Organizing Family Paperwork in 2020: a Simple System

Do paper piles make you crazy?

Maybe you’re wondering the best way to store all that paper. What papers should you keep and which ones can you safely recycle? Let me take a moment and talk about organizing paperwork.

All these questions are answered in this mega post on how to organize paperwork like bills, and files.

One of the biggest obstacles to organization, is paperwork.

Bills, mail, schoolwork, and other papers enter our homes on a daily basis. If you don’t keep on top of it, the paperwork can quickly become a mess! I hate these papers piling up on my counter – it makes me a little bit crazy! You, too?

By the way, affiliate links are present in this post.)

That’s why I follow a system to keep my paperwork organized.

Make sure you get the accompanying printable checklist to help you organize your own paperwork. You can request a copy at the end of this post.

I have two simple requirements for my paperwork system:

1. Easy to maintain.

If it’s not simple and convenient (like super easy) for me to keep up with the paperwork, I’ll ignore it.

That will make life difficult for me down the road (perhaps missed bills, missing school notifications, etc.). This is my motivation for keeping on top of our paperwork!

2. Allow me to easily find what I need later.

If I’m going to have to spend a lot of time digging through a pile of papers or a bunch of folders to find something later, my system will be useless and ignored.

Convenience is a huge requirement with any system and this one is no exception. When I’m ready to do my yearly financial snapshot, it takes just a minute to gather the paperwork I need.

Given these two goals, here is what my paperwork system is NOT:

This paperwork system is NOT 100% electronic.

I do pay most of our bills online and keep some “paperwork” online (more on that later), but I don’t spend time scanning in bills or receipts. I know some people do well with a 100% paperless system, but it’s just not for me.

This system is not picture perfect.

My system is not pretty. It’s so not Pinterest-worthy!

I don’t really care if the paperwork is perfectly filed or all my files are color-coded. I hand-write the labels on my files. My planner may have too many papers clipped to it on any given day.

Sure, a pretty filing system or matching paper trays would be great, but it’s not a priority for me so I don’t let it bog me downMy priority is simplicity: simple to file, simple to retrieve.

Here’s how I handle all that paperwork.

Incoming mail and papers are sorted as soon as they enter the house. This takes just a couple minutes daily and this way, nothing is lost or forgotten until it’s too late.

Papers go into 1 of 4 places:

1. Recycle bin

(When in doubt, throw it out!) I don’t usually keep the stray catalogs that arrive. Junk mail is tossed immediately. (Cut down on junk mail here)

2. Mail for my husband goes into a cubby reserved for him in the kitchen.

(Tip: recycle the envelopes at this step, too, to cut down on the paper.)

3. My planner

Bills and other papers requiring my attention get clipped to the inside of my planner. I also usually jot a note on my running to-do list to attend to said item.

If it’s a bill that isn’t due for a while, I’ll create a reminder in my Google calendar so I won’t forget.

I try to process any papers that need my attention immediately. This might be paying a small bill (via online bill pay), signing a permission slip, or entering a receipt into my budgeting software.

If I can do it in a minute or two, I’ll get it out of the way now.

4. Storage (Temporary / Permanent)

At this point, I’m left with just papers that need filing. I differentiate between two types of filing – temporary and permanent.

  • Temporary Storage

Some papers need to be kept for a short time (a volunteer schedule, an invitation to a party, etc.)

These kinds of things might get taped inside a cupboard (our fridge isn’t magnetic or I would hang them up there).

Other things get tucked inside my planner until I need them or can dispose of them (usually during my weekly review when I take a quick peek through all the papers in the planner).

Other papers need to be kept indefinitely. This includes paid bills, medical documents, receipts for large purchases, etc. These papers have a temporary home in a cubby right in the kitchen. (It’s got to be convenient, remember?)

  • Long-term filing

When the cubby gets full, it’s a signal to me to spend a couple minutes filing these papers away permanently. I take the stack upstairs to the homeschool room where I keep a couple of plastic filing boxes (like this).

I can file the remaining papers in a couple of minutes.

Now my system is tidied up and ready for more paperwork.

Just a couple minutes daily keeps this system running of tidy. This may sound like a lot of steps, but it really just takes a minute or two on a daily basis and then maybe 5-10 minutes once a week or so to keep the system running smoothly (and keep the temporary storage cubby from overflowing).

Martha Stewart recommends centralizing your paperwork for convenience.

How to separate your paperwork into categories

To file your papers, pick categories which allow you to easily find things later and also keep things relatively tidy.

I have a standard set of categories and I may add a new folder (and category) as needed depending on what paperwork needs to be stored.

My standard filing categories:

  • Receipts and warranties– large purchases
  • Receipts and warranties – small purchases (I only keep receipts I might want to access later)
  • Medical – bills (separate by person if necessary)
  • Medical – records (separate by person if necessary)
  • Tax returns – current year
  • Tax paperwork
  • Mortgage statements and paperwork
  • Homeschool paperwork (until it gets compiled into a portfolio at the end of the year)
  • Home maintenance records
  • Appliance manuals (kept in a separate box due to the sheer quantity of them)
  • Official paperwork (birth certificates, car titles, copies of passports, etc.)
  • Life insurance policies
  • Car insurance, maintenance records, and registration paperwork
  • Mementos – I do keep a lot of personal letters I receive – I have a soft spot in my heart for personal letters written on physical paper!

Papers I don’t keep

  • Bank and credit card statements – I balance my accounts at least monthly and I can always access my statements online.
  • Most everyday receipts – once I’ve entered them into my accounts, these are tossed.
  • Catalogs – I don’t like to let this kind of thing pile up. I find that catalogs just make me (and my family) discontented with what I already have.
  • Cards – any cards we receive are displayed in the kitchen for a few days and then recycled.

Keys to making this system work for you:

  • Having a designated spot for things, especially one for other people who also receive paperwork in your home.
  • Doing the “little” things immediately. It’s so much nicer to touch these things just once and get them out of the way.
  • Having a reminder system in place for things you don’t handle immediately.
  • Having a simple permanent filing system. A cardboard banker’s box and some manila folders will work just fine.

Some paperwork IS better kept electronically.

Keeping a lot of my paperwork and record-keeping online is a huge help at minimizing the physical paperwork. (Stay tuned for a future post on what records I do keep online.)

What about managing kids’ school papers?

I keep a selection of schoolwork for our homeschool portfolio. Two of my kids are now in school so I only keep a few of their papers each week in case we need to spend extra time on something.

Any notices from the school signed right away and put back into backpacks for the next day. Important dates are marked on the calendar.

What about all those paper crafts kids create?

Um, I’m a terrible mom in this area 🙂

I usually tape up the one or two latest creations in the kitchen and recycle the rest. My kids don’t seem to care – the fun part is really in the process for them and not so much in the end result.

If they have something they’re especially proud of, we might hang it up in their room, file it for keeps or just take a picture of it and recycle.

Household paperwork is like laundry.

It regenerates itself on a daily basis! Make sure you have a system in place to keep it under control.

Want to see me declutter some paperwork?

If you’d really like to tackle that paperwork, you must check out my course Household Paperwork Made Easy.

What’s your best tip for organizing your paperwork?


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31 thoughts on “Organizing Family Paperwork in 2020: a Simple System”

  1. “It’s so much nicer to touch these things just once and get them out of the way.” I love that you put this in your post about paperwork. When I was in high school, as part of a career report I interviewed a secretary friend I greatly respected. At the end of my interview I asked her for one important tip that she found helped her best in her job and would help me if I pursued that career. She said she tried to make sure she only touched the paperwork that came across her desk just once. I am still trying (many, many years later) to follow her advice, and you can see it’s excellent advice not just for secretaries. Thank you so much for your blog!

    • Aww, thank you, Michelle! This is such a simple thing that makes so much difference, but it can be really hard to do at times 🙂 Thanks for your comment.

  2. Hi Sarah. Thanks so much for sharing this at Organized 31 this morning. It is quite timely in my battle against the paper clutter. I’ve pinned it to refer to later this week as I attempt to put some of your suggestions into play here at my house. I’d love for you to share this at my Creative Ways Link Party when you get a chance. It just went live last night. Hope to see you there.

  3. I love your analogy that paperwork is like laundry and you have to keep on top of it! Congrats, you’re featured this week at the Inspire Us Thursday Link Party on Organized 31.

  4. I love your analogy that paperwork is like laundry and you have to keep on top of it! Congrats, you’re featured this week at the Inspire Us Thursday Link Party on Organized 31.

  5. Loved your comment about the catalogues — I’m a hoarder when it comes to those. I think I’ll take a page out of your book and toss them.

  6. Sometimes I feel like it’s going to be a “slow death by paper.” I have to do a regular deep cleaning of my files, purse and bill collecting basket or it all rises up to bite me!

  7. Just an additional idea. When I set up my permanent file I couldn’t bring myself to do the filing (to many years at jobs with filing I guess). So instead of having different files for easy retrieval I thought about how long would it take to go through a 1 inch or so stack of papers and how often do I really have to do that. I decided I almost never have to retrieve something and it would probably take 5 minutes at most to go through the whole stack. So what I do is get the manilla box bottom file jacket and file everything I think I need to keep for the year. And really it takes way less time and I still rarely have to retrieve anything.

    I really like your tip about clipping things to your planner. I think I need to have a planner again. I’m going to have to start brain-storming on making my own. I just can’t find anything that works for me.

    Thanks for sharing!

    • I love this idea, Kayla! I think you’re absolutely right – I almost never retrieve anything from my files and this would be the easiest filing method of all. Thank you!

  8. One tip that may help others. I use a relatively simple (paper!) calendar-planner and a PENCIL. So many entries need to be changed in my chaotic life so ink is not practical. The teensy erasers on the top of most pencils get dry and hard fairly quickly so I add one of those eraser caps since a working eraser being at hand is essential to being able to revise.

  9. Last year I decided to get rid of all my appliance manuals. I created a onedrive account and found the manuals online and saved the pdf’s to my backup file in onedrive. That way, I could get rid of more paper!

    • So smart! It’s so rare to go back and look at those manuals anyway that it’s a shame if they take up space.

  10. I live in a small apartment, so I sort my mail at the community mailbox which is close to the recycling bins. I keep only the papers I need. Most everything I handle is done online.

    After I e-pay a bill, I cut and paste it into a document format and save it in a folder labeled Bills, Taxes, or whatever. This works for me! Thanks for the rest of your tips!

  11. To avoid making lots of folders for paid household bills that are rarely ever needed, I use a monthly accordion file. I put all of the bills from each month in one pocket. Once I come around the January again, I just shred whats in there and replace with the current January bills etc. This makes it easy to keep a rolling year, and have one file, that when extended takes up only about 9″ in the file cabinet instead of a whole drawer full of folders marked for each payee.

    • Is it necessary to keep bills on file if you use your home as office space and use them as an expense on your income tax at the end of the year? Or can I toss them out after filing taxes? Hilda

      • I keep receipts for anything that are tax deductible for seven years. I’m pretty sure this is the US TAx guideline for expenses of this sort.

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Welcome. I’m Sarah!


I’m the creator of Decluttering School (formerly known as Early Bird Mom), lover of organized spaces, encourager to women and mom to four boys. Click here to read more!

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