How to organize paper clutter and paperwork at home

by Anousheh

Overwhelmed by paper clutter? Paperwork has to be one of the top categories where clutter piles up really fast. One of the main reasons is that a lot of people are not sure how to deal with paperwork properly and don’t have a system to organize their paper clutter.

But don’t worry, we got you covered. This post will give you easy and actionable solutions on how to organize paper clutter.

How to organize paper clutter

What is the best way how to organize paper clutter?

In this post, we will go through the following steps on how to organize paper clutter:

  1. Figure out what documents you have to keep and which ones to toss.
  2. Declutter your paperwork and get rid of everything you don’t need anymore.
  3. Organize the paperwork you actually need and build yourself a system that works.
  4. Find a way to deal with paper clutter in the future so you never find yourself in the same situation again.

Let’s get into these steps and how to tackle them.

Paper binders stacked on top of each other

How to organize years of paperwork

  1. Gather all your paper and documents. Before you think about how to organize your paper clutter, you need to know what you’re working with. Go through your entire apartment and gather everything that’s on paper in one place. If you don’t already have a good system, get everything out of binders, boxes, and file cabinets.
  2. Declutter all your paper. Go through every single document and categorize them into 3 piles: toss, deal with and keep. We will get into what to keep and what to toss in a second.
  3. Toss the trash. First things first: Get rid of everything you don’t need anymore. We will go into detail on how to get rid of old documents later.
  4. Put aside everything you need to deal with. Doing this now would only take away momentum, so let’s keep moving.
  5. Categorize the documents you need to keep. Classify your paperwork in bigger sections, such as finances, work, home, etc. From there on, you can organize them in sub-topics, like credit cards, tax returns, and mortgages. This way, you can easily add new categories when needed.
  6. Create a system. The perfect system depends on you and your needs. There’s no solution for everyone because the amount of paperwork you have and need depends on a lot of different factors. A business owner definitely needs a different system than a single household with a corporate job living in a rented apartment. We will show you a master plan for organizing your paperwork later.

What to keep, what to toss

For most people, the hardest part when decluttering their paperwork is figuring out what to keep and what to toss. There’s definitely a lot of insecurity on which documents you actually need to have on hand and which ones can be digitalized or even thrown away.

Here’s a simple guideline you can follow when purging your paperwork:

Things you can safely toss

  • Junk Mail, newsletters, old receipts (except warranties and receipts you need for your taxes)
  • Bank statements (this would be a great place to go digital)
  • Old pay stubs (you only need to keep these for a year)
  • Old loan contracts (once you have paid them off)
  • Repair records (car, home, electronics, with one exception: keep them if you want to sell that item)
  • Membership documents (once they’re no longer active)
  • Rental and service contracts (six months after contract end)
  • Expired warranties
  • Use instructions (you can usually find them online)
Paper crumbled together as trash

Things you can digitalize

  • Tax returns and tax documents (receipts, credit card statements, donation records,…)
  • Investment statements (retirement accounts, stock documents, pension documents)
  • Social security statements

Things you should keep and store safely

  • Car title (until the car is sold)
  • Medical records
  • Loan and mortgage documents (until you have paid them off)
  • Estate documents (insurance policies, wills, powers of attorney)
  • State-issued vital certificates (birth, marriage, divorce, death,…)
  • Social security cards
  • Titles and deeds

How to organize important documents at home

The next step on how to organize paper clutter is finding a good organizational system. So how can you organize years of paperwork? Depending on your needs, there are few options.

No matter the individual need, your system should meet 3 criteria: It needs to be easy to access, clearly labeled, and able to grow and adapt to your needs.

A few options for organizing your documents are:

  • A Filing Cabinet. They come in a lot of different sizes and styles and can easily be adjusted to your needs. Most of them have drawers, which means you can see everything at first glance and further categorize your documents. They are not space restricting, so your categories can grow when needed and you can easily add more.
  • Different binders. If you’re working with shelves in your office, binders could be a better option for you. This is a very cost-effective method and easy to categorize and expand. However, they are not as user friendly as a filing cabinet, if you need to access your paperwork a lot.
  • Letter trays. Now, I only recommend letter trays or boxes for paperwork that will be dealt with soon. They don’t give you a lot of options to organize and file in different categories, but they can be a great way to store documents you can’t file yet.
  • Fireproof storage box. Not every document needs to be stored as safely as possible, but very important documents like birth certificates should be. A fireproof storage box protects them, not only in case of fire but also floods or other catastrophes.
A woman making notes while filing away her documents

Declutter Paper: The Master Plan

Alright, by this point we should have tossed everything we don’t need and are left with only documents we have to keep (either forever or for a limited time). So let’s jump into creating an easy system to figure out how to organize paper clutter:

  • First, go through your documents and separate them into 3 piles: important documents you need to keep forever and store safely, documents you need to keep for a certain amount of time, and documents you need to deal with so you can toss them (like bills or letters).
  • Your important documents should be treated that way. If that’s only a few pieces of paper, you can put them in a clear sleeve or something similar. If you need these to be further organized, grab a binder and categorize them. File every document within its category. I would work with clear sleeves again, so you can easily see where your documents are.
  • Once you have organized the paperwork you need to keep forever, these should go in a safe place. I would always opt for a fireproof storage box.
  • Now, go through all the documents you need to keep for a certain amount of time and sort them into piles, depending on the category you want to go for. You could sort them by topic (home, finance, insurances,…) or date (2018, 2019,…) or whatever works for you. If you have a lot of documents, broader topics combined with sub-topics could also make sense (home -> insurance, repair records, gas bills,…).
  • When you are done with your piles, you can see clearly what you are working with. How many categories do you have? How many documents go into each category? With all this laid out, you can decide which organizing system works for you (binder, filing cabinet,…).
  • With the organizing system you choose, label all your categories and sort your paperwork in the corresponding category. I recommend working with clear files as much as possible so you can see everything at a glance.
  • When sorting your documents into categories, I would always take a little note on the document with a timestamp. This timestamp will tell you how long you need to keep this document. For example, warranties are usually valid between 1-2 years. Check the buy date and the warranty time frame and take a note when your warranty expires. This will make sure that sorting through your paperwork in the future should only take a couple of minutes and you don’t accumulate as much paper clutter anymore.
  • Now we have one pile left: the documents you need to deal with. For this category, I would recommend creating a “to deal with” station. For me, this is a simple letter tray on my desk. It could also be a box in your entryway. All the documents you need to take action on will be stored here. Go through this station regularly (once a week, once a month,…) and take the action needed. Afterward, either file in the right category (if you need to keep it) or toss/shred it.
  • Find out where you can go digital. We keep a lot of documents just in case we need the information one day, even though we don’t need the actual paper itself. In this case, a great way to organize your documents is to scan them or take a picture and organize them on your computer or cloud storage. By giving them clear names, like “iPhone Warranty”, you can easily find everything you need with a simple search.

How does Marie Kondo organize paperwork?

I know, when we think of how to organize paper clutter, there is no getting past Marie Kondo. So how does the famous organizer deal with paperwork?

She has a simple strategy: Discard everything.

That’s right, Marie Kondo is pretty drastic when it comes to organizing your paper clutter, and for a reason. Paperwork has to be one of the main categories where we keep excessive amounts that are absolutely not necessary. However, she does have three exceptions:

  1. Paperwork you are currently using, such as bills you need to pay or contracts you need to sign.
  2. Documents you need to keep for a limited time frame, like warranties or receipts for returns.
  3. Paperwork you need to keep and file, like social security documents and birth certificates. These should be organized and safely stored.

Everything else gets tossed right away.

How to deal with invitations

A lot of the paper clutter in most households can also come from invitations and event flyers. I know many people who keep them on their desk or even on their fridge as a reminder. This system can get messy very easily and also isn’t a great way to actually organize the events you want to attend.

Instead, once you get an invitation or a flyer for some event you might be interested in, simply put it in your calendar and throw away the invitation. If the invitation has more details, you could take a picture and attach it to your calendar entry (this is possible with most calendar apps on your smartphone).

Invitation letter with card

Of course, if we’re talking about the invitation to your brother’s wedding, that is a whole different story. This is not categorized as paper clutter, but more as a sentimental item. You can find more details in this post on decluttering sentimental items.

How to store coupons

Collecting coupons from magazines or the newspaper can be a huge reason for paper clutter. We collect them in hope of saving some money, but when we actually want to use them we forget or we simply can’t find them.

At first, I would urge you to ask yourself if the paper clutter you collect with coupons is worth the 0.50$ you might be saving on your next shopping trip. I personally have simply stopped keeping coupons because a clutter-free space gives me more value than some $ off.

However, if you use coupons a lot, you can find a system to organize them. This way, you avoid all the clutter and also make your coupons accessible when you need them. Two simple options would be:

  • Use an extra wallet that you keep in your purse or car so you always have them ready when you need them.
  • If you collect a lot of coupons, a binder with clear sleeves could also be an option.

Either way, you should go through them regularly and throw out the ones that have already expired.

The good news is, most coupons are starting to go digital. So check with your local store if they might have an app with the same coupons or if it’s possible to simply take a picture of the coupon code. This way, you avoid all the clutter and always have your coupons handy.

How to organize receipts

Receipts can be a whole category in itself. In fact, I would say receipts are the #1 source of paper clutter in most households. Most of them can be thrown away, but some you might want to keep, either for warranty reasons or because you need to return something.

A receipt that has been crumpled up

In this case, you should have a system on how to store receipts so you can actually find them when you need them. If you have a lot of receipts, this could be a separate binder organized by store, category, or date. With organizing receipts, I would definitely recommend working with time stamps. Take a note when the warranty or the return time frame ends, and toss the receipt once this time frame has expired.

The good thing is, decluttering your receipts is usually a fast and easy win. Most of them will immediately be thrown away, which already makes your places look so much less cluttered. If you are at the beginning of your decluttering journey, you can find more of these fast wins in this post about 37 things to get declutter.

How to organize photos and memories

Often, photos and memories are stored in the same place as documents and paperwork. However, we don’t want to deal with them in the same way. In fact, these two categories shouldn’t belong together.

If you come across pictures and sentimental items while decluttering your paper, you have a few options:

  • Organize them on 2 different piles: keep and toss. Organize the ones you want to keep and create a photo album so you always have your memories in one place when you want to look at them.
  • Digitalize them. If you have a lot of pictures, and you don’t want to create albums for all of them, you could pick the most precious ones, put them in a photo album and digitalize the rest. That way, you still have them available, but you don’t clutter your space with too many photos.
  • Make them more visible: We keep photos and memories because they bring us joy. However, they won’t do that when they’re sitting in a box under your bed. Instead, frame your favorite ones or display them in a collage or on a cork frame and hang them in your apartment.

What to do with paperwork you don’t need anymore

Alright, we decluttered all the paperwork we don’t need. The next step in figuring out how to organize paper clutter is finding out what to do with all these documents. Depending on the type of paperwork, you have 3 options:

  • Recycle them. Everything that doesn’t have personal or sensitive information can be thrown in the recycling bin. The great news is: Paper is 100% recyclable!
  • Shred it. Everything that has your personal information on it should be shredded. If you don’t have a shredder at home, ask your friends or neighbors or check with your workplace if you can shred your documents there. Most offices have big industrial shredders.
  • Scan it. As mentioned before, if you’re not sure if you need the information in the future, take a picture or scan the document for future reference.
Infographic on ways to get rid of paperwork. Recycle, Shred, Scan.

How to make sure your paperwork stays clutter-free

Alright, we found out how to organize paper clutter and have a system in place. This is great news! Now we want to keep it this way. To make sure your paperwork stays organized, you should follow a few key rules.

  1. Get rid of unneeded paper immediately. Don’t put it on your desk to deal with later. When bringing in your mail, go through everything and sort it right away into 3 categories: Keep, deal with and toss. Whatever is in the toss category, throw it away immediately.
  2. Create a “to deal with” station. This will depend on your desk space and your apartment. One very simple way to do this is by keeping a letter tray on your desk. All the paperwork that needs to be dealt with will be stored here for you to take care of and then either toss or file.
  3. Keep a schedule. If you want this method to work, you also need to set yourself a regular schedule to actually deal with your paperwork. Otherwise, you will end up with a huge pile of paper clutter and completely overwhelmed again in a few months. Depending on the amount of paperwork and the time schedule you have, this could be a weekly or monthly appointment with your “to deal with” station, where you go through every piece of paper and take the action needed.
  4. Go digital where possible. Check all the mail and documents you receive and see where you can switch to a digital version. A lot of banks and insurances have online statements you can sign up for. This saves clutter, lets you organize everything nicely, and is eco-friendly as well.
  5. Set time stamps for your paperwork. With a lot of documents, it is only necessary to keep them for a certain amount of time. A great way to stay ahead of your paperwork pile is to mark your documents with time stamps while filing them. Just quickly note down when you can toss this document. Now, when going through your binder or file cabinet every few months, you can easily see what can be thrown out.
  6. Don’t take receipts you don’t need. Simply tell the cashier that you don’t need that receipts. If you don’t even take the receipts with you, they can’t clutter your home.

With this action plan, you should be all set to organize your paper clutter once and for all.

What has been your biggest struggle when figuring out how to organize paper clutter? Let me know in the comments below!

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How to organize paper clutter: Never get overwhelmed by paperwork again

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