Dear Lifehacker, I’m overwhelmed with documents! Old tax documents, receipts, bills, contracts, insurance policies, certificates, I have entirely too many of them, and half of them are digital copies. Do you have any suggestions to help me organise it all? Signed, Lost in Docs
Photo by Keith Williamson.
Dear Lost in Docs,
We understand where you’re coming from. Between the bills that can arrive in both paper form and digital form, documents like insurance policies and tax documents that always arrive in paper form, and bills and bank statements that often only arrive digitally, we all have documents lying around in multiple formats, all of which we need to organise and keep. Thankfully, there’s hope: let’s walk through a few ways to get all of those documents organised and in similar formats so you never have to wonder where they are.
Go Digital Where Possible
We’ve talked about some great ways to go paperless whenever possible — especially if you find yourself addicted to the paper documents that you get in the mail — and even discussed which documents you should keep paper copies or and which are safe to go completely digital with. Still, going paperless is only one step towards taming the document management beast. Photo by Andres Rueda.
Most banks, credit card issuers and other financial institutions are looking to save money wherever possible, and that extends to the postage costs required to send you monthly statements and bills. You can use that to your benefit and request to only receive digital statements and bills from the financial institutions that you use. Tax returns and other financial documents that you need to hold on to for future reference can be scanned, encrypted and archived with both local and offsite backups. Use this process to scan and archive documents that you may need copies of, but don’t want to get rid of the paper versions of either, like certificates, diplomas and employment contracts.
Going digital where you can also comes with the side benefit of giving you the ability to easily organise and filter things like bills, insurance policies, and other documents that come via email from the institutions and companies that send them to you. It’s very easy to organise all of your bills when you know the addresses or companies sending them to you, and you can create custom filters in your mail program to sort them all into a single folder, for example. The same is true for your insurance documents, quarterly investment statements, and other important documents: they can all be a Gmail label or mail folder away if you go digital.
Organise the Paper Copies
Even after you’ve made a point to sign up for electronic billing, scanned old documents that you know you can do without, encrypted and backed up sensitive documents, and happily hung your diploma on the wall knowing that if something happens to it you’ll have a digital copy to prove you earned it, you’ll still need to organise the paper you have lying around. Keeping your files strewn about the house in shoeboxes is not way to stay organised. The best way to keep your paper copies organised is to get a filing cabinet — even a half-height unit with hanging folders — and start populating it with the old paper documents that you know you’ll need to keep in paper form. Photo by vegansoldier.
Once you have a file cabinet and some hanging folders, get a label maker so you can clearly see which folders hold which files every time you open the cabinet. We’ve talked about how to make the best use of your file cabinet a while ago, but in addition to making sure you keep one folder full of documents to each filing cabinet and clearly labelling them, keep the archive documents — the insurance policies and benefit documents that you want on-hand for reference but know you won’t access frequently-in the back. Save forward folders for documents that you’ll access more often, like bills or statements from banks or companies that don’t offer electronic copies. Keeping those documents you know you’ll need in the front will save you from having to flip through a dozen folders to find a single item when you need it.
Additionally, make a point to go through those documents on a regular basis: monthly, for example, to keep them organised. If you find yourself adding new items to your folders at least once a month, take that opportunity to purge older documents that you know you don’t need anymore, like statements that are over a year or so old, or documents you know can be scanned and archived digitally.
Buy a Cross-Cut Shredder
As you go through the process of organising and digitising a lot of your old documents, you’ll find you’ve built a small mountain of paperwork that you’ll now need to safely dispose of. A crosscut shredder (as opposed to a stripcut shredder) gives you an easy way to destroy old, digitised or unneeded documents at home without worrying about the information that may be on them falling into the hands of a potential identity thief. You don’t need to spring for a microcut shredder unless you really want to: crosscut should be sufficient, and the paper left behind can be easily recycled or used as packing material. Photo by Joe Hall.
For an added bonus, station the shredder right next to your paper recycling bin, and put them both as close to where you bring the mail into the house as possible. That way as soon as you get in the door with your mail, you can toss junk into recycling and shred promotional material (like those “convenience checks” you get from your credit card company) tied to your finances or personal accounts, and only walk away with mail you plan to read or file.
Get a Fireproof or Safe Deposit Box
For those important documents where you only have one copy: like life insurance policies, wills, diplomas, birth certificates or other very important documents associated with your identity that you would never want to lose, it’s a good idea to archive them somewhere safe. Make digital copies, of course, but for documents where a copy is never the same as the real thing, it’s worth putting the original in a fireproof box kept in a safe place at home, or a safe deposit box with your financial institution.
I keep a fireproof box in my closet, pretty close to my emergency kit and bug-out bag in case of emergencies. That way my most precious documents are protected from crushing or fire if I can’t get to them before I have to leave, and if I have time to grab my emergency bag, I can pick up my important papers as well. A small fireproof box that will keep items inside safe from fire for a half-hour will only set you back $US25 at Amazon. Your birth certificate, passport, diplomas and other important documents are worth at least that much, and are better served in a box like this than in the back of your filing cabinet.
Hopefully these are a few suggestions that will help you get on the way towards taming the pile of paper around your house. Digitising and organising go a long way, but it’s just as important to set yourself up to keep the paper that you can’t eliminate from your life organised. Good luck!
PS: Do you have any suggestions for Lost in Documents to help him dig out from his ever-growing pile of documents, both important and useless? Share your suggestions and organisation tips in the comments below.