion file for 3 years of prior tax returns and paperwork. Keeping these goals in mind of what to keep helped us to recycle and get rid of the majority of the papers we had been holding on to!
After the hardest part was done, we committed to sticking with a system to keep it clean. If you notice, all the items that you MUST keep a hard copy of are not things you receive regularly (other than possibly paycheck stubs). When you get one of these important documents, just slip it in your binder or file right away.
Most of the work is going to come from making sure you scan your other items regularly.
Options like Neat Receipt’s NeatDesk or Fujitsu’s ScanSnap come with both an easy-to-use scanner and filing software for your computer. Alternatively, you can use any printer with a scanner, and “file” documents in folders on your computer or an online drive (if you are using your computer, make sure to back up on a hard drive or cloud server), or purchase software to use with your scanner.
If you are purchasing a new printer with a scanner on it, I cannot recommend this one enough, along with the HP Instant Ink program (use the link to get a free month of printing)! We have saved SO much money on ink with the program. You pay a monthly fee for a set amount of pages of printing (and can roll over up to 300 page/month), and HP will send you ink before you run out. You can adjust your plan as needed, and most only pay a few cents per page (unless you just don’t use your printer).
If you need more help getting a scanning system in place, here is a more in-depth article on setting up a scanning system.
That’s it! I hope this helps you organize your papers and your office, and eliminate paper clutter. Full disclosure: I was planning to share an “after” picture of the basement office we are setting up, but we decided to turn it into a much more extensive project. We are pulling down the ceiling, painting, and putting in flooring before we set everything up … I plan to post an update in a month or two of how our minimalist journey is going, so I will share pictures then!
I found this book: Minimalist Monday – Zen Home to be very helpful in explaining documents and how long to keep them (as well as how to organize other areas), and it’s only $2.99 on Kindle at the time of writing this article!
For more on creating a binder filing system, check out this series on Money Saving Mom!