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How to Organize Your Paper Documents

Find Important Records Quickly and Easily


Woman working in home office
GSO Images/Photographer's Choice RF/Getty Images

The Problem: Keeping Track of Important Papers

The only time you seem to think about your important documents is when you need them. And, oftentimes, you can't find them when you need them because:

  • You don't have an organized and centralized system for storing your important documents; and
  • The last time you needed one of them, you simply tossed it back into the sea of papers in your home office instead of putting it back where it belonged.

With all of your important papers spread throughout your house, you waste a lot of time searching for them when you need them. You're also at risk of losing some of them completely.

With a few simple steps, you can organize your important paper documents once and for all.

The Challenge: Organize Your Important Paper Documents in One Hour

Take one hour this weekend and get organized. Use this step-by-step solution to organize your important paper documents.

Tools Needed:

  • Small two-drawer filing cabinet or
  • Portable hanging file box
  • Multi-colored hanging files (6 different colors)
  • Manila third-cut top-tab folders
  • Fireproof safe (optional)

Step One: Gather All of Your Documents

Before you can organize all of your important documents, you must locate and gather them all together. This is sometimes easier said than done. Common places where important documents hide include:

  • Home office - look in drawers and sort through all of the papers stacked on your desk or table;
  • The kitchen - look in the piles of paper cluttering your countertops as well as in drawers and baskets;
  • Your bedroom - look in your chest of drawers, your dresser and your nightstand;
  • Your purse and briefcase - look for important documents you've needed recently and are still carrying around with you.

Step Two: Categorize Your Documents

Most important documents fall into one of the following six categories. Sort all of your gathered documents as follows:

  • Home and property records - mortgage, property deeds, home improvement projects and receipts, appliance manuals and warranties, property tax information, home insurance policies and manuals
  • Auto records - titles, maintenance records, insurance policies and information, loan information and payment records
  • Health records - insurance policies, health insurance benefits manuals, explanation of medical benefits, doctor bills, prescription lists, flexible spending information, medical receipts, medical directives, life insurance policies
  • Financial records - bank statements, tax returns, tax deduction records, investment records, loan records, credit card statements
  • Electronics records - cell phone contracts and manuals; sales receipts and warranties for computers, laptops and iPads; cable and Internet plans and bills; wireless router sales receipt and manual
  • Personal records - birth certificates, marriage certificate, divorce certificate, custody papers, social security information, immunization records, passports, military service records, baptismal and confirmation records, wills, funeral plan and burial site information. If you have pets, you can also include their important documents such as veterinary and vaccine information in this category.

Step Three: Segregate Vital Documents

Most of your important documents can be stored in a regular filing cabinet or portable hanging file box. There are some, however, that really should be stored in a fireproof safe or offsite storage option such as a safety deposit box.

How can you tell the difference? Ask yourself the following questions:

  • What documents would be very difficult or very time-consuming to replace?
  • What documents contain sensitive personal information that might be compromised in the event of a break-in or robbery?
  • What documents would I need access to in the event my home was destroyed by fire or flood?

For most people, the following documents fall into the above categories: social security information, birth certificates, insurance policies along with your agent's contact information, wills, property deeds, car titles, your passport and any contract or agreement that required your original signature.

Make a master list of all of the vital documents you place in your fireproof safe or in an offsite storage option.

Step Four: Duplicate Your Wallet

Most of us carry critical information in our wallets each day. Do you know everything that's in your wallet? What would you do if your wallet were lost or stolen?

Make copies of the following information that you typically carry in your wallet and keep it at home with your other important paper documents:

  • Driver's license
  • Donor card
  • Health insurance card
  • Membership cards - gym, warehouse clubs, grocery store loyalty cards
  • All credit and debit cards - copy front and back

Step Five: A Simple Filing System

The simpler the filing system, the more likely you are to use it on a consistent basis.

Take each category of important document and assign it a hanging file color:

  • Home and Property Records
  • Auto Records
  • Health Records
  • Financial Records
  • Electronics Records
  • Personal Records

Add the appropriate number of hanging files to your filing system for the number of documents you have in each category.

Use the manila folders and create a folder for each individual document within each category. Place the folders in the appropriate colored hanging file section.

Ongoing Maintenance

Now that your important papers are organized, keep them organized:

  • Each month when you pay your bills, file any new documents in the appropriate section of your filing system;
  • At the same time, look for any documents you removed from the system during the month that might still be out of the filing system. Re-file them.
  • At least twice a year, review the documents in your filing system to see if any can be purged. A good schedule to follow is at the first of the year and at the end of each school year.

With a little effort, you can reap long-term benefits by organizing your important paper documents.



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