Stabbing myself in the eye with a letter opener doesn't seem to be an appropriate reaction to this problem.
November 8, 2009 6:28 PM   Subscribe

I just spent another hour going through giant stacks of mail and shredding crap and I swear I can't take it anymore.

All of our bills are paid online so half the time stuff never even gets opened. This leads to problems like letters from our HOA getting missed when like a month later I break down and go through stuff. And then what do we do after the bills are paid? What should we keep (paystubs, etc)? What's fine to get rid of? How long should we keep receipts for things like home or car repairs? Why do these mysterious statements keep coming from the retirement account?

We have no system whatsoever. I feel like I missed that day in learning-to-be-an-adult class. (Well, I missed a lot of days, but this is the most pressing one.) What does your filing cabinet look like? I need a filing cabinet, right?

I know some of the basic things we can do -- opt out of paper mail, etc, but is that okay for everything? Isn't it better that I have a hard copy of my credit card statement to compare just in case it changes down the line, or am I being a conspiracy theorist?

What about regular, day-to-day receipts? Do you just take time once a week to shred them, or what?

We are intelligent people but unfortunately neither of us is detail-oriented. We work long schedules and when we get home at midnight the last thing we want to do is go through another pile of mail that turns out to be usurious credit card "checks." (Seriously, I just shredded like a dozen envelopes' worth.)

Please hope me.
posted by sugarfish to Home & Garden (27 answers total) 51 users marked this as a favorite
Instead of having a special day where you go through all the mail, it's a lot easier to just open all the mail when you get it every day and act on things as they arrive. It kind of sucks doing bills like this, so I'd just try to do that all on the internet. You can save local copies of PDFs and stuff if you're worried about companies changing things, I guess.

Doing everything paperless really simplified stuff. So does using services like Mint for keeping track of bank accounts. If you can get it to the point where you have no bills coming in (and you really should, between paperless options and bill-pay services), the problem should be gone.
posted by floam at 6:35 PM on November 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

This is what I do.

- have a place to put mail when it comes in so it doesn't become part of the furniture
- open your mail as close to when you get it as you can. Immediately toss anything into the recycling bin that is not necessary [return envelopes, advertising, the envelope the stuff came in]
- stick things you need to deal with on to a clipboard
- stick things you need to file [paystubs, paid bills] in to a big box for eventual file cabinet filing
- file stuff every few months either by type [receipts, paid bills, car, health, work, family, insurance, investments] or by company [electric company, bank, car ins company]
- purge these files every few years as tax laws dictate

This way, if you need to look up something in the recent past, it's in the "to file" box. If you need to look up something older than that, it's filed by type of bill or letter or whatever. I can handle having duplicates of electronic stuff because sometimes it's good to have things at hand, other people may decide this differently and that's certainly okay too.

I personally don't bother with shredding; it delays getting stuff back out of the house.
posted by jessamyn at 6:46 PM on November 8, 2009 [3 favorites]

When the mail comes:

1. Junk mail and solicitations for money I'm not interested in, straight to the trash.

2. Bills, into the bills folder (bills are paid on payday, every two weeks).

3. Personal mail (letters, like anyone does that anymore) is read when it arrives.

This really isn't that hard, just train yourself to spend the, what, two minutes a day (?), it takes to take care of this.
posted by HuronBob at 7:03 PM on November 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

First, cut down on junk mail:

1. Sign up at - it's run by the FTC - so that credit card companies won't send unsolicited crap. Plus, this will cut your risk of having someone else open up a credit card in your name.

2. Opt out of unsolicited commercial email. This one doesn't work as well, because it's a voluntary program But it is constantly getting more effective, as more companies join.

Next, as far as saving stuff, I used to file by bill type, etc etc, but then I realized I almost never actually have to check through the files - so why bother organizing and prioritizing?

So now, what I do (for the few non-electronic things I receive), is I just open all the envelopes - usually while watching tv on the weekend - then I throw away the assorted crap that gets mailed along with the important paper, which I stick it in a folder.
I, too, have no idea what I really need to keep and what I don't, but seeing as how a single file folder stores a year's worth of paperwork, it is not worth my mental energy to sort out important from nonessential matters. If I do need something (which is rare), it's organized roughly by month, so it's easy to find. (I do have another folder for stuff I know I'll need for taxes - student loan stuff, tuition, medical bills. you'd want to put mortgage and 401K stuff here too, but only the end of year statement. It ends up having maybe 10-20 pieces of paper in it, total)
posted by lesli212 at 7:03 PM on November 8, 2009 [13 favorites]

I aim to do what Jessamyn does, though I don't always succeed. It is best to open stuff as it arrives, though, and immediately discard what you don't need. If you can tell from the envelope that it's not important, don't even bother opening it (though you may wish to err on the side of caution here).

If it's the act of shredding itself that drives you nuts, just toss everything you want to shred in a bag or file box and then, when you have a few of them full, take them to a wholesale shredder or document destruction company. I just got an online quote from one company that would shred a box up to 65 lbs. for $42, including shipping to their facility. Given the demands on your time, that might well be worth it, especially if you sort out the things you don't need to shred first.
posted by brianogilvie at 7:06 PM on November 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

1. Bag by the mail area for immediate disposal of junk mail - I'm a renter, I don't need carpeting/gutters/babies.

2. I opted out of credit-card soliciatations, which probably halved my mail.

3. I opted out of stuff from my credit-card company and banks.
No, I'm not afraid I'm going to see them mess with their records. If you don't know where those records are, then they don't do you much good anyway. If I were afraid, then, every month, I do get a notice saying 'your statement is ready for viewing' in my e-mail. (Dealing with e-mail is another topic.) From there (this is BoA, actually) I can print it if I feel the need to have a paper copy at hand.

4. Yes, there's a file cabinet. It's a mess, but at least everything from 2009 is in one folder.

5. Another bag for stuff to be shredded. I either a. smuggle it into work and dump it in a confidential bin there or b. bring it to a friend who has a woodstove. Not the best, but I hate shredding. Option c. is to keep an eye out for public shred days.
posted by Weighted Companion Cube at 7:10 PM on November 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

My system is much like everyone else's, it seems:
  • Briefly sort mail when it comes in (obviously-junk goes into the bin, obviously-legit and maybe-official goes into the grownup-mail pile, magazines and personal mail and that kind of thing usually gets read immediately since it's rare)
  • Every week or two, open everything in the grownup-mail pile. 60% of it is going to be junk (credit card offers), or maybe needs to be read but not kept, and goes in the bin. Actual bills get paid, actual statements get glanced at for problems.
  • Paid bills get that fact noted on them ("paid w check oct. 2") since when I mess up it's usually by not remembering if I've paid something or not.
  • Bills and statements get added willynilly to the "paperwork I'm keeping for a while" folder. I don't bother sorting them, other than the implicit chronological ordering. With all of the envelopes and inserts etc. removed, this folder doesn't take up a lot opf space.
  • Once a year, usually when doing taxes, I extract everything in that folder dated to the previous year, put it in a big envelope with the year written on it, and stuff it in a big box in a closet.
  • At my current rate, I have another 5-6 years before that box fills up and I have to start tossing old records.
The fundamental part of this is to divide the piles of paper up according to whether I need to do something with them, and if so, how soon. What I need to do with it isn't as important.

When this system fails it's usually because I skipped the pre-sort and something important wound up in a heap of "that looks like junk but I'm not sure so I'm going to ignore it" paper. Getting rid of the bulk of the crap early is important.
posted by hattifattener at 7:17 PM on November 8, 2009

Definitely get rid of the junk mail immediately, but there will still be papers you need to hang onto for doing your income taxes etc. For these, you might look into a canned organizing/filing system, like the Homefile Financial Planning Organizer Kit (I won't link to it because it's apparently out of print, going on Amazon for the ridiculous price of $200). Basically, somebody has decided for you which things go in what folders and you just follow their rules. This is helpful if you have more than one person doing the filing, since you all follow the same system. No thinking required, no arguing allowed. (I remember seeing at least 2 products like this, consisting of a bunch of tabbed sheets that you stick in folders in your filing cabinet, plus a master index.) These systems also tell you how long to keep things and when to toss 'em, which is nice.

If you google "how to set up a filing cabinet" you get lots of hits. Whatever you do, I highly recommend setting up a system that tells you where to put things, where not to put things, and when to get rid of them. Do your thinking up front, set up some rules, and stick to them. Much easier and faster than thinking about every piece of paper as it comes in.
posted by Quietgal at 7:52 PM on November 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

Buying a Fuji ScanSnap helped me immensely. I use it for business cards, tax documents, manuals, important receipts, etc. Once the items are scanned, I toss the originals (I have redundant backups of my harddrives, of course; one is off-site and updated weekly) unless it's something I need to keep. After scanning, I label the items the same way I categorize them in my head: ex. Receipt - Costco - tax software - Month/Year; Bill - Cell - Month/Year. This way it stays organized on my computer and it's easy to find when needed.

Mail is dealt with the moment it's picked up: junk mail - toss it; bills I pay immediately (or schedule them to be paid online) because I prefer to deal with the unpleasantness right away. If it's a credit card statement, I don't even bother scanning it, I just download the pdf from the card's website and shred the original after making sure everything is okay.

Anything that can't be dealt with right away is put in my Inbox on my desk and I try to handle those items at the earliest opportunity, usually on the weekend.

The biggest hurdle for me was deciding what was worth keeping a hard copy of and what was okay to throw away. Peter Walsh's book and the Unclutterer blog are great resources for helping you figure that out.
posted by LuckySeven~ at 8:37 PM on November 8, 2009

You don't necessarily need a filing cabinet, though one can be useful. The thing that worked for me is to buy a bunch of manila folders and label them with categories that fit. I'm allowed to 'waste' them, which means I'm not umming and ahhing about what to label them. I file both alphabetically and by category- all my car stuff goes together and is filed roughly where C is. I have some of those bigger folders with the accordion sides to hold stuff that is more broad- I have a big folder for 'finance' that has a folder for 'tax stuff' 'car repairs' 'car insurance'. You don't need a cabinet, just a big box will do.

I chuck the junk* straight away, 6 clipboards on my wall to hold important stuff that I need to act on, (bills, forms, etc), a pinboard to hold stuff in view, and a pile of "to file" stuff that gets tidied every so often. I also have a 1 drawer filing cabinet. (with two drawers above which hold my stationery, etc.)

*company newsletters, etc.
posted by titanium_geek at 8:49 PM on November 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

After opting out of junk mail (dma, ftc, credit cards, mentioned above) I now get almost no junk mail. I recommend this!

I keep a recycling bin next to the mail box. I check my mail daily, and what little junk that does get through goes right in the bin.
posted by zippy at 9:17 PM on November 8, 2009

How long should you keep things? Some ideas:

From Life Organizers
Another one
Clark Howard
My Money Blog

I, myself, have a large drawer for these purposes, without files, and when it fills my plan is to get a bigger drawer. However, I am clearly not a grownup.
posted by charmedimsure at 9:21 PM on November 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

Mail is an evil substance which will take over your home. The only solution is to act swiftly and decisively, just as if someone stuffed a large insect into your mailbox.

When you walk into the house, do not let the mail leave your hand in one big pile. Sift it quickly into two piles: real mail and shreddies. Shreddies are dropped in a box beside the shredding machine. Real mail can go in a pile on your desk. You will soon be able to tell the difference at a glance.

As far as filing goes, many Real Grownups advocate keeping at least the last 3 months of bills/statements/pay stubs on a rolling basis. Personally I think that's dumb. Under what possible scenario would you need to have your own copy of your bank statement, because the bank won't send you another one? Or you can't just log into your phone company's website and print it out?

I read over all that stuff to make sure I'm not overlooking some mystery charge (it happens more than you'd think). Then I burn them in my wood stove.

I think your method is probably fine; you just need to do it more often. How long had it been since you Dealt With The Mail? Three months? Six months? One month? Set an appointment with yourself to do it more often. The first of the month, every Sunday night, whatever it takes to make it less burdensome.
posted by ErikaB at 9:49 PM on November 8, 2009 [2 favorites]

Every December, I buy an expanding file folder, a monthly one, with 31 dividers. I label every divider by category, such as: Citi Visa, Citi Mastercard, AmExGold, and so on for all paperwork: tax forms, DMV records, medical etc. I find that 31 folders is enough. It sits in the kitchen area where I bring my mail from the mailbox. I immediately sort the mail when I bring it in (if I'm really short of time, it goes onto a tray next to the folders, and I sort as soon as I have the time), so I sort into the various folders as they belong, banking statements, stuff from the DMV etc. Junk mail gets tossed immediately into the trash can next to it. I rarely get bills, because I pay all online, and opt out of paper statements. I also stuff receipts etc. into the dividers. That goes on the entire year. Then I write at the front of the expanding folder box, the year this box pertains to. When I buy a new box, come January, transfer certain folders from the old box into the new one: the ones which need continuity (certain DMV records and the like). Then, I take the previous year's box, and store it in the basement. There, neatly arrayed, I have records of every year, say: 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001 etc. All are sorted internally already. I keep ten such boxes - for the 10 most recent years. As I archive the 11th year adding a box to the start of the queue, I take the oldest (last) box and throw it away - the IRS suggests keeping certain records for no more than 10 years. And so I have 10 boxes - I add one a year, and throw out the 11th (oldest) - but note, certain files I transfer from year to year, because those files need continuity (car title for example, so the DMV file keeps getting transferred year after year). Works for me. I always know where to find what kind of paperwork going back 10 years. And it's very simple in operation and maintenance. I've been doing it for 26 years now.
posted by VikingSword at 10:31 PM on November 8, 2009 [3 favorites]

Addendum: when I say "I throw out the 11th - oldest - box", I should say I dispose of it. There's a little tradition we've established (my wife and I). We try to camp at least a few times every year. That's when the box to be disposed of goes on one of the trips. The evening bonfire really gets going with all the papers from the box - a small yearly ritual.
posted by VikingSword at 10:35 PM on November 8, 2009 [2 favorites]

Another list, just for comparison, and because I feel your agony while being a reluctantly orderly type.
*I open all mail directly and trash directly everything that doesn't apply. That leaves me with three piles
"Do now", "Do later" and "Bills".
*No matter how the bills are getting paid, they first pile up until to be dealt with, and when they are paid they end up in a drawer flattened and half-neatly stacked, which ensures they remain more or less in chronological order.
*Bills that are tax deductible, on the other hand, go in a huge envelope where I collect my tax stuff.

I keep all bills for a time, just in case I would have claims of some sort, or get unsure about whether a certain bill was correct or something. It takes years to fill up that drawer with flattened and ordered bills, so I don't bother too much about it. IF it needs to be cleaned out, I take the lower half of the pile, go quickly through it for bills for house repairs that should go in a special envelope (In Sweden, you can deduct these from the house-selling profits) or whatever else important, and just trash the rest.
Other regular nonsense like those eternal streams of pension papers or info from my insurance go into specified maps (probably four maps, no more), in case they are necessary later or something. Re. retirement account papers there is no "why" to be asked about paper invading your home. Paper will keep invading your home. The answer is to keep dealing with it with a minimum of fuss.

This type of rough-sorting ensures that you don't miss anything important and it buys you a bit of rest. Letters that require action (forms, requests etc.) are tackled like text messages or e-mails.
*answer everything that takes under 20 seconds to answer NOW.
*answer everything that requires direct action TODAY.
*clipboard for the rest.
posted by Namlit at 1:52 AM on November 9, 2009

If you garden, that stuff makes pretty good compost and in a pinch, mulch.
posted by watercarrier at 2:51 AM on November 9, 2009

I do all my bill payments electronically through my bank rather than with each vendor. Why?

-- cuts down on logins and passwords and saves time
-- puts all the payment history and payments due in one place on one screen
-- sends me electronic email notifications when a bill comes in
-- allows automatic and recurring payments like my mortgage and health insurance to happen on time even if I forget
-- helps me feel like I'm reducing my 'exposure' to identify theft (if we can't trust our banks we're all in trouble)
-- sends checks to the vendors who don't have direct debit accounts which cuts down on the hassle of stamps, envelopes, and mailing.
-- the bank usually has a 'cancel paper statements' feature whenever I add an e-payment vendor so we are all working to reduce paper and junk mail
-- I can do this anywhere in the world and anytime I can get to the internet
-- it's a free service
posted by birdwatcher at 3:58 AM on November 9, 2009

Call your credit card issuer(s) and tell them not to send you convenience checks. They will stop.
posted by magicbus at 4:45 AM on November 9, 2009

Just wanted to mention that we have a mail sorter right by the front door. Good for keys and has two sides which we use as his/hers so I don't have to tell my husband he has mail (or he doesn't need to remember to tell me), we can just check. I toss junk mail then sort into to do or file and forget.

I've been known to put pennies into reply envelops that are prepaid and mail them. This reduces junk mail.
posted by cestmoi15 at 5:08 AM on November 9, 2009

Any and every piece of unsolicited junk mail with a "NO POSTAGE REQUIRED" return envelope/card gets mailed.

I don't bother filling it out with insults or screeds. Too much time wasted. Just send it right back to them, completely blank, on their dime.

This won't stop the junk mail, but knowing it's costing the bastards sending the junk can give you a really good feeling.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 5:45 AM on November 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

If you're paying everything online, get off the physical mailing lists. Seriously--the only physical bill I get now is from my landlord and only one bank still insists on sending me paper statements. Everything else comes via email, which cut down on the actual mail I have to go through by half.

Rather than throwing out junk mail, take a second to get off those lists. In addition to the information above, actually take a few minutes to call the organizations who are showing up in the mailbox and say that you don't want to get their stuff in the mail anymore. If it's financial offers, telling them you're concerned about identity theft gets them to pay attention a little faster. For anything else (catalogs, Lymphoma and Leukemia Society, whatever), a repeated, "Thanks, I'm not interested" works just fine.

After a month, you should see a drastic reduction in the mail that you're getting, which should help you keep on top of it in a reasonable manner. You could also institute a "Touch it once" rule, wherein when you get the mail, you can't put it down until it's dealt with. Or you could do this once a week, and throughout the week just toss the mail in a shoebox and open it all on Saturday.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 6:37 AM on November 9, 2009

I file the papers I'm keeping by the year, one shoebox per year. This year's and last year's boxes are on a shelf near my desk, so it's easy to toss stuff in.

I don't keep any bills, because I'm almost 40 and I've never once needed a bill after I've paid it.

I keep my bank statements because I don't balance my checkbook any more (not sure I recommend this) and I like to have a record at hand, but I might stop doing this soon -- my bank keeps the records on line and it's easy for me to download them if I'm suddenly curious.

I don't keep day-to-day receipts unless they're tax related. I don't usually shred them, unless they have my credit card information on them (and they rarely do these days).

Obvious junk mail goes in the recycling bin as soon as I get it. Not obvious mail goes in my in box on the crapticle (the big piece of furniture by the front door), and about two times a month I dedicate some time to going through it.

I have separate files (not the shoeboxes) for things related to the house, important documents, and taxes, among other categories. When I go through the shoebox at tax time, I try to move those papers to those files.
posted by The corpse in the library at 7:23 AM on November 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

Thanks for all the awesome, thoughtful answers! I feel much better than I did twenty-four hours ago and I even dumped all the junk mail right into the recycling before I even came upstairs this evening.
posted by sugarfish at 3:16 PM on November 9, 2009

I moved the shredder from the office to the garage so that I walk past it on my way into the house from the car. It gives me great satisfaction to shred things without ever bringing them into the house. Doing this lowered the volume of mail that I have to actually do anything with to such a degree that it is now much easier to keep up. Catalogs are still the bane of my existence, because I do enjoy going through them, but the volume has become staggering.
posted by Lame_username at 9:46 AM on November 10, 2009

Also, this may not be super useful but what is helpful to me is having a post office box. PO Boxes have recycling bins right next to them so this way I only take home what I know I have to deal with. I get no mail delivered to my house. Sort of an extreme solution to your problem, but it costs maybe $70/year and I live somewhere where you have to take all tyour recycling to the transfer station in your car, so I think it's worth it.
posted by jessamyn at 10:20 AM on November 10, 2009

Yes, of course - mailing box. I've had a mailing address as long as I've lived away from home. It's perfect - when you are away, your home mail box doesn't get stuffed full, they accept UPS, FedEx, DHL and so on, and it puts distance between where you live and where your mailing address is. I thought everyone did it! I pay $200 a year, and it's perfect - plus you can get faxes there, you can send and package stuff from right there, and can take care of general office things. Great place to get rid of junk mail right away too. Can't imagine how people live without one.
posted by VikingSword at 11:33 AM on November 10, 2009

« Older Was I ripped off by the graduate school admissions...   |   thunder road cover mp3? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.