two tall stacks of paperwork and files

Paperwork Challenge Day 8

So good to see you! I’m posting these daily so you have the sequence of steps but please know that I’m not expecting, or even encouraging you to take just one day for each step. Take it steady, go at a pace that works for you without becoming a burden and know that there’s light at the end of the tunnel – your paperwork will be corralled!

Today’s thought is, why am I keeping this piece of paper? We’ve made it easier to see what we have by creating broad categories and then breaking those down a little into smaller categories. We could just go ahead and put everything in chronological order within each file and call it good, but that’s not going to serve you well or for long. Organized chaos is still chaos.

So, consider why we keep any piece of paper and it comes down to two main reasons. To prove something -you paid a bill, the house is current with the mortgage, you got that degree, your mother loved you – look at the letters. Or secondly, to remind you to do something. The clutter arises when we lump it all together and call it paperwork – it’s really paper I want or feel I need to keep to prove something and paper I need so I don’t forget to do something. Even then, that would be easy to organize, except for all the decisions involved. Do I want every card my aunt sent me or will one do? Do I need another credit card and if so, which one? The decisions are hard to make so we put them off but keep the paper.

So as you sort through these smaller categories, think about why you’re keeping a piece of paper and if it’s because you need to take an action, pull it out and set it into a box you label take action. You can make a separate medical – take action, financial – take action, etc if you have tons of decisions to make. It all depends on how much of your saved paper is proof or prompting.

If it’s proof, how badly do you need that proof? Paid bills from the Seventies to show the new owner of your house one day are irrelevant these days. No need to keep the proof of how much heating it cost back then. Proof that you paid your taxes last year? Invaluable. Keep it and never let it go, no matter what your financial advisor tells you.

Proof you studied – will you still have the knowledge and wisdom you accumulated through your studies if you let the old notes on how to learn German go? If you refer to them often, they get their own folder, learning German, but if they’re there to remind you you once learned German, are they earning their keep in your filing system?

How about paid bills? Grab that folder and before you start sorting any further, ask yourself why you’re keeping these paper copies? Is it habit, from days gone by? When I first started working in the business office of a newspaper a million years ago, my boss taught me that whenever a subscription invoice was paid, we wrote the date, the check number and the amount on our copy of the invoice. That habit stuck with me and I continued to do that with every paid bill that came into my house long after I was actually paying bills online. I’d pay them online but keep the paper copy. And if trouble came in the form of a payment question, I’d go to the online bank statement to sort things out. Meanwhile, my paid bills folder continued to bulge. Are you keeping something you don’t use or need, just out of habit? Consider not keeping the paper bills any longer than it takes you to use them as a reminder to pay the bill.

Bank statements are another over-kept category. Before you automatically hold onto a bank statement, check whether you still even have that bank account. Do the statements detail anything more thought-provoking than a surprising number of stops at Target and King Soopers? In other words, why are you keeping them?

Even if your goal is to check every statement with the bank account – awesome idea to do this in real time! – are you going to go back and reconcile years past? If you didn’t tackle that project during our covid downtime, it’s just not going to happen and for good reason – you don’t really want to and there hasn’t been a need for it. If you’re holding onto receipts or statements to verify an improvement for your house, they belong with your house paperwork.

So, the general idea is to go through each folder with an eye to whether there’s any reason to keep what’s in there. Look out for what we call bumf [noun INFORMAL•BRITISH useless or tedious printed information or documents. “most of his mail was just bumf, bills, and Christmas cards” Oxford Languages ]. You know it when you see it, it’s all those little ad flyers and pages telling you how to get help in seventeen different languages. Those are all generic and you don’t need to keep every last one or even any.

Sort the content of the folder into things you don’t need (recycle or shred them if they have identifying information on them) and things you want to hold onto. Leave it at that in the paid bills example. It’s much quicker to leaf through that folder if you need to than to create a separate file folder for each bill. If you want a little more organization, always put a new addition to the folder in the back of the folder, so it’s chronological.

Whew! Did that feel a bit much? Don’t worry, you don’t have to do this all at once and you don’t even have to do it – keeping your paperwork sorted by these still-broad categories will serve you well, the rest is just organizational icing.

Tomorrow we’ll wrap this challenge up with a list of the top five file folder categories that’ll make your life so much easier. See you then!


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