How do you handle paperwork?
July 27, 2010 9:29 AM   Subscribe

Modern life brings with itself a flood of bills and letters and forms sent to us by utilities, banks, the government, etc. Some of them can be thrown away, others should really be shredded to prevent identity theft, yet others need to be retained for months and years. What do you do with yours? Do you have a filing system? Do you have a box or corner or bottomless pit you put all your paperwork into? Do you deal with it in batches or as soon as it arrives?

Moving house and moving in with daisyk has made us both realise that we need a better way of dealing with our paperwork. Because we're geeks, our solution will be a computer program. But to inform its design, I'd very much like to know your approach to paperwork, and how well it works for you.
posted by Zarkonnen to Home & Garden (19 answers total) 38 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Oh, I don't know how well this translate to a computer, but I pay bills and file paperwork twice a month, sorting it into a filebox for a year, and in January I sort everything for taxes, shredding, and long-term filing. Nothing much else to do on cold January nights anyway! That way I can deal with bills and things as they come in, but do the long-term disposal/storage as a batch once a year.

My filebox has divisions for different utilities, for health and dental care, etc.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:42 AM on July 27, 2010

I deal with the paperwork as soon as it comes in, and file it immediately afterwards. I've got a filing cabinet that I store everything in. Twice a year, I go through the files and throw away everything before a certain date, depending on what kind of records I have. I'll keep utility bills for six months, bank statements for a year, investment documents forever (unless my financial advisor tells me otherwise), etc. Documents with sensitive data get shredded, everything else gets recycled.

If you're going digital, I would recommend setting up digital file folders, and also doing a semi-annual or annual purge of documents from before whatever your cutoff date is for each category.
posted by philosophygeek at 9:44 AM on July 27, 2010

Best answer: I deal with them as they arrive. Before the bills make it to my office, I take them out of the envelopes, and throw everything I don't need into the recycling bin. I pay everything online, then file away.

I keep everything in a filing cabinet, sorted by issuer. I also have one for general receipts I want to retain, and another for car related stuff. When the filing cabinet gets a little full I transfer everything to a bankers box and begin anew.
posted by backwards guitar at 9:44 AM on July 27, 2010

While I don't do this myself, I've heard tell of people who scan paperwork, name and tag it to storage, and then shred the originals. Obviously, there are a few things you should keep handy in original paper, but a lot of it can be digitized and/or destroyed.
posted by Celsius1414 at 9:46 AM on July 27, 2010

Best answer: 1. All junk mail gets shredded when it is opened; the strips go in the kitchen trash (make the identity thieves work for it).

2. Bills and Account Statements (after cursory review for accuracy) get one staple in the corner and placed in folders labeled by account name and year. Physically I put them in a waterproof clear plastic bin from Office Depot with hanging folders which I keep close to the living room. I do this on Sundays when I am watching TV, etc.

3. Folders over 1 year old are moved to a permanent home upstairs in a closet in a standing file cabinet. I do this about quarterly.

4. I have not yet felt the compulsion to throw anything away, but if I did I would adhere to the IRS guidelines. Here's a good overview.
posted by 2bucksplus at 9:48 AM on July 27, 2010

1. Switch to paperless statements where you can.
2. Buy a scanner and shredder for everything that can't be switched to paperless
3. Turn everything into a .pdf or whatever format you prefer.
4. Create Encrypted Harddrive
5. Store all data on encrypted drive using strong original password.
6. Back up encrypted drive in three locations onsite, offsite, online ( I realize online and offsite are sorta the same, but recovery time depends on the amount of data and its considerably quicker to recover from an offsite drive if you have alot of data)
posted by HoldFast at 9:51 AM on July 27, 2010

Best answer: Piggyback question:
Name a scanner that's less than $300 (I'm looking at you, drool-worthy scansnap) that can do duplex, sheet fed scanning so I can finish going paperless.

As to the first part of your question:
We pay bills as they come. Online as much as possible. I file the statement by vendor, and when I pay it I write on it the date it's paid and from what account. Check number if applicable.

I actually put the papers in the cabinet about once a month, and then on the new year I'll start over.

I shred anything that doesn't go in the filing cabinet, if for no other reason than that we have a crosscut shredder and they take up waaaaaaaaaaaaay less space that way.

My new method will be:
Scan everything worth keeping, dropping it into folders by vendor/year, or by using Win 7 tags if necessary. Shred everything. Folder is redundantly copied to another physical HDD and uploaded automatically to my S3 account

I just need to find that scanner.
posted by TomMelee at 9:57 AM on July 27, 2010

I scan and shred all documents like tax returns and legal documents.

I pay bills online upon receipt and then shred them. I don't keep copies of bills.

I don't keep paper copies of investment transactions.

My accountant also keeps copies of my tax returns indefinitely.
posted by dfriedman at 10:00 AM on July 27, 2010

2nd HoldFast. The scansnap is worth it.

I recommend Mozy for backup and Dropbox for remote (I mean anywhere) access. I also recommend drawing a line in the sand TODAY and starting on whatever new comes in. Work backwords as time allows.
posted by shew at 10:02 AM on July 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

I get the vast majority of my bills via computer. As a matter of fact, I don't even get bank statements in the mail.

What documents I do get in the mail thus tend to be annual or semi-annual things like renters/auto insurance, car registration, etc. These are infrequent enough that sorting them every couple of weeks isn't that big of a deal.
posted by valkyryn at 10:10 AM on July 27, 2010

Response by poster: FYI, this is in the UK.

@TomMelee: How do you access your S3 account? FUSE?
posted by Zarkonnen at 10:16 AM on July 27, 2010

Best answer: You might find answers to these previous two questions helpful: What documents should I keep, How long do I need to keep household paperwork. I have a system and it works well for me.

I try to get rid of most paperwork but I'm not fastidious about it. When deciding what to keep, I try to differentiate between things I think that I will need and things The Man will need. I also try to see what's available online. So, for example, my bank offers e-statements but they only have them online going back six months. If I decide to get e-statements, I need to self-archive the online documents.

So, going through it.

1. Things The Man needs: birth certificate, title to my house and car, lease etc. I have a folder called "important scraps of paper" in the front of a filing cabinet. If I was diligent, I'd have pdf backups.
2. Things The Man needs me to keep track of: seven years of tax forms/receipts, contact information for my banks/bill payers, transcripts, old contracts. Filed in the filing cabinet.
3. Things I might need: old phone and power bills, old bank statements. Keep in filing cabinet, purge frequently.
4. Things I do not need: receipts for non-tax-related stuff w/o warrantees, ATM statements, envelopes (for god's sake ditch the envelopes!)

When a piece of paper comes into the house, it goes on the "mail" table and gets opened within the day and the envelopes immediately go in the recycling. It's then either

- dealt with [bill paid, item responded to] and filed
- put on a "to deal with" clipboard which hangs on the wall
- tossed. I do not shred. I think for many people (including family members of mine) the shredding stage is paranoia-fueled and serves as a hurdle to not dealing with the mail. If shredding is your hurdle find another way to deal with safe disposal of stuff with your private information on it.

My filing system is a box called "to be filed" that I sort into one of about ten folders every few months. I have a good idea if something is in the "to be filed" box or actually filed.

Things I also keep because it's easier to just have than research

- instruction manuals for some things
- warrantee paperwork
- car/health paperwork

Things I keep because I like to

- personal mail
- postcards
- old travel memorabilia

[but it's all in the same two drawer filing cabinet which gets purged when it's getting fullish. Sometimes personal stuff goes into backup storage.]

I have a few sorted pdf folders on my computer that are keyword searchable and backed up regularly. I don't use any other special system for them.
posted by jessamyn at 10:28 AM on July 27, 2010 [3 favorites]

Something I've found incredibly helpful is that Quicken 2010 lets you attach digital images (JPG and PDF) to line transactions. So all my utility bills get paid online and scanned to a PDf, and I attach the PDF to the line entry in my registry. After the bill is drawn from my account I destroy the paper copy. That way I only have a month-ish worth of paper lying around. I also do this with warranty info or receipts for more spendy things so that, should I need it, I have my original purchase receipt attached to the line item in my account registry.
posted by msbutah at 11:06 AM on July 27, 2010

Nthing most of the above, and also adding that the best book I ever read on that subject was Clutter Control: Putting Your House On A Diet by Jeff Campbell. It was written before a lot of the conveniences of our digital age, but much of the information about how to deal with certain types of paper is extremely useful.
posted by magstheaxe at 11:34 AM on July 27, 2010

I access my s3 account two ways:
S3Fox for manual updates
Allway Sync for badass, automated, change-tracking automatic syncing.
posted by TomMelee at 11:38 AM on July 27, 2010

GTD by David Allen. Best 20 bucks I ever spent.
posted by fantasticninety at 1:33 PM on July 27, 2010

I toss everything except for tax paperwork and receipts for warranties.

I used to save everything. But I found that to be useless.
posted by KogeLiz at 1:35 PM on July 27, 2010

My method:

1. Move everything possible to paperless.
2. Absolutely necessary papers go into a filing folder.
3. Burn everything else.
posted by Lutoslawski at 2:09 PM on July 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Once a week, I scan everything and upload it to evernote. Then it's safely stored, for the duration of me using the service, in a taggable, universally accessible, password protected, searchable archive. I don't have to back it up, keep it filed, sort it out, move it, find things, or any of the other dross.

It's really the only sane way I have to manage things, IMHO.
posted by Quadlex at 4:48 PM on July 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

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