How to organise your household paperwork

Are you sick of staring at piles of unopened envelopes and paperwork? Or not being able to easily find important documents when you need them? Here’s how to organise your household paperwork.

The volume of paper coming into our homes seems to be ever increasing. As a result, I am often asked to support my clients to organise their household paperwork.

So I wanted to share with you some of the benefits of having your paperwork in order, and how to set up an effective management system.

What are the benefits of effective paperwork management?

There are three excellent reasons why you should consider investing the time in getting your paperwork organised:

  1. You’ll save time – with everything filed effectively you can easily find what you need.
  2. You’ll save money – disorganised household paperwork may subject you to late fees and penalties. Dealing with your paperwork promptly also means that you have time to find the best deals and budget ahead.
  3. You’ll be less stressed – unmanaged paperwork can feel like a burden, and it can be overwhelming to try to work out where to and how to manage it.

Why do we need to hold onto paperwork?

So why do we need to hold onto paperwork? There are many good reasons why we should keep hold of paperwork, including:

  • To refer to it at some point in the future (legal documents, flyers, letters from school etc).
  • Keep track of spending and saving (banking/investments etc).
  • For proof of purchase (receipts, warranties etc).
  • Identity proof (birth certificates, driving licence, passports utility bills etc).
  • Subscriptions (magazines, newspapers).

How can you reduce the volume of paperwork coming into your home?

The first step in managing your paperwork is to minimise the amount you have! So here are some tips to reduce your volume of paperwork:

  1. Go online – manage your banking, utilities etc with an online account.
  2. Go digital – you can scan important documents and receipts and save them online (remember to back them up).
  3. Review your household subscriptions – do you have time to read everything that you subscribe to? Could you set up an online subscription that you can access the same content when you need it?
  4. Reduce junk mail – get a letterbox sticker ‘No Junk Mail’, sign up to the free Mail Preference Service, register with the Royal Mail’s door-to-door opt-out service, and contact persistent senders (under the Data Protection Act 1998, any organisation must stop using your personal information for direct marketing purposes if you ask them to do so).

How long do you need to keep paperwork?

Paperwork that needs to be filed can be split into two groups – lifetime and fixed-time paperwork. Here’s a list of lifetime paperwork you need to keep in a safe place:

  • Certificates, such as birth, marriage, divorce degree and death.
  • Wills and Powers of Attorney.
  • Investments and share certificates.
  • Pensions.
  • Passports.
  • Driving licences and motor vehicle documents.
  • House records (deeds, mortgage, rental agreements etc).
  • Medical records and health insurance documents.

Fixed term paperwork includes documents you only need to keep for a limited amount of time. Here’s how long you need to store it for:

  • Utility bills – one year. It’s often useful to refer to your current policy when renewing or changing a supplier.
  • Bank statements (non-business) – one year. You should get into the habit of checking your statements regularly to review your direct debits/standing orders and identify any unusual behaviour.
  • Receipts – keep for purchases until the returns policy has expired (usually 30 days). Valuable items keep until warranty runs out.
  • Insurance documents – keep for the period of coverage.
  • Business/investment paperwork – the general rule is seven years.
  • Contract of employment – for the term of your current employment.

How to create an effective paperwork management system

So how can you organise your paperwork so it’s neatly filed away, and easily accessible if you need it? Here are some tips:

  • Identify the areas in your home where paperwork builds up. This should include all visible piles of paperwork and hidden paperwork stored in cupboards, bags and boxes.
  • Collate all paperwork into one place to sort
  • Identify an area to set up your filing system and where you will store important paperwork that you do not need to reference (such as your loft or garage). You may want to scan in important documents as a backup.
  • Set up a system for in-coming mail. I would suggest purchasing a shallow A4 in-tray to put all incoming paperwork. You might want to include two or three plastic wallets for school paperwork and any appointments scheduled in the diary etc. The tray should not be too deep otherwise it will be too overwhelming to sort.

Next, divide your paperwork into three groups:

  1. Action – respond to a request, schedule bill payments, book an appointment etc.
  2. Purge – junk mail, menus, subscriptions etc.
  3. File – create a pile for each company. This will make it much easier for you to file paperwork later. Learn to love filing. Don’t fill up bags with unopened letters, as there may be important items that you need to action and you may end up getting rid of important documents.

How to set up your filing system

Your filing system you set up doesn’t need to be complicated, but simply makes it easier for you to find what you need.

Where you set this up and how it works will depend on the space that you have in your home. A two-drawer filing cabinet with clearly labelled drop files works very well. Any important documents that you need to keep but don’t need to refer to can be kept in a plastic box in the loft or garage.

How to maintain order once you’ve organised your paperwork

The last thing you want, after going to the effort of getting all your paperwork in order, is to slowly slip back into old habits – and find yourself in chaos once again.

So set aside a maximum of 20 minutes each day to review incoming paperwork. Identify any actions that need to be completed, and create a pile for filing and recycle any unwanted mail.

I also recommend allocating up to 30 minutes twice a week to file any paperwork that you need to keep. When you add new papers to your existing files, check if any papers can be purged.

Tracy Ross is an experienced organiser. You can find out more about her services with Blissfully Organised Home Organisation and Decluttering on her website

Photo by Siniz Kim