use four-drawer file cabinets to store your clutter

How to get organized using 4-drawer filing cabinets

Professional organizer or not, we all have a million better things to do than clean our homes. We keep things up, kinda, but deep cleaning is right at the bottom of the list of fun things to do.

I recently had a migraine which went on for four weeks. I couldn’t read, write, watch or listen.

Take away all entertainment, and you’ll find yourself scrubbing the baseboards and using toothpicks to get the mess out from that bit where the back of the kitchen sink meets the splashboard.

When cleaning is the only thing you have the energy to do, you realize just how much clutter you have.

Well, you knew I’d get to the decluttering part

This migraine was an opportunity to notice and do something about all the extra stuff in our house.

I couldn’t work, text or scroll, read or watch TV.

But I could make clear and focused decisions about the things that hang out in the house with me.

Migraines are medical, but the timing of this one sure was interesting

I should mention that the second week, when I could get up and move around but not do much else, our son moved out of state. Great opportunity for him, beyond sad for us. We’ve been lucky enough to have him living with us for 25 years, and the change has been tough.

Oh, and our dog died the week before he left.

So, there I was, no way to distract myself and an extra room had opened up. It was full to the brim. He took clothes and some books, his electronics and not much else.

I walk my talk at home as well as work, and I’ve never thrown out something someone wanted. He wants it all.

It took me about a week to get it cleared out. I didn’t toss anything personal, just the trash. I moved everything else, tank by tank, down to our basement.

Luckily, the basement is huge so there’s room for it all. Everything from his room, plus all the things he already had in the basement. All his school papers, kindergarten through college.

Organizing with four-drawer filing cabinets

So, here’s my solution. It’s a work in progress, partly because it’s tiring, partly because the thrift stores are currently out of four-drawer cabinets. But I can wait, because I know those are always being donated. They cost hundreds of dollars new but thrift stores sell them for under $20 each.

My plan is to create a Museum of Things. I don’t want any of this stuff myself but I know it’s important to my family.

The Museum of Clutter

Picture your high school counselor’s office. Tan or putty metal file cabinets lined the walls, and each 4-drawer file cabinet had four surprisingly deep file drawers.

Nothing could topple those metal cases, they were sturdy, boring, reassuringly competent.

I’m using these 4-drawer filing cabinets to organize all the things my family doesn’t want to let go of.

I’ve created my big categories already – each person in our family is a category. With these 4-drawer filing cabinets, each person’s stuff will then get broken down into smaller categories.

Son

  • Elementary schoolwork
  • Middle school paperwork
  • High school papers
  • College papers
  • Sentimental items

Daughter

She doesn’t hold onto much, so her cabinet will house the stuffed animals she wants to keep.

Husband

  • Souvenirs by country.
  • Notes from 25 years of being a news reporter, interviewing people by writing notes in notebooks.
  • Scrapbooks of every newspaper story he ever published. Especially in his early days as a local reporter, he often published three stories a day. That’s a lot of ink and paper.
  • Sentimental cards, travel brochures, postcards, receipts.
  • Photographs that didn’t make it to the albums.
  • Negatives and double copies from all the photographs we took before digital cameras and phones took us to a land of digital clutter.

I may or may not drill down further within each of these small categories, depending on how easy it becomes to find things this way.

What will you put in each drawer?

The beauty of this project is it’s totally customizable. You’ve seen my categories, but yours will be different.

  • Paperwork, yes, but a drawer for sentiment, a drawer for taxes, a drawer for all those knitting patterns and recipes you’re going to try one day.
  • A drawer for all your genealogical papers, clipping, photos and artifacts.
  • All the tea cozies your grandmother made.
  • Your collection of old cameras.

How will you organize each drawer?

You could use handing file folders for paperwork, but what I’ve been using and loving are these two-inch file jackets. I’m no affiliate, I just love them. They hold nice amount of anything (papers, tiny toys, scarves), and there’s room to label the folder.

You can label them as specifically as you want, from D sentiment – high school (big picture) all the way down to D prom (very specific).

The Museum of Clutter is better than Tote City

rows of plastic storage totes

My son never throws out any paper and in the first photo, you can see how Tote City living makes looking at these papers completely overwhelming. Everything’s all mixed up.

tote full of disorganized papers

Using file jackets, you can contain the overwhelm by sorting the papers into broad categories.

papers organized in file jackets in filing cabinet
close up view of categories in filing cabinet

It reminds me of the bird room of the Santa Barbara museum. The walls are lined with dioramas, and in the center of the room, there are banks of rosewood cabinets. Each drawer opens to a set of bird eggs, or feathers. It’s really quite lovely. Our basement’s themes are different but the experience will be the same – discovering treasures you’d given up ever seeing again.

I think it’s going to be a smart strategy to age this stuff

You know how you buy something and it doesn’t fit after all? You stick it in the closet and a few months (years?) later, it feels okay to finally let it go. You’ve aged it.

With this wall of file cabinets, the stuff isn’t just dumped in totes in the back of the basement. It’s organized.

Maybe one day you’ll start decluttering twenty minutes a day, working your way through the drawers.

Pros: 4-drawer file cabinets are mouse-proof

Since mice can’t get in through metal, your stuff won’t get chewed or peed on. Your paperwork won’t be shredded for bedding, and the sweet drawer with your kids’ newborn clothes won’t house baby mice.

Cons: 4-drawer file cabinets are heavy

This strategy only works if you have a basement with a flat floor, because you don’t want these monstrosities to wobble or tumble.

If you live in an area with earthquakes, skip this one.

Pro tip: Don’t spray paint your 4-drawer file cabinets

Painting stops the rollers rolling smoothly and you’ll hear hideous squeaks that WD-40 won’t touch. If you want to decorate, use magnets.

Aging clutter is a good step but it’s not the end of the road

Ideally, this isn’t the final step in getting organized. It’s a way of breaking things down, categorizing them so you know what you have and can make good decluttering decisions without getting overwhelmed.

Once you’ve created your Museum of Clutter, age it for a while and then start going through the file drawers, seeing what you can let go of now.

When you’re done decluttering your 4-drawer file cabinets, donate them back to the thrift store so someone else can use this strategy.

If you’re curious about this idea, I can help you make it happen.

by Lucy Kelly


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12 comments

  1. We have a few of those big metal file cabinets in our garage and they house my husband’s memorabilia. He plans to go through them soon-ish and release things he no longer needs. That will be great because we can then store things we DO want to keep in the cabinets.

    I like how you’re using them to organize your “Museum of Clutter.” When you’re ready to review things in more detail, you can work it one folder at a time.

    On a personal note, it sounds like you’ve had a rough bunch of weeks between the migraine, your son leaving the nest, and your dog passing away. It’s a lot of loss. My heart goes out to you along with extra hugs.

  2. Great idea, Lucy. I really like the way you are using the file jackets. it makes a lot of sense. I also like the way you have given each person their own set of drawers. I had my sons go through their belongings about 6 years ago and removed their keepers to their homes. It was wonderful.

    1. File jackets were new to me. I just love them! Temporary enough they’ll house some clutter for a while but not so sturdy the clutter can be ignored forever. I’m sure it was lovely to gain some space when your sons made the decisions about their keepers!

  3. To dress up my filing cabinet, I used self-stick removable wallpaper or Contact Paper. on the front. It worked well and if I wanted to get rid of it, I could easily remove the removable wallpaper.

  4. The Museum of Clutter! I love it. You are so right that file cabinets are much more accessible than plastic tubs. My MIL is a quilter. I can see these being a great way to save fabric scraps.

  5. I’ve had a three-drawer version of those old cabinets for decades. Since we don’t generate or save nearly as much paper these days, its role isn’t as important and I’ve contemplated getting rid of it in favour of something smaller and more attractive. You’ve given me a great idea to give it a whole new life though – thank you very much!

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