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File folders with metal filing tabs

Life is complicated, and even though we have lots of gadgets, gizmos and technology to assist us, many of us are still struggling with the day-to-day papers such as coupons, medical forms, receipts, and reference materials.

I frequently get questions from people needing help with creating a filing system to organize the mounds of paperwork most of us deal with in daily life. When I named my blog Managing Modern Life®, I definitely had these people in mind.

Regarding papers, some can be immediately recycled or shredded, while others are essential in the short term for action. The papers that tend to pile up and give us the most trouble are those we maintain for reference – whether for legal or financial reasons or for our personal interest.

The first step is identifying what to keep and for how long. The second is determining how to organize papers for neat storage and easy retrieval. The traditional way to organize papers is in vertical files; it’s not the only way, but for our purposes, it will require the least amount of effort. So, let’s get started!

Gather your supplies.

You’ll want a file box, drawer, cabinet, crate or some other container for about 50 hanging file folders. While some file containers can be set up to accommodate both letter and legal-sized files, if yours only fits one or the other, you’ll want to make sure the hanging file size you select matches your file box.

Decide if you want a ready-made kit or if you prefer to DIY.

Three popular ready-mades that I like a lot are Filing JOYS, Freedom Filer, and FileSolutions. Each of these systems have pre-created color-coded tabs. You merely have to learn a system’s naming conventions and apply them to your way of thinking.

  • JOYS is one of my favorites! It’s attractive and robust. Plus, it can be used with hanging files of any color.
  • Freedom Filer is also an excellent filing system. It was designed specifically to enable users to not just set up files, but maintain them in the future.
  • Another filing system popular with professional organizers is made by FileSolutions.

If you decide to go the Do-It-Yourself route, you’ll need to create your own labels.

This is not difficult at all; it’s just a little more time consuming. However, an advantage of taking a little extra time is that you’ll be more directly involved with the creation of your system and even more apt to remember your categories and how your system works. For your filing system, I encourage you to think in broad terms. My motto is “the simpler, the better” when it comes to naming your files. Don’t think, “Volvo Wagon”; think, “Car” instead. However, as Albert Einstein said, “Everything should be as simple as possible, but no simpler.” That means that you want to create file names that are just specific and clear enough to identify the contents at a glance, but you don’t want to make your categories so narrow that each folder holds only one or two pages.

Although every household has a few unique situations, the basic labels that you will need for categories and subcategories include:

  • Bank – If you have more than one bank account, clarify which account it is by labeling with the bank name and/or the last few digits of the account number.
  • Bills – Paid invoices that might need to be saved; not every bill needs to be preserved.
  • Charity – Receipts from monetary or in-kind donations (like Goodwill drop-offs)
  • Credit – Credit Scores, Credit Reports, Credit Card Agreements
  • Expenses
  • Family:
    • Dad – General (professional reference and resumes, activities,hobbies)
    • Dad – Medical
    • Child 1  (name) – General (school, activities, hobbies)
    • Child 1 – Medical
    • Child 2 – (name) – General (school, activities, hobbies)
    • Child 2 – Medical
    • (Repeat this folder hierarchy for each additional child.)
  • Financials – IRA, Social Security, Investments (general, 529s, etc.)
  • Household Maintenance
  • Household – Other – e.g., Décor samples, Improvement plans
  • Income
  • Insurance – Sub-categorize folder labels so that you know immediately what’s in each folder. For example:
    • Insurance – Car
    • Insurance – Health
    • Insurance – Home
  • Keepsakes/Memorabilia
  • Pets – Pedigree records, Veterinary records
  • Photos – School photos, Photos that others give you
  • Tax Documents – 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016 (one file per year)
  • Vital Documents – Wills, Passports, Certificates, Property Titles
  • Vital Information – Social Security and ID Numbers, Digital Passwords
  • Whimsy (or whatever name suits you) – Special interest categories specific to you or your family, like Gardening, Wines or Vacations. These are limited only by your family’s activities and interests. You may group them into manila folders inside of your hanging files, or start a new hanging file for each topic.

For more information, check out my friend and organizing colleague Julie Bestry’s post,  Do I Have to Keep This Piece of Paper?

Remember that guidelines are merely a starting point. Each filing system will vary somewhat, depending on several factors specific to the complexities of your individual financial, medical, and legal situation, as well as your personal interests and activities. However, this outline will give you the confidence to take control of the papers in your own home office or household.

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    1. I just started working in an office that is extremely unorganized. I haven’t been in an office setting for four years. So I’m seeing tons of paperwork that I’ve been asked to organize and scan, file etc… in any way that I feel will work in an efficient way. So organization is the key. I need a creative idea that will work.. your information has given me some ideas that should work.