Systems for Organizing Your Mail
Set Up a Workspace
- Designate something as an in-box. It can be a basket, a storage box, a drawer―anything big enough to hold a week's worth of mail and no more. Locate it in a place that's convenient and not so out of the way that it's out of sight and mind.
- Post a large trash can or recycling bin near the in-box to hold all the junk mail that you'll be purging. "Treat your wastebaskets like babies: Keep them in close reach at all times and feed and change them often," suggests Harriet Schechter, owner of Miracle Worker Organizing Service and the author of Let Go of Clutter. Helpful hint: Pitch junk mail the second you reach your in-box each day. Your ruthlessness will be rewarded with a significantly smaller pile of mail to contend with when you sit down to sift through it.
- Consider buying a paper shredder. It will let you dispose of documents containing personal information and account numbers without having to worry about identity theft.
- Decide on a regular time to sort through your in-box and distribute its contents to the organizational systems you create. Allot a few minutes each day or an hour once a week, whatever works for you: What's important is that you make it a habit.
Create a Filing System
- To keep bill paying from being married to a particular room (and feeling like such a chore), devise a portable filing system that will let you work anywhere you like.
- Stash a checkbook, pens, stamps, and envelopes in the back pocket of your organizer so you don't have to hunt for them when you're ready to go. Download the How to Get Your Bills Under Control worksheet.
- Label the file pockets in a way that works for you, whether that's day by day―marked 1 to 31―or a pay-this-week and pay-next-week system.
- Then decide on a good time to tackle the job―such as during commercial breaks in your favorite TV shows, suggests Rita Emmett, the author of The Clutter-Busting Handbook ($12). Chopping bill-paying up into manageable bites helps make shorter work of it.
- Many banks let you set up bill-paying plans and receive statements online.
- Some utilities and service companies (cable, phone, Internet providers) offer online and automated-payment options that either deduct money straight from your checking account or automatically charge your balance to a chosen credit card every month.
- You'll still want to review your statements to keep your checkbook balanced, but you'll be free of the physical check writing and stamp licking, as well as those late fees.
The Easiest Method for Storing and Organizing Important Documents at Home
Even the messiest, most overflowing filing cabinet of personal documents can be wrestled into submission—you just need some time, patience, and a solid paper storage strategy. Whether you’re fresh out of school and adulting for the first time, or live in a houseful of kids, each with their own set of important personal documents, you need a lifelong paper storage system that can help you sort everything from insurance claims to credit card statements. Here’s how to make finding and filing important documents as easy as possible at home.
1. Arrange piles
Start by sorting your paperwork into categories (household, school, pets). Shred outdated or unneeded documents that contain personal information, like your name, address, and especially Social Security or credit card number. Less sensitive documents can just be recycled.
2. Sort with ease
Create labels with big-picture categories listed first, followed by narrower descriptions (“Medical: Julie” or “Taxes: 2017”). Use manila folders with all right- or left-hand tabs—they’re faster to flip through than assorted-position tabs—and alphabetize.
3. Size appropriately
Determine how much storage space you need. If you maintain most of your files digitally, for example, don’t use a large filing cabinet. It’s a waste of space, and you may be tempted to fill it with files you don’t need or items that don’t belong in a filing cabinet. Instead, opt for a desktop file box.
4. Consider frequency
Out-of-the-way storage spots (think high shelves in less-used closets) are perfect places to archive files like tax returns and bank statements. Reserve easy-access locations for items you need more regularly, like school forms and recipes.
5. Create a landing pad
Set up a daily drop zone in a high-traffic area, such as the kitchen, for incoming mail and paperwork. Designating a single spot will prevent piles from accumulating throughout the house. An inbox or wall-mounted basket will conserve space and make it obvious when items are overflowing and need to be dealt with. Filter out junk mail and filler paper before adding anything to the drop zone. Address the items that land here at least twice a week, then file or recycle them.
6. Keep it neat
Do a big sweep of your regularly accessed files every three to six months. Archive or shred documents that are no longer relevant. Tax returns and documents pertaining to household repairs should be kept for at least three years.
Bonus: Going paperless
Organizing documents digitally obviously poses fewer space challenges, and your computer’s search tool can help you find exactly what you’re looking for. Follow the same guidelines for digital labels as for physical ones. Back up files onto an external hard drive, or use a cloud storage service, like Google Drive. The Evernote Scannable app (free; iOS) helps you quickly convert paper files into digital ones.
Preserve Tax Records
- Each tax season, go through your file and toss what's no longer needed. Keep tax returns indefinitely (or for at least seven years), but you can discard supporting documents, like phone bills, after six years, says David Wiesenberg, C.P.A., of Studio City, California.
- Also keep information on assets indefinitely, even after disposing of them, the IRS advises. You'll need it for calculating property depreciation or profit or loss from stock or fund sales.
- A scanner can be a paper-reducing miracle: Scan things like utility bills onto your hard drive, save them on a rewritable CD as backup, and pitch records you'll probably never need again (though not documents relating to assets; you may need the originals one day).
Organize Magazines and Catalogs
- Separate these bulky items from your other mail before you even take off your coat. Put them in a designated basket or magazine tote so you can transport them easily from room to room for perusing, then to the recycling bin when you're done. Pick a container that's big enough to hold the month's required reading but small enough to force you to purge the old issues to make room for the new.
- If you find you're often loath to part with certain recipes or months-old magazine articles, tear out the pages and store them in an expandable file, divided into sections based on the kinds of things you save. Do the same with catalog pages that feature perfect gifts or your own wish-list items (just be sure to get the 800 number or website address so you can place an order later on―and you'll probably also need the cover page with your address, for those pesky code numbers the operators always ask for).
Keep Only What You Need
- A binder makes a good alternative to an expandable folder as an organizational tool for pages you want to save; tear those out, then discard the magazine or catalog.
- If there's a magazine whose issues you haven't so much as cracked the binding on in six months, consider canceling the subscription. If you're inundated with catalogs you have no interest in, call the companies and ask to be taken off their mailing lists.
- Pack up designated discards for recycling day, or donate old magazines to charitable organizations or your local library or hospital.