“…It keeps me runnin’ hard, and sharp and true.  I focus on the basic stuff and pretty soon I’m comin’ up on you.  So much clutter clouds our way.  Fundamentals win the day…”

For real, I may have just fallen in love with Bob Seger.  Could those lyrics be anymore perfect?  You know we’re finishing up the whole Taming the Paperwork Beast extravaganza (FINALLY) and I couldn’t have written finer words myself.  Thank you, Mr. Seger.  Thank you.  Your song “Simplicity” just rocked my world because truly, simplicity is the key.  The key to dealing with paperwork.  The key to…life, actually.  I could totally go off on a tangent about THAT right now but I’ll focus on the paperwork for today. (You’re welcome.)

So, in the words of Mr. Seger, “Simplicity, it works for me”.  And it’s gonna work for you too.

So far we’ve established your mail bin and your sorting station, right? Essentially any mail that comes into your life goes into the mail bin and makes its way to the sorting station.  Any random paperwork that might worm its way into your life through your kids or your doctor or your purse or your wife goes straight to the sorting station.  Now, assuming that you’re regularly purging your mail bin and regularly taking care of the bidness that’s made the cut to your sorting station, the only thing left to do is figure out the easiest, most pain free way possible to keep the paperwork that needs to be kept.

Yup, it’s time to set up some files.  And this is where a whole bunch of trouble goes down.

Lemme know if any of this sounds familiar, okay?

  • Your files are too specific.  You have a file for each piece of paper that enters your life.   Each credit card bill.  Each utility service.  Each electronic item in your home.  You make too many subcategories.   You’ve got folders inside of folders, paper-clipped categories inside of a sub-folder.  This never leads anywhere good, folks.  NEVER.

  • You get lost in the details.  Alphabetical order becomes your master.  If you can’t make a label with your label maker or in your best handwriting then it doesn’t get made.  Your files need to be color coordinated and you haven’t found the perfect shade of green for your financial folders yet.  The piles start.

  • You THINK too dang much.  You worry you’re not using your files right. You have no idea where to put things and even less of an idea where to find things. Your kitchen counter looks like a nuclear paper bomb the size of Fat Boy was dropped and detonated repeatedly.

I’m gonna need you to step away from all that.  I’m also gonna need you to forget everything you ever thought you knew about filing because here’s the REAL deal.  And, just like Mr. Seger says, fundamentals do, in fact, win the day.

You ready?

YOU DON’T NEED A FILE FOR EACH UTILITY THAT YOU PAY.  You only need ONE file and it’s gonna be called UTILITIES.  You don’t need a file for each household receipt you keep.  You need one file and it’s gonna be called HOUSE INFO/RECEIPTS. You don’t need a file for each doctor you see.  You just need one file and it’s called MEDICAL INFO!   Do you see where I’m going with this?

See, there’s this precarious balance that you’ve gotta keep in mind: The Ease of Filing VS The Ease of Retrieving.

In order to retrieve items from your files, you’ve first gotta actually FILE stuff.  That simple truth right there is why I believe that Ease of Filing is more important than Ease of Retrieving for most people.

Think about this for a second.  If you don’t get into your files all that much then there’s no sense in having these super specific files that never get used or only have one sheet of paper in them.  All you wanna do is make sure the paper you need to keep gets into a file that makes it easier to find than crawling around on the bottom of your bedroom closet rifling through the laundry bins of paperwork you swept off your kitchen counter when company came over.  If you struggle with piles and piles of papers then filing needs to be as painless as possible.  It needs to be simple.  It needs to require very little thought, energy or time.

Lemme tell you a little story.   A few months ago my husband had some blood work come back…weird.  You know, not really problematic but just…weird.  His primary care doctor sent him to a specialist and because my husband has had some blood work issues in the past, he wanted to take all of that info with him to the appointment.  I went to his medical file, rifled through all the stuff he didn’t need and pulled out what he did need.  Can I just tell you that the five minutes it took me to sort through and pull out those specific reports was totally worth it? TOTALLY.  WORTH.  IT.  I didn’t have a separate category for blood work (Can I say the words “blood work” ANY more?).  It’s part of his medical history so it just goes in that folder!  No thinking.  No wondering. Any medical info he wants/needs to keep goes in that folder.  There’s never any doubt if it’s in a pile somewhere or stuck under the seat of his car. He’s got medical paperwork?  That crap is in his medical file.  His general medical file.  The five minutes it took me to pull out the specific stuff he wanted was totally worth it because it took me two seconds to file that stuff.

My point in all this, in case you’re having issues, is that filing needs to be simple.  Uncomplicated.  Your file names need to reflect the language YOU use.  The titles YOU recognize.  A client of mine had a file titled “The Idiot File”.  I laughed SO hard when I saw that but lemme tell ya’, girl knew EXACTLY what it was and exactly what was in it. That’s a filing win, right there!

To get you started and give you a little bit of food for thought, here’s a list of files I use with my clients.  They can easily be tailored for your specific needs but you could also take them just as they are and solve at least 75% of your filing issues.

  1. Home Info– This is where any info relating to your home goes.  Receipts for furniture, your yearly pest inspection form, the guy’s business card who seals your driveway.  You can also keep your homeowners insurance information in here OR you can have a separate file for that if it makes you feel creepy crawly!
  2. Auto Info– This is where any info relating to your vehicles go.  Receipts for those new tires you bought, a copy of that speeding ticket you got that no one knows about…You don’t need a separate file for each vehicle you own. Remember, ease of filing vs ease of retrieval.  Again, you can keep your car insurance information in here or you can have a separate file for it. 
  3. Health Insurance- This is where your insurance policy lives as well as any EOBs you decide to keep.  
  4. Paid Bills and/or Utilities–  You don’t need a separate file for each bill you pay.  Just throw ’em all in one place.  Ease of filing vs ease of retrieval.  The few minutes it’ll take you to find your cell phone bill from March are worth it since filing will take virtually no time.
  5. Medical Receipts– Most everyone has a flexible spending account these days and holy balls, you better be able to produce a receipt!  I actually have two medical receipts files- one for receipts paid with the benefits card and the other for receipts paid out of pocket.  It rocks our world at tax time. 
  6. Charitable Giving– This is where you put those Goodwill receipts and tithing records.  Other non-bill items that you’ll need for tax time can go in here as well.
  7. Banking Info– This is where you keep bank statements, notices from your financial institution, used check registers, etc.  
  8. Retirement/Investments– You know those statements from Merrill Lynch you get every month and don’t know what to do with?  If you feel compelled to keep them (All that is available online!) put ’em here!
  9. Credit Info- This is where you keep credit reports, copies of credit card agreements and even credit card statements that you need to keep.  (Those statements can go into Paid Bills and/or Utilities as well. It’s totally up to you.)
  10. Contact Info– Phone lists, directories, scraps of paper with addresses you need to put in your address book.  This file is where all that stuff lives.
  11. Reference- This is a general file for any information that you want to keep as a reference.  Directions on how to use an Epi-Pen.  Bus schedules.  A list of your magazine subscriptions and when they expire. (Don’t you hate it how they always send you renewal notices when you still have like 18 months left on your subscription?!  I’m pretty sure my husband has a subscription to TV Guide that will be passed down several generations!)  Camp info for next summer.  Kids’ schedules, lunch menus, and school calendars can go in here as well OR you can set up a separate file for those kid related items.  
  12. Manuals– We all have these!  The key is to keep them all together and honestly, a file folder is not the best place for them.  It just gets too bulky!  I keep mine in a bankers box in my office closet.  
  13. Medical Info– You should keep a file for each member of your family as well as any pets you have.  This is where test results, immunization records, etc go.
  14. Keepsake– You should have a keepsake file for each member of your family.  This is where special art work, cards, etc go.  This file will fill up fast so you can use bankers boxes or those decorative boxes from The Container Store to keep your files from overflowing.  
  15. Professional Info– Each adult in your household should have a professional file.  Resumes, letters of recommendation, transcripts, etc go there.  
  16. Important Family Documents- Marriage license, birth certificates, social security cards, car titles, passports…If you’re more comfortable keeping these items in a fire proof box that works too.  The point is that they’re all together in one spot and everyone knows where they belong!

So there it is.  Super simple filing.  Those categories and a little bit of yearly maintenance (We’ll get to that in January!) are all ya’ need.  I’d love to know what you think!

Oh, and just to be perfectly clear, your files don’t have to be in alphabetical order or even in a file cabinet.  Mine certainly aren’t!  I put the ones I use the most in the front of my white plastic crate!  Rules are made to be broken, people.  Rules are made to be broken.