Get Yourself Organized in Just 7 Foolproof Steps

Organizing Tricks You Don't Know

By Donna Freedman

Seen your desk lately? Or is it buried under piles and piles of bills, insurance statements, bank records, business receipts and user manuals? Now think of all the other trees that died so that your file cabinets could choke on a decade's worth of bank paperwork, credit card statements and warranty guides for products you no longer own. You need a system.

1. Keep Active Information Close at Hand

If you still get paper statements (more on that in a minute), keep a file called "Bills to Be Paid." Have another one called "Bills That Have Been Paid."

You could also call them "Unpaid" and "Paid." Call them Bob and Betty if you want. Just make sure you know where they are. Paying a late fee because you forgot the Visa bill was due or getting a cranky phone call from the orthodontist's office because you forgot to send the monthly check is both irritating and unnecessary.

Bills aren't the only obligations that need files of their own. Depending on your situation, you might have folders for health care, vehicles, insurance, home repair and, of course, tax paperwork. Knowing where these things are can save you a lot of fruitless searching when the credit union wants proof of income for that mortgage loan.

Or take a tip from Mindy Noble, a organizing specialist that Stacy Johnson interviewed, and color-code your files. Use colors that make sense to you; maybe green suggests "go!" (ahead and pay these bills) and red would mean "stop!" (what you're doing and deal with this health care paperwork).

2. Scan It and Store It

But why keep all those pieces of paper? Suppose a fire destroyed your home office: Good luck recreating all those files and receipts from memory.

That's why more and more people are opting to scan paperwork and store it on flash drives or in the cloud. The originals can be shredded (and, hopefully, recycled).

Certain pieces of paper should never be destroyed. Among them: wills, contracts, titles, deeds and papers with raised seals (e.g., a birth certificate). Scan them for backup, but keep them in a safe, fireproof place.

3. Corral Supporting Documents

If a new appliance or tech gadget gives you trouble or quits working entirely, you'll need to check the owner's manual or the warranty. Could you find these easily?

Once you do locate them, start a file called "manuals/warranties" (or something more clever). Again, you can scan and e-store this material. Be sure to throw the old paperwork away each time you replace an item.

Some people download user manuals from the manufacturers' websites, save them as PDF files and toss the paper copies. This might work for you, too.

4. Stop Getting Statements

Two ways to reduce paper clutter (and the number of dead trees on your conscience):
  • Bank and pay bills online, opting to receive e-statements.
  • Make paper receipts/files byte-sized.
Remember that TV commercial in which a young woman puts a bag of popcorn in the microwave and finishes paying her bills before the last kernel has exploded? It really is that fast and easy. No stamps to buy or envelopes to address and, more to the point, no paperwork to keep in a file drawer. Not that you have to do without backup. Just save the bills or statements you want as PDF files.

5. Decide What Goes Where

Do your kid's health records belong in a folder with yours or will they be filed separately? What about your auto insurance policy -- in the insurance folder/e-file or the automobile folder/e-file? Are your Roth IRA statements filed under "retirement" or with your will and life insurance papers so your heirs can get at them?

Do what makes sense to you personally, so you're not rummaging around for Junior's eyeglass prescription in the "health insurance" file when it's actually in the "health care" file. Just make sure your spouse/partner knows where these things are, too.

If you've got a file just for your vehicle, keep paper or scanned copies of receipts for repairs in there along with your insurance. Include receipts/warranty information on new tires and any accessories you purchase. Imagine your frustration if you couldn't find the receipt should that car stereo die while it's still under warranty.

6. Clarify What You Own

If you lost a bunch of stuff due to fire or burglary, would you be able to collect full value on your homeowners or renters insurance policy? Probably not, unless you've regularly updated your inventory of personal belongings and given a copy to your insurance agent.

%VIRTUAL-pullquote-Go from room to room with a camera to create a visual record of your belongings. %Chances are you've forgotten just how much stuff you've acquired over the years. Go from room to room with a camera to create a visual record of your belongings. You can keep a record with Know Your Stuff Home Inventory, a free online program from the Insurance Information Institute.
Does this seem daunting? Do one room per day. Or how about outsourcing it -- to family members?

"Kids and teens may be more than happy to take photos or videos in every room of the house for a small fee or a new video game," says Amy Danise of Heaven forbid you should experience a major disaster. But if you do, "a complete inventory can help you maximize your claim by thousands of dollars," Danise says. "It's well worth the price of a new video game."

And if you're kicking it old school with an inventory list on paper? Keep it in the same folder with your homeowners or renters insurance policy. Should you have to evacuate your home, one file is easier to grab than two. (But again: If your house burns down, the inventory fries, too. Make sure your agent has a copy.)

7. Get Tough With Taxes

How long to keep tax returns is an issue that preys on a lot of people's minds. Johnson scans his forms and supporting documents for electronic storage and then shreds the originals. Digital storage is so competitive that you needn't pay a dime to store all the info you want, he says. (For more information, see "Don't Store Your Tax Return – Toss It Out.")

Getting organized isn't just about having a tidy office. It's about being able to lay your hands on information quickly and easily, according to Cathy Anderson of the Just Organize Your Stuff blog. You'll be able to dispute mistakes in billing, handle your affairs in case of emergency (including being able to provide critical medical records) and prove ownership.

You'll also simply have more time. "Good records provide facts necessary to shorten the time it takes to do almost anything," Anderson writes. Hard to put a price on that.
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