Keeping your papers organised
October 27, 2005 10:47 PM   Subscribe

How do you organise tax receipts, bills, credit card statements, bank statements and all your other paperwork at home?

I'm sure most of you have to keep records for various things. The paperwork in my house is piling up - bills, receipts, official documents, warranty cards... a whole lot. I have to preserve most of this for tax purposes for a long time.

Share your tips and experiences in keeping this stuff organised and easily available. Do you use different coloured folders? Envelopes? Boxes? Where do you keep them? How are they categorised? What has worked well for you?
posted by madman to Home & Garden (23 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
also interested in this....put me on a computer or a network, i'll organize 10,000 images and know where they all live.

give me paperwork and i'm a wreck.
posted by th3ph17 at 11:05 PM on October 27, 2005

I put them all in a box and then come that time of the year I hand the box to my accountant.
posted by dobbs at 11:15 PM on October 27, 2005

i make 3 hole binders with tabs for various bills...electric, cell phone, ira, etc. for each year. then i organize my loose receipts in expandable check folders....and i highlight the receipt for entertaining, research, supplies and such. my accountant loves me for this...and when it comes to tax time - i present her with a spreadsheet with all the amounts clearly listed and totaled.
getting organized has changed my life.
good luck!
posted by youngemma at 11:16 PM on October 27, 2005

I have 12 shoe boxes, one for each month. Everything for that month goes in the box. At the end of the month, the box goes on the shelf, and the next one is opened.

The lid of the open box fits nicely over the box bottom.
posted by mischief at 11:34 PM on October 27, 2005

I have a box file with hanging folders. The folders are tabbed for each payee or account: credit card, checking, savings, student loans, vet bills, tax retuurns, medical etc. When I get my bills I open them, throw all the misc crap away, pay them by check if necessary (most of my stuff is on Bill Pay), write "Paid" and the date on the bill in ink and file them in order in the appropriate spot. Takes 10 minutes twice a month, tops.
posted by fshgrl at 11:57 PM on October 27, 2005

Forgot to add, I also have a folder for warranty cards, one for tax info, one for school transcripts.... you get the idea. This takes surprisingly little space, I've never needed more than two boxes to store 5 years worth of stuff plus I can save everything important in an earthquake all at once! Very important for us Californians.
posted by fshgrl at 11:59 PM on October 27, 2005

I do what dobbs does except it's me digging through the box at tax time. I figure tax day's already shot so spending a little extra time sorting then is more than made up for by the time saved NOT organizing the rest of the year.
posted by Opposite George at 12:00 AM on October 28, 2005

GTD-style approach.

I have a plastic in-tray sitting on top of a small cheap filing cabinet.

Everything goes in the intray.

Every week, or more often if the pile is big, I go through the in-tray.

If it needs filing straight away (like a bank statement) I just file it. I have these simple categories:
- statements
- paid bills and invoices
- useful receipts for personal items
- business receipts
- correspondence

If I can deal with it straight away (eg put a cheque in an envelope to post tomorrow, pay through online banking) then I do that. I pay my bills straight away - my utilities offer prompt payment discounts, and I'd rather know everything was dealt with than have to remember them.

If an item requires action at a particular time, I make a note in my calendar.

If I want to defer dealing with it, I either make it an action on my to do list, or if it's more complicated than one simple action, I create a new project on my project list.

Every few months I triage the files and either throw shit out, or put it in labeled fileboxes.

Hint for files once you have lots of drop files - whenever you take a file out, put it back at the front of the drawer. That way all the frequently and recently used stuff migrates to the front where you can find it.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 12:49 AM on October 28, 2005

In addition to the tips above, seriously ask yourself if you actually "need" to retain some of the documents for x- years. Sometimes it can be liberating to realize that you don't need to keep so much.

eg: a receipt and warranty card for a $9.00 toaster. Keep that stuff around through the break in period of the toaster and toss it once you've realized the toaster works [figure out your own threshold for that, obviously, that would not apply to a $5K LCD TV].

Take advantage of e-bills and the ability to save things as PDFs so you can keep them in a folder on your computer.
posted by birdherder at 2:56 AM on October 28, 2005

What birdherder said. My wife and I pay almost all bills online. Of the ones we pay by check, we only do this because they do not offer an online option. We do not keep the bill stub for these bills, and do not receive paper for the online bills. We do all our banking online and do not receive paper statements. If our accountant requires statements, we print them out from the bank's website at tax time. Receipts used to document deductions go into a folder labelled "Tax 2005". My wife is self-employed and so saves all her gas receipts.

We have stopped saving bank statements since we started going the online route. This has cut out a large amount of paper.

Madman, why do you need to preserve bills for tax purposes? If you do, I recommend printing out PDFs when the time comes from the company's website. Do you need bank statements for tax purposes? If so, do the same.
posted by cahlers at 3:11 AM on October 28, 2005

I struggled with this issue myself a few years ago, and I decided to just start scanning everything and see how it went.

Now, I keep a small pile of "important paper" and run it through the document scanner about twice a month when I check up on my online bill payments. I end up with searchable PDF files, which I keep in a set of folders on my hard drive, for things like:
- bills
- statements
- checks for deposit
- product manuals (if I can't find a PDF online)
- purchase receipts worth keeping

I like this approach because it frees my home from the biggest source of clutter in my life, while I can be confident that I have a record of anything semi-important -- with periodic DVD-R backups, to boot. (It's worth mentioning that I specifically bought a document-oriented scanner; having to load one page at a time on a flatbed would be an exercise in madness.)

There's only a few things I still keep paper records of:
- critical papers: birth certificate, title documents, etc.
- things I might transfer someday: auto repair records, home maintenance receipts

As companies (slowly) move towards online bill presentment, I'm also opting for their electronic statements (as others have mentioned) -- usually PDFs, which I download and save in the same folders as my scanned ones.

Unfortunately, I don't yet feel I can trust vendors/creditors to keep online records on my behalf -- e.g. when I switched cell phone providers, I lost access to my account and therefore couldn't access my statements from their website anymore (grrr).

I suppose this isn't for everyone -- I've been accused of being a "paper packrat," and GTDers might favor periodic purges. Black-and-white PDFs hardly take up much room, though, so I'm quite happy with this scheme.
posted by skyboy at 3:21 AM on October 28, 2005 [1 favorite]

I live in India; our laws are a bit different. Paper rules here. :)
posted by madman at 4:34 AM on October 28, 2005

I have a box (actually a crate) full of labelled hanging file folders. The hanging folders are organized by color - red folders for bills I save, blue folders for living-related paperwork (lease info, insurance, car maintenance), and purple folders for things like reciepts, taxes and medical paperwork. I also have one file designated "important papers" where anything I deem extra important gets stored. The crate sits on the floor right next to my desk where it is easily accesible.

As paperwork comes in (bills, reciepts, etc) it gets triaged into one of three categories - trash, file immediately, or requires some action. Trash items obviously go directly in the trash, and file immediately is filed immediately. The paperwork that requires some action is placed in a stack in a prominent place on my desk. Once a week I take the time to go through the stack, take whatever action is needed, and file the paperwork.

Since I only use the one crate and don't have a need to store things over a long period of time, I try to clean out the file crate once every year.
posted by geeky at 6:35 AM on October 28, 2005

Hanging file folders hold documents relating to:
* Investments (401-K, Roth IRA, stocks)
* Car related (Insurance, car loan, maintenance documents)
* Health related (company health, eye, dental docs, plus bills, test results)
* Debt (credit card, student loans)
* Other (everything that doesn't fit into the other categories).

Everything sits in one of those plastic boxes that holds hanging file folders. At the end of the year, I put the box in the closet and start a new box.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 6:54 AM on October 28, 2005

You will almost never use these records, except for tax time. My wife does the filing now and she puts each account into a separate folder. I prefer the one folder per month routine because it is easy, no sorting required; just drop it into the folder. Ease of compliance improves compliance I say. I like skyboy's system, but I would never bother with the scanning and end up months if not years behind on the task. At the end of the year after taxes have been done, everything related to taxes stays in the tax folder. The rest can essentially be tossed, but isn't. Investments with long term capital gain consequences get their own folders as they are less temporal. Receipts for warranted items go in the manual next to the warranty page. If it is something I might sell later (say audio equipment) where the purchaser would like the original box, the manual and receipt go into the box. This stuff has nothing to do with taxes anyway.
posted by caddis at 6:59 AM on October 28, 2005

I have a nice filing system with everything in pocket folders which I have hanging in my file cabinent. That way, when I had to evacuate from Katrina I was able to grab them and hit the road. Therefore, I had all my paperwork and I didn't have to worry about if my house was looted they would be able to get my personal info and steal my identity along with whatever else.
posted by govtdrone at 8:05 AM on October 28, 2005

I use a single three-ring binder, with dividers to separate papers in different categories (taxes, bank statements, bills, correspondence and meeting minutes, etc.). Each year I start a new binder. Simple, works well for me.
posted by russilwvong at 8:24 AM on October 28, 2005

I have a small box of drawers on my desk. Incoming bills and other documents that require action in the near future go in the top drawer. Paid bills and other documents that need to be filed go in the second drawer. Around the end of the month, I deal with everything in this drawer, and move the bills I just paid into the second drawer.

When the second drawer gets full, I empty it out and organize all the bills. I have one of those multi-pocket portable expanding filers, and each payee has its own pocket.

At the end of the year, I staple together all bills from a given payee as part of my tax-preparation tango. Once I have all my taxes done, all the bills for that year go into a big plastic pouch, along with my tax forms, etc, which gets labeled and stuck on a shelf, never (I hope) to be seen again.

Warranty cards and the like have their own big plastic pouch.
posted by adamrice at 8:33 AM on October 28, 2005

I have a box on the desk where anything that is en route to the filing cabinet goes. I have another box which is the "to do" box. I have a clipboard that has bills which need to be paid clipped to it. On a regular basis [the key to most of these systems is making sure that whatever interval you pick for this is maintained and followed, it's the no-slack part of the equation] I make sure I pay bills from the clipboard, file stuff into my box file and do the "to do" items. The file folder box has files that are sort of suited to what I need: warrantee stuff, house stuff, paid bills, receipts, tax stuff [for 1099 and tax forms], important papers, health, car, investments and maybe a few others. Every year or so I go through this box and toss anything I don't need to keep. You may decide that you need an archiving system where you shift things into if-there's-an-audit storage boxes and get them out of your face more or less. The smaller you can make the daily/weekly/monthly paper storage and moving and filing areas, the more likely you are to actually use them.
posted by jessamyn at 8:54 AM on October 28, 2005

Since I have a computer desk without any drawers, I bought a filing cabinet at Goodwill for $20 and spray painted it with a nice fresh coat of cream paint.

It holds a lot of things, but one drawer has my files in it. They are not colour coded, but they are clearly labelled.
I have files for:

- the current year's Visa bills.
- mortgage/line of credit information
- property tax info
- current year's pay stubs
- medical/dental/charity/tax write off receipts
- special folders for different projects, such as estimates for the bathroom renovation I'm planning or info pertaining to the rental of the three parking spaces that came with my condo.
- at the back of the drawer, one folder for each separate year's taxes, dating back seven years

When I do my taxes annually, the information is all at my fingertips, and I can easily chuck the stuff I don't need anymore, freeing up the folders for another year.

I also have a planning notebook which I keep on the desk. It's just as important an element of my organizational system as my filing cabinet. This is where I write all to do lists, work out my budgets, and then there are envelopes in the back of it where I keep the current month's receipts and paint chips and fabric samples etc.
posted by orange swan at 9:34 AM on October 28, 2005

I have a bright red plastic expanding folder that sits around. It's red so that it doesn't have to sit in exactly the same place. It has tabs for receipts, business cards, invoices, misc. I stuff stuff in it, and clean it out whenever. I regular schedule would be a good idea. There isn't a folder for "needs attention" because it will be forgotten, that stuff goes in a small pile on my desk. If it needs to get mailed, it gets clipped to my front door.

It gets emptied into:
business card book - if they're useful, this info also gets put into my windows address book, with the middle name used as a tag, like Valerie "NOC operative" Flame.

Receipts are in square bottomed hanging folders(these are great), with manilla envelopes inside. I have three categories, for business, personal, and mixed. Each envelope is marked in sharpie on the outside, with category and year. Having them in envelopes is much less messy, and they file better too.

I have one file for manuals, which also holds warranty registrations. Official papers go in a couple categories, CC, housing, and Soc. Security/Passport/Birth Cert.
posted by Jack Karaoke at 10:08 AM on October 28, 2005

Whatever system you like, you have to file stuff.
I have used a file cabinet as an end table for years, you can throw a tablecloth or just a hunk of print fabric over it, and get to it easily. If you live in small quarters, it's an easy way to hide a file cabinet.
posted by deep_cover at 10:55 AM on October 28, 2005

I have a file cabinet, inbox, and simple filing system as many have described above. I would only add these notes:

You really don't need to keep everything. Any bills that are more than 12 months old -- toss. Bank statements more than 3 years old -- toss.

Once a year, I go through my file box and clean it out. This is an important step in any filing system, as if you leave it uncleaned it will turn into a scary mess. Every year in January, I set aside a couple weeknights for this, put on some music, drink a glass of wine, and straighten out the files. Everything past its 'expiration' date gets thrown away. Unfinished projects get moved up in the rotation and put on the list of project goals for that year. Tax documents get pulled together. And, you get a brand-spanking-New-Year feeling from the whole process.
posted by Miko at 2:38 PM on October 28, 2005

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