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.
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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.
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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.
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Store Important Documents
Insurance claims, bank statements, paid bills, and the like need a home once you've reviewed them. A file cabinet is ideal, but a file box that slips under your desk or onto a bookshelf works fine where space is at a premium. Even a cardboard file box will do, as long as there's a workable file structure inside it.
Write out a list of the statements you get each month (or every two months, or twice a year). As you do, categories for filing will suggest themselves. The key is finding a system that meets your needs and triggers your memory when you're searching for something.
Organize files by broad subjects (though not overly broad; now's the time to strike the word miscellaneous from your vocabulary). Next, create subcategories―say, Medical, divided into BlueCross BlueShield, Dental Insurance, Lab Reports, etc. You might file all financial statements together by month. If your life's less complicated, filing everything alphabetically may do nicely.
Write up labels and alphabetize for quick retrieval.
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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).
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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).
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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.