The War on Paper: How to avoid shoving paper piles in the closet when you have a party

If you like to have paper piles on your counters, tables, couches or floors, this is not for you.

If you don't, keep reading!

I have read countless articles, parts of books, and blog posts about how to manage the never ending paper flow that is part of every single household.

I have googled "ideas for filing paperwork" or "what papers to keep, what to throw away" millions of times over the past several years just to see if I can finally find the answer that will work for me.

But, I never found one that covered EVERYTHING all at once.  I think, after years of tweaking and changing, that I have finally settled on something that's going to work!  So, since so many of you asked on FB, here you go!

(a side note.  I have found LOTS of these ideas on various websites, but I don't remember where or when so I can't give credit.  sorry about that.  Some ideas also came from one of my very favorite books)

Now, of course, it's not like filing paperwork is rocket science.  I have a filing cabinet.  And we have tons of papers in them.  Putting papers in the filing cabinet was not the problem.  The problem was keeping the paper piles ACTIVE instead of letting them stagnate and accumulate.  And then throwing a party and needing to move paper piles out of the way and shoving everything in the closet never to be seen or heard from again. THAT was the problem.

 Here were some of my main questions:

  • What do I do with mail that needs to be sorted?
  • If I need a paper right away, do I know exactly where it is?
  • What do I do with stuff for Matt that he doesn't read right away, but that I don't want on my table for a week or two or twelve?
  • How long do I really have to keep all of those credit card statements, bank statements and utility bills?
  • Where do I put the paperwork that I have to DO something with eventually, but not necessarily today?
  • How do I eliminate the huge pile of paperwork that has a tendency to accumulate on any flat surface it can find?
  • And what about the 1,000 drawings the kids make, and the school paperwork, and the parent forms that need to be signed, and the report cards, and the 18 worksheets that come home every day?
Here are some other things that played into my system, too.
  • I have officially declared my kitchen counter to be for FOOD and DISHES only.  Absolutely no toys and no papers are allowed on the counter (haha.  except right now there is a folded towel and a stack of mail.  BUT it's mostly because I was in the middle of the last 15% of filing the last slips of paper last night when the kids decided to build a blanket fort that takes up the ENTIRE dining room.  So, we're a little disheveled right now.)  I have limited counter space, and I refuse to give it up for junk mail. 
  • I have officially declared my kitchen table to be a spot for eating and for work space during the day (piling laundry as Ifold, keeping things I need to take to the car with me, working on the computer, keeping homework that's due and anything else for THAT DAY.)  No overnight guests, except the bowl of fruit, are welcome.  No papers, no books, no laundry, no nothing. 
  • It was absolutely necessary for me to do SOMETHING because every square foot is prime real estate around here.  We don't have an office, or basement or extra bedroom.  We have a 3 bedroom house with a kitchen, dining room, living room and garage.  So, it's absolutely necessary for me and my sanity to make sure the surfaces are clear so we don't feel like we're suffocating!  I'd rather use my surfaces for lovely things, not paper.  Empty space is good, too!
  • I throw away ANYTHING I don't HAVE to keep.  If I don't have time to read it, I toss it.  If it's something that's neat but I know I won't refer to for years, I toss it.  If it's a great article in a magazine, I might keep it, but if it's about something that I won't be able to do for years, I TOSS it.  It's more important to me to be free of clutter TODAY than it is to make sure I have an article about what kind of stuffing I should make in 2015 when it's my turn to host Thanksgiving again.  TOSS.  TOSS.  TOSS!!
So, here's what we do.  I'll try to be as concise (!!!), yet thorough as possible.

Mail Part One: Location

Matt gets the mail each day.  If I see anything fancy or handwritten or coupons I almost forget to kiss him before grabbing it from him.  He, being SUCH a man, skips over handwritten mail to find weird things like...oh...I don't know...a cabela's magazine or medical bills.  He actually put an envelope with real live person handwriting on it directly in the mail basket WITHOUT having any kind of curiosity about it.  Yes.  A man.  And engineering man.  (Tiff!  It was the little man's baby announcement.  Don't worry.  I rescued it.)

Let me start over.
Matt gets the mail each day.
I steal the good stuff from him.
The rest gets deposited in a basket in the front closet for me to go through at my convenience.

the mail center in our front closet

THE RESULT: a home for the mail.  No mail on the table or counter while I'm trying to make dinner.

Mail Part Two: Sorting
The most urgent items in the mail are, of course, the bills.  About once a week   or once every two weeks, when I'm ready to pay bills, I'll take the basket out of the closet and sort through it.
I sort it into piles:
  1. trash
  2. bills
  3. coupons
  4. reading material (we get about 5 magazines regularly, if that, along with missionary updates and catalogs)
  5. misc
  6. Matt's stuff
  7. Medical
After sorting through everything:

  1. I toss the trash. 
  2. I log onto our bank website and pay the bills right away.  It takes about 3 minutes to pay the bills.  The bills get filed immediately (this is the part that's new.  I think I'll keep up with it.  Before, I just piled them to be filed later.  And then never filed it, resulting in a huge pile to be shoved into a closet.  Now, I'm going to file right away)
  3. The coupons go into my coupon system. (old blog posts: Part One, Part Two, Part Three)
  4. The reading material goes into the bathroom (ahem), and after it's been there a while, it gets recycled or put into the magazine basket in the living room. (of course, people are allowed to read while not in the bathroom.  But, in reality, the adults in this house rarely get time to read unless..uh...well. )  I don't keep many magazines.  Just a handful for guests to read if they want, and for babies to cut up for crafts if they want.  There's no reason for me to have 8 years worth of Real Simple, so most magazines are recycled once we've read them.  When it comes to peace of mind & lack of clutter vs. availability of an article that I may or may not ever read again, peace of mind wins every time.
  5. Misc: We hang cards on our furnace room doors (which eventually, when finished there, get put into a box or recycled into crafts or into the recycle bin.)  Photos go on the fridge or in my photo bin which I keep on a shelf in my dining room.  If it's not in a frame or album or on the fridge, it's in there.  Other misc is dealt with on an individual basis.   
  6. Matt's stuff, if it's urgent, waits on the kitchen table until he gets home OR if it's okay for it to be forgotten for a while, goes into a drawer labeled: attn: Matt.
  7. the photo bin, a repurposed Bath & Body Works gift basket
  8. Medical--Medical items get special treatment. More on this and Matt's stuff in the next section.
The RESULT: A home for everything!  No piles on the piano waiting to be sorted.  No lost bills.  No missing coupons.  No pictures floating here and there and everywhere.  No lack of reading material when we' know.

The Next Section
Beneath the mail basket, I have a three drawer organizer with the following labels: 
  1. GEHA (our insurance co.)
  2. Action
  3. Attn: Matt.

I made it pretty because I keep up with things better if they're pretty.  I cut some scrapbook paper, and covered it with clear tape (so if i want to remove and change the labels, it doesn't rip). I've had the 3 drawers and the mail box in place for over a year (give or take), and it's working wonderfully.

  1. We're relatively healthy, but even routine visits for five different people create a lot of medical bills, Explanation of Benefits, receipts, co-pay receipts, etc.  And we have to check our EOBs to our bills and all that.  We were losing EOBS and bills left and right because one would be over there and one there and one in a pile that got shoved in a closet during a party.  So this drawer is a LIFESAVER .  When the bill comes, it goes in there until we get the EOB.  After we make sure the EOB and the bill match up right...we pay the bill.  Easy peasy.
  2. Action drawer: Stuff I need to do, but can't do right now.  Currently, it houses a crib recall packet that I need to mail, a broken dirt bike and Polly Pocket Man that I need to glue, a magazine the kids love that I need to tape, and advent calendar that I want to use next year but didn't want to pack away with my Christmas decor, that sort of thing.  Take action...but not urgently. 

3.  Attn: Matt.  Any matt stuff that I don't know what to do with and anything i find around the house, etc.  So when he says, "HEY JESS!  Have you seen my license for the shooting range?  or that estimate I got for the car? or that small velcro circle thingy that was floating around our room for a year that I said was important and you gave to me and I left on the kitchen table the other day after you asked me what it was?"  (he doesn't use that many words, probably)  I can say, "It's in your drawer!"  Ta Da.  It's the secret to marital bliss, people.  Because I'll either put the item where it goes, or in the drawer if I don't have a clue where it goes/what it is.

THE RESULT: A home for everything!  No more unpaid bills.  No more broken toys on my kitchen table/kitchen window sill/kitchen counter/dresser.  No more lost Matt stuff.

Everything Else
Finally, it ends up in or goes to the filing cabinet.  I found a list for what to keep and for how long, so I've set up my folders accordingly:  (I used this list from Consumer reports, and this list from Clark Howard.  I made a word document out of the two--if you it them let me know and I can email it to you.)

 I have folders for the following categories (mostly likely applicable to all households):

  1. Up front, in it's own folder! the paper that tells me what to keep and for how long
  2. Current Utilities (state farm, water, electric, vectren, cell phone, home phone):  Next month, when I get the next bill, I throw these away! (the other tab w/ State Farm holds our policy info, etc.  NOT the bill. Because the bill is a current utility that is okay to throw away each month!)
  3. Miss E: certificates, medical records, special stuff, etc
  4. Mr. E: certificates, medical records, special stuff, etc
  5. Miss C: certificates, medical records, special stuff, etc
  6. Each Credit Card: (these are tossed after 3 years) The past years are in the folder, bundled by year with a paperclip.  I wrote on the front statement when that specific year can be THROWN AWAY!  New statements go behind the rest and will be clipped at the end of the year.
  7. Bank Statements: same thing...bundled by year...throw away date noted right on the paper.
  8. Medical bills that have already been paid (i.e. have been through the GEHA section of the three-drawer thingy), filed chronologically.
There are other categories too: mortgage, taxes, etc and others that are unique to us. I file, and plan to note (haven't gotten that far in this project yet!) when things can be tossed, so I can have a tossing party when it's time.
If it's a paper that floats around that seems important, but doesn't belong in a major category, I make it its own folder.  That way I always know where it is. 
After I pay the bills, they go into their folder.
Everything else goes into its folder.

What about the stuff I need right now?
That card I need to mail, that book I'm reading, my calendar, my pen, the book I'm reading with the kids, the book envelope that Miss E brings home from school but stays home for a few days, papers from school that I need to sign, my meal plan notebook, my pouch for receipts....these are all in a white, transportable basket. MY working basket.  It has the stuff in it that needs my immediate attention.  When it's no longer a current matter, it gets filed accordingly.  When we have a party, I can take the basket and its contents and put it on the dresser in my bedroom, NOT in the closet.

Other things to note:
*We keep a fireproof lock box containing birth certificates, social security cards & my passport. There are not in the filing cabinet.
*I have a separate crate in my bedroom closet for SCHOOL WORK, that is 100% based on this (I just made it yesterday and I'm really going to like it.) Before they go in there, I keep Miss E's school papers in a bin in the laundry room.  Periodically, I'll sort it, toss the boring worksheets and keep the favorites. (I haven't done this yet for 1st grade because I didn't have a spot for the favorites.  Now I do!)

That's an ostrich shell...dinosaur shell.....??

OR...just don't have parties! ? .............??

My filing cabinet recently got a pretty makeover!
see it?  bright orange?


Anything I missed?


  1. A thousand thank yous. I loved this. Every thorough bit of it. And the fact that you might have shoved paper in the closet before a party, too. I knew we were soul sisters.

  2. fabulous Jess! Thank you! Seriously my hubs and I have been going nuts lately trying to figure out the best plan of attack for our paper piles. I had no clue so this was a HUGE help! Thank you for writing it all down!

  3. I'll have to do this. I'm a neat freak and I've been trying to train Randy with the 'ol throw away after two days method. Needless to say, he digs in the trash often.

  4. Oh, girl!!! You've inspired me once again!!! I have a pile accumulated that needs to get shred and now I'm looking forward to attacking a couple more piles and adding to the shred pile. I would love for you to email me the word document you put together. That's a big problem for me- knowing what to keep and for how long. (Which is why I have a giant "file" box in my bedroom closet from the past year.... Yes, in my closet, because when I was living at my parent's house, my filing cabinet was still at my house. Now I have both my way out of date filing cabinet AND my huge filing box in my closet to deal with. That's been a project on my list...) Anyway, we even have closets and shelves available in our new place, so I totally think I could make something like this work!!! Thanks for taking the time to share!!


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