Set Up a Paper Management System in 5 Easy Steps

Houzz Contributor. Jeanne Taylor is a professional home organizer in the San Francisco Bay Area. She is the co-owner of Tailorly with her business partner Patricia Lee. Together they create beautiful homes through decluttering, organizing, and styling. For more information visit .

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Many of my clients struggle to eliminate paper clutter in their homes. Often, kitchen countertops become drop zones for mail, receipts, coupons, brochures, meeting notes, political ads, school forms and real estate flyers. As a professional home organizer, I recommend implementing a simple paper management system to organize incoming paper and help keep the flat surfaces in your home tidy.

When setting up a system to organize paper, I do not believe in a one-size-fits-all solution. I personally have tried several organizational methods over the years and found many complicated to set up and cumbersome to implement. Remember, the “best” method will fail if it is not easy for you to use.

Many of us need a simple approach. I spent a few hours setting up my system, and now I keep my countertops tidy with little effort. Keep in mind that everyone has their own style, and you may need to adjust my method to meet your unique needs. Some may prefer a more detailed system. Read on for a few tips that might help you control the mess on your kitchen, table, desk or countertops.

1. Create a Drop Zone for All Incoming Mail and Paper

Recommended supplies: A basket, magazine file, tray or another container.

Suggested use: I suggest teaching household members to place mail and other incoming paper into a storage container such as a basket, magazine file or attractive tray. Place your container on a countertop, entry table or another easily accessible surface. I personally do not attempt to organize my drop zone container in any way. Once a week, I take my basket to my workstation for processing.

2. Establish a Dedicated Workstation to Manage Household Paper

If you are responsible for managing bills, finances and other household business, I recommend creating a dedicated office zone not shared with other household members. Having your own workstation will help you stay organized.

If you do not have the luxury of a home office, place a small desk or table in an unused corner of the living room, dining room or kitchen. You might also repurpose an unused closet or nook in your home.

Consider reminding family members not to use your desk or supplies. Even if you don’t work outside the home, it is important to have some space that is your own personal domain.

  • A desk or work table with drawers for supplies.
  • One file drawer or stand-alone file cabinet.
  • Office supplies, such as a stapler, label-maker, pens, scissors, paper clips, envelopes, stamps and notepaper.
  • I recommend using drawer organizers to separate supplies into categories. Perhaps you can repurpose small boxes you already own. If you are purchasing new drawer organizers, I suggest measuring drawers before purchasing for the right fit.

Suggested use: Every week, I spend an hour or two reviewing the papers in my drop-zone basket and attend to them as needed. For example, I pay bills not already set up for automatic bill pay, file necessary receipts and tax records and respond to invitations. I scan any documents I want to store on my computer or in the cloud. I take action on all items in my basket and start the following week fresh.

I am mindful not to save unnecessary paper and refrain from having paper piles cluttering my house. I recycle any unneeded documents. I keep a small decorativebox under my desk where I stash papers for shredding.

3. Create a File Drawer for Frequently Accessed Files

Create a hanging folder for each file and label it with a label-maker or handwritten label. File alphabetically in your file drawer.

Recommended supplies: One file drawer, hanging files, plastic file tabs, paper labels and label-maker (optional).

Suggested use: Most of my bills are paid automatically, so I do not receive many in the mail. However, I still find it necessary to have one small file drawer for some documents. I could spend time scanning paper and filing on my computer, but for me it is easier to use paper files.

I have one letter-sized file drawer that is only about three-quarters full. I have customized it for my needs. I review files and purge unnecessary paper approximately once a year.

Here are a few examples of types of documents I save and the files I have set up:

  • Medical file: Test results, notes and records for medical situations that have not been resolved. Consider signing up for electronic delivery of explanation of benefits and claims information. This information can also be found on your medical insurance website.
  • Current tax year file: Paperwork necessary to complete taxes for this year.
  • Car records: Receipts from recent car repairs.
  • Receipts and warranties: Try to limit the number of receipts you keep and purge this file often.
  • Pet file: Records of vaccinations and other medical information.
  • Utility file: One paper bill from each of my utility companies with customer service number and account number. This information could also be stored in a computer file.
  • Capital gains receipts: Home improvement receipts for capital improvements made to my home. This will vary by state. I move these records into long-term storage at the end of the year.
4. Use a Separate File Box for Long-Term Document Storage

There are some files you seldom or never access. I recommend storing these files in another location and not in your active file drawer.

Recommended supplies: Bankers box or portable file box, fireproof box or safe.

Suggested use: Here are examples of files I recommend keeping in your nonactive storage file box. I store my long-term storage files on the top shelf of a closet.

  • Tax returns and receipts from the last seven years (or less, depending on your tax situation).
  • Car and bike records: It’s best to keep car loan documents until the loan is fully paid off and also title documents for the cars you currently own. You may want to save purchase receipts for bikes. Be sure to file all repair and service records. You will want to show these to a potential buyer when you sell your car or bike so that the buyer can be confident that your vehicle was properly serviced and that both your vehicle and bicycle come with an uncomplicated ownership history.
  • Official records: Birth and death certificates, adoption papers, marriage licenses, divorce decrees, estate plans, Social Security cards, passports, records of paid mortgages and military discharge papers. I suggest keeping these in a fire-safe box.
5. Use Magazine Files for Large, Ongoing Projects

Recommended supplies: Magazine files.

Suggested use: I recommend using magazine files to keep larger projects from cluttering your countertops. For example, during a home remodel, you may find yourself accumulating glossy brochures, paint chips, fabric swatches and receipts. Instead of letting these items create clutter, use a magazine file to store everything during the duration of the project.

Magazine files are also useful when managing a large event like a wedding, charity auction or other celebration. Keep the file in a handy location so you can easily add to it.

Other Suggestions for Controlling Paper Clutter

  • Review your mail before you take it from the mailbox into your home and toss all ads, flyers and junk mail into the recycling bin.
  • Sign up for automatic bill pay for utility bills, mortgage payments and other monthly bills.
  • Sign up for email delivery of statements from banks and other financial institutions.
  • Shred paper bills once they are paid or drop off documents to be shred at a shredding company twice a year.
  • Be mindful of the paper you bring into your home, such as glossy magazines, real estate flyers or campaign ads. All of this information can be found online.
  • Recycle unnecessary papers once you are finished with a large project.
  • Consider tossing manuals for small appliances like toasters or coffee makers. Most likely, you can find any information you need online.
  • Scan anything important and store it in the cloud.
  • Keep a record of jury duty in a file on your computer and toss the notice.
  • Be selective when saving your child’s artwork. Consider storing their art projects in a portfolio case and keep that in a handy location. At the end of the school year, cull your stash and place your favorites into a larger storage container and move to more permanent storage. To save space, think about taking photos of your favorite art and creating a digital photo book at the end of each school year.

This content was originally published here.

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