Overcoming Paper Clutter

Written by Multitasking Mama

Even with all the technological advances in the world I don’t think our society will ever truly be paperless. In fact, the recent technological advances seem to have created more paper to deal with in many cases.

We have receipts, bills, insurance policies, certificates, investment statements, health records, and more. Then added to that is the daily influx of junk mail- magazines, catalogs, sweepstakes entry forms, etc.

Today we will learn how to overcome paper clutter once and for all.


Your mail needs to have a designated spot. When you pick it up from the mailbox each day, bring it into the house and put it in the same spot. This can be a basket, a designated space on the kitchen counter, or on your desk in your home office.

Your goal should be to handle mail as soon as it enters your home. But at the very least try to have a set time each day that you go through the mail and deal with it, so you don’t end up with piles of mail and magazines spread throughout the house.

  • Magazines– only keep the current month’s issue.If there are articles that you want to keep for future reference or for a recipe, etc. then invest in a 3-ring binder with plastic page protectors. Tear out the article that you like and throw away the rest of the magazine.
  • Catalogs– When a catalog arrives at your home and it is not one that your regularly order from call the 800 customer service number on the back and request to be taken off the mailing list.
  • Junk Mail– this should be immediately thrown away. If you like the coupons from the ValuPak, etc then clip the ones you like and throw the rest away. This will cut down on the amount of paper clutter laying around the house. To stop unwanted credit card offers call 1-888-567-8688 or write to Direct Mail Association Mail Preference Service at PO Box 643 Carmel, NY 10512. Include your name, complete address, zip code and a request to “activate the preference service”. This means you will only receive those catalogs, offers, etc that you personally request. The Direct Marketing Association estimates that this will stop 75% of the junk mail that comes to your home!
  • Bills– have a place for all the bills that need paid to be filed until it is time to pay them. This can be a plastic shelf divider, a basket, a file folder, an accordion file, etc. Whatever works for you is the best system to have.
  • Invitations, fliers, etc.- We all get the invitations to weddings, special events at the senior center and family goings on. Have a place that you put all these and weekly go through and sort out what has already happened and throw it away. As soon as you receive any type of invitation or reminder with a date in the mail you should check your calendar and if you plan to attend go ahead and write it on the calendar so that you don’t forget in the future.

Paper, in general:

  • Newspapers– If you use the internet all major newspapers including the local papers are available (in their entirety) on line. If you are not computer savvy or prefer to hold the newspaper than be sure to recycle or toss newspapers at least weekly. Piles of old newspapers are untidy and create a fire hazard as well!
  • Important Personal Papers– These include your will, birth certificate, social security card, passport, etc. Keeping these in a fireproof box is safest or use a safe deposit box at the bank. Other files you may have include 401k statements, bank statements, mortgage statements, stock/bond/IRA statements, warranties/instruction manuals, car information including car insurance and title. Keep your files organized and accessible according to how often you access them. If you only access certain papers once a year at tax time than file them in a banker’s box in the attic. Keep files you need on hand in the file cabinet.

How Long Should I Keep It?

We are often asked by clients how long they should keep various types of paper. These are general guidelines that we use when working with people. But remember it is always important to check with your accountant or tax advisor about your individual situation before shredding any documents.

  • Auto Records– keep these as long as you own the vehicle
  • Appointment Books– some people like to keep these as a type of journal, I keep them for a few years as back-up for mileage purposes. Keep them up to ten years for this type of reason.
  • ATM slips– Keep them six years for tax related purchases. Store them with your bank statements.
  • Credit Card statements– six years for tax related purchases (such as owning your own business) Otherwise keep until you receive the interest statement issued with by the company annually. Then you can shred them.
  • Dividend Payment Records– Until you receive your annual statement
  • Health Records– permanently
  • Home Improvements– as long as you own the home. Store these with your tax records
  • Household Inventory and Appraisal– As long as they are current. Update them annually (we will talk more about this next week when we talk about organizing for a transition)
  • Insurance Policies– (auto, homeowner’s, liability) through the statute of limitations. (disability, medical, life, personal property, umbrella) keep for the life of the policy
  • Investment Purchase Records– As long as you own the investments
  • Investment Sales Records– six years for tax purposes
  • Mortgage or Loan Discharge– as long as you own the home or six years after the discharge
  • Pay Stubs– until they are verified by your W-2 statement
  • Property Bill of Purchase– as long as you own the property
  • Receipts– as long as they are current, or as determined by your accountant
  • Safe- Deposit Box Key and Inventory– as long as they are current
  • Tax Records– current year plus six years prior (can be filed away in a bankers box)
  • Utility Bills, etc.- Until they are paid (your canceled check is proof you paid and the company keeps records as well)
  • Vital Records and Documents– birth, marriage, divorce, death certificates: permanently
  • Wills, Trusts, Estate Plans– permanently

Other tips to keep in mind when dealing with paper:

Papers should be filed so that you can access or retrieve them in less than a minute.
Some people are convinced they have a good system for filing but then wonder why there are papers on the coffee table, end tables, etc. It is because you do not have an adequate filing system. An adequate filing system works!

Filing cabinets or portable file baskets/containers should be stored within reach of where you deal with paper. File cabinets in the basement are of no help to you if you can’t go down to the basement anymore.
Two important questions to ask when handling paper- What is this?, Why am I saving it?

Avoid keeping paper for sentimental reasons, keep it only for necessity. This will drastically reduce the amount of paper in your home.

Dealing with paper clutter is not only about appearances and organization. It is also about safety. The more paper you have lying around your home or apartment is the more “kindling” a fire has if one were to develop in your home. Consider that as motivation to deal with the clutter in your home.

Happy Organizing!


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