Who’s ready for a fresh start? In our series on organizing personal papers, the first suggested project is to create or update your file system and it nicely ties with the start of a new year. Regardless of whether you manage active and reference files in paper or electronic form, reviewing and replacing dated or previous year files with current year folders introduces these benefits:
- Creates space in active file drawers (or electronic storage)
- Helps you find information faster
- Offers clear access to other users
- Reduces time spent on year-end reporting (tax prep)
- Relieves mental burden of what to do with documents (paper or electronic)
Organizing Paper Documents
If you are generally satisfied with your current filing system, all that is required is to determine the main file categories that need updating, remove and/or archive previous year records, and replace with empty current year folders. Common categories include:
- Medical (EOBs, billing statements, prescriptions, FSA/HSA receipts)
- Financial (bank and investment statements)
- Bills Paid (active accounts)
- Tax Documents
Schedule a 1-hour block in your calendar to tackle this routine maintenance now so that you are prepared for the inflow to come as the year progresses. You’ll thank yourself later!
Below is a suggested task plan for updating your personal paper files:
- Remove previous year documents in these or related categories that have chronological significance (remove interior folder, keep labeled hanging file)
- Store folders in labeled file box or alternate file drawer with previous years’ records
- Create new folders dated with the current year (“2015 Medical Bills”) and arrange alphabetically in primary file drawer (easiest access, preferably within reach)
If your filing system is so backlogged or out of date in a way to be effectively useless to you, the recommended approach is to start fresh with a simple system tailored to exactly what you need and is easy to maintain. A favorite system I recommend to clients and one that I use myself is Freedom Filer. This pre-printed color-coded label system takes the guess work out of what to do with papers, is simple to set up, can be tailored to your situation and is designed to rotate papers out at the appropriate time, which reduces storage needs and requires little maintenance. Freedom Filer includes categories for active, permanent and archive records, coded by color for easy reference and use. This system allows for easy retrieval of information by all necessary users, which is perfect for households where one person typically manages affairs or if a system is needed to streamline redundancies in file management. Review the Freedom Filer fact sheet for more information.
(FTC Disclosure: Clearing House LLC is a partner in Freedom Filer’s affiliate program.)
Organizing Electronic Documents
Many institutions (financial, medical) have moved to electronic reporting as a default so an increasing number of people are choosing to go paperless and manage these reports electronically. Although email alerts in our inbox note the availability of documents in an online portal, downloading statements for review is an additional step.
Below is a suggested task plan for managing electronic documents:
- During the month, move email alerts from paperless reporting accounts from your inbox to a designated folder in your email account (or create a rule to have email host do it automatically from specific sender email addresses)
- Create a current year folder in your documents file for each institution that sends documents electronically (bank, investment service, health insurance),
- Schedule one hour during the next month to log in to all accounts and download the current statements, renaming files with a standard convention (i.e., “CitiChkg_Jan_2015”). Avoid downloading statements directly to your desktop which clutters the space with inactive documents.
- When downloads are complete, delete all the email alerts from the email folder, repeat next month
Routine downloads are important whether it happens monthly, quarterly or mid-year, as it reminds us to review our personal information and account balances for accuracy and creates an easily accessible archive on our computer or designated back-up device. If you simply dread the idea of this routine maintenance, you can delegate the task to a trusted professional or an online service like FileThis which integrates with cloud services like Evernote.
Contact me if you would like to learn more about how a professional organizer can assist you with these recommendations. Good luck with your efforts in getting your papers better organized this year!