How to set up a home filing system that actually works

Having a well set up, easy to run filing system at home can make all the difference between success and failure for a stay-at-home mom.  It took me years to conquer the paperwork pile, and still I can suddenly have a pile show up apparently overnight, if I don’t stay on top of things.

Here’s the system we use, how to get it set up, and how to keep it running:

Number 1:  Cut down on the paper that comes into your home

The first step of setting up a filing system is to stop overproduction of paper in the first place!  The less that comes into your home, the less you have to handle, sort, decide, and so on.

Every now and then we put ourselves on the ‘No Junk Mail’ list, you can add yourself here.  It lasts about a year, and then starts to pick up again.

The other thing is to put as many of your recurring bills as possible onto auto-pay, with paperless statements or bills.  That, too, will cut down on how much you have to file.

Number 2:  Toss what does come through your front door

Even with paperless billing and cutting down on junk mail, an awful lot will still make it through your front door and into your orderly, lean home, attempting to throw you off track by shoving hundreds of ‘special offers’ and ‘one-time’ deals in your face.

That’s why the second step of your filing system is a brown paper bag for recycling!

Sort the mail as soon as it comes, at least to the point of tossing what you don’t need into the recycle bag.

Which brings us to…

Number 3:  Have a very limited section of flyers and coupons

Unless you are a coupon queen (and I hope you’re not…extreme couponing is overproduction at its most extreme!) have a small but easy-to-access area for coupons and flyers.

When we moved house last year we were lucky enough to get a desk in the kitchen, and one of the small drawers is designated for this purpose.  I only keep the Safeway flyer, out of all the ones I get, as that is the only place apart from WinCo that I shop at on a regular basis.  If I happen to go to Fred Meyer or somewhere, it’s easy to jump online and look at their weekly specials.

I’ll also pull out a few coupons for the things we’re already looking for.  For example, if the car is about to need an oil change, by all means be free to keep an oil change coupon.

Because I’m so picky of what goes into that drawer, it is never full, even if I don’t go through it every week, and it literally takes a matter of seconds to get rid of any expired coupons and flyers when I do.

Number 4:  Have a remote file cabinet for occasional need papers

Another lesson learned in conquering the paper pile is to have papers you only use occasionally stored out of your main work area.  You might find a filing cabinet in your garage or attic works well.

About five years ago I sold enough stuff on ebay to buy a big low file cabinet similar to this one, with the goal that it will last till we’re old.  Having the space to store what does need to be stored has been very worthwhile!

These are some of the things that get kept in it:

Insurance info, including records from any accidents we’ve had

A large section is kept for school records and a sampling of work from each school year  – and I’ll admit that in a large part, this is to help our kids see how important their education is.  If their work is going to go into that file cabinet, it has to be good.

Health records – by year and by family member

Important documents – birth certificates, marriage certificates, etc.

Government – tax records from previous years, including donation receipts or income tax returns

Previous years’ regular files

Employment records

Bank records – although mostly this is online now, so not as much needs to be kept

Housing – records of maintenance you’ve done, mortgage statements, utilities

As you can see, these are your archive files.  Yes, you might need to access them occasionally, but not on an everyday basis.

Number 5:  have a small active file in the location where you pay your regular bills

Now that we have a desk in the kitchen, we have one drawer of it designated for current filing.

First of all we have the name of our ‘suppliers’ on each file, and the files arranged alphabetically.  You’re right, that’s not rocket science!  But instead of having a broad category file, like Insurance, we have either Allstate or Geico, for the monthly correspondence from each.  Note ye well: only file PAID bills in these!  Don’t put bills in these that haven’t been paid yet!

Second, anything that doesn’t need to be paid goes straight into these files.  It doesn’t need to sit on the counter or in a ‘To File’ file first! J That’s also not rocket science, but you wouldn’t believe how long it took me to figure that one out.  Now, it just comes in the mail, the envelope gets opened, and it gets filed.

Number 6: A section for each ‘problem’ file

There will always be some categories of paperwork that present more of a challenge than others.  What I have found works for me is something I have never read of exactly, just a system that I have developed over the years.

Each ‘problem’ category gets its own space, whatever the space needed might be.

One that we always struggled with for years was current school paperwork.  You know – field trip permission forms, tests that needed to be reviewed and signed, or rubrics for upcoming projects.    We finally put up a hanging wall file, with a VIP file for each kid & mom.  That’s a Very Important Paper file!  It means that when Junior wanders into the kitchen while you’re kneading bread and mentions he just found the permission slip for the campout….he can put it in your VIP file, then you can sign it once your hands are dry, and pop it into his one.  It’s your job to sign it and get it back into his file, but it’s his job to get it into your one first, and to get it back into his backpack.  The VIP file is also a great place to store any school login info your kids might need, whether for paying for school lunches or any online learning they do.

We also have a bright yellow ‘To Pay’ 2-pocket folder for those bills that are not on autopay or are not to be paid immediately for some reason.

And we have a bright red 2-pocket folder for another ‘problem’ paperwork category: estimated tax payments.  Because my husband is self-employed, we have to make quarterly tax payments to the IRS and also to the state.  Since I have done this, it has gone way easier than when we had the info in with either tax files or government files, and I would scrabble around desperately knowing that the info I needed was certainly there SOMEWHERE!

Finally, in the cupboard above the desk we have stacking trays for other bulky categories.  We recently got some new appliances, and each of them has an instruction manual, a warranty pack, and a variety of extra nuts or bolts.  In a few more months I’ll know what of that I need to keep – a lot of info is available online – but for now it can happily take up a tray without bothering anyone, and is easier to grab for reference while I’m still learning them, than finding it online.  I also have a tray for any paperwork for my husband’s business that happens to come to the house, and a tray for…wait for it…this blog.  Because I tend to have inspiration strike when I’m NOT working on it, and need to be able to jot stuff/draw stuff/brain dump stuff and so on, and have somewhere I can find it later. 🙂


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