Paper clutter is probably the most common type of clutter we have in our homes, as well as the most frustrating. Keeping up with the daily influx of paper is bad enough but when it comes time to tackle old files it can be downright overwhelming.
Being at home during the Coronavirus pandemic has me decluttering lots of stuff including my filing cabinets. My files were a hot mess! It’s been a grueling process and in this post, I’m sharing some steps for decluttering your old papers and files. These tips will make the process a lot less painful.
(This post may contain affiliate links, which means I may receive a commission, at no extra cost to you, if you make a purchase through a link. Please see my full disclosure.)
Allow Lots of Time
If you’ve ever read The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up you know that Mari Kondo has steps for decluttering your home in the proper order. There are categories that come first and some that you should wait on. Paper is halfway down the list and sentimental items are at the end. If you’re a sentimental paper hoarder like me then you will be tackling sentimental paper earlier than expected. I found myself going through old report cards and papers I wrote back in middle school. It’s fun to walk down memory lane but it takes forever!
Also, depending on how old your filing system is, you may have years worth of old files that you didn’t even remember you had. If you don’t want to become completely flustered, it’s a good idea to know that you’ll need to set aside enough time to purge these papers. It may take a weekend or a month or six. Just know that this is a long-term project and you’re probably better off doing it in stages. It probably took you decades to accumulate all the paper you have, so going through it all is going to take some time.
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Set up a System Before You Start
It’s a good idea to set up categories and know where everything is going before you start on this wonderfully stressful paper decluttering journey. If you already have an efficient filing system in place then you’re all set. I did not. I had a random collection of unrelated categories that didn’t make sense. This made the process a lot more confusing than it needed to be. It’s hard enough making decisions about what papers to get rid of, dealing with a disjointed filing system doesn’t help. I needed something that was easy and that I didn’t need to think about.
I settled on the Freedom Filer system. It’s available on Amazon or you can order it directly from the Freedom Filer website. (If you’re interested in this system, I would recommend buying directly from the Freedom Filer website. Times are tough for small businesses right now and we could all help by supporting them directly.)
Freedom Filer is ultra detailed. It includes hundreds of stickers and a great color-coded system that makes setting up your categories super easy. It’s meant to work with hanging file folders that you need to purchase separately. It may seem silly to spend money on a set of color-coded stickers but in my experience, the done-for-you system is worth every penny of the $30 I paid for it.
This video explains how the Freedom Filer system works.
Find Out How Long to Keep Your Papers
Sometimes we avoid purging old papers because we’re not sure how long we need to hold on to them. How long should we keep tax returns and mortgage paperwork? For answers to these questions, I turned to the internet. Consumerreports.org had some pretty good guidelines, but I also found that there are different opinions about how long to keep your files and it really does depend on your circumstances. I created a list based on the papers I had in my own filing cabinet but this list isn’t exhaustive.
- Keep Forever– birth certificates, marriage certificates, social security cards, insurance policies, passports, personal memories that you feel like keeping
- Ten Years- tax returns and all supporting tax documents, retirement account documents, mortgage paperwork
- Two Years– bank statements, utility statements, mortgage statements
- One Year– Things that renew on a regular basis like car insurance policy
- Three Months (or until you can no longer return item)- Receipts
Dispose of Confidential Papers The Right Way
As I looked through my files I was horrified to find my social security number and credit card account numbers on a ton of my old statements. I did a little research and learned that laws were put in place years ago to keep companies from doing this to help prevent identity theft. But if you’ve been holding on to old paperwork, you’re going to want to make sure you dispose of your papers in a safe way that keeps your personal information private.
One way to do it is to use a redacting pen like this one on Amazon to black out sensitive info and then you can just toss the papers or recycle them. Or you can use a good old fashion shredder. When it comes to shredders you get what you pay for. Trying to shred lots of paper with a shredder that can’t keep up will get frustrating fast. I recommend spending a little more and getting a higher quality shredder.
Another option is to use a paper shredding service. Sometimes towns have paper shredding events where they’ll shred your papers for free. But with Coronavirus shutdowns of public events, these are hard to come by. I’ve used the shredding services offered at Staples. My local Staples charged me $1 a pound for shredding my stuff and I was happy to pay it. The added bonus was not having to remove staples or paper clips. Hooray!
Communicate With Loved Ones Before Purging
I know this seems like an obvious point but it’s an important one that’s easy to forget. If you’re in charge of the family filing system, check in with your spouse and kids before getting rid of their papers.
My husband is not into keeping paper at all. If it were up to him he would throw out almost every paper that comes into the house. Whenever I asked him if he wanted to keep his old files he usually told me to toss them…until he didn’t. He really wanted to keep his old letters of recommendation from managers he’d worked with. I wouldn’t have known if I didn’t ask. It’s best to be safe with this one. If the papers you’re purging aren’t yours make sure to get the all-clear.
Related Post: How to Decide What School Papers to Keep
Consider Going Digital
Some people swear by digital filing systems. I can definitely see the appeal. If you scan your papers and then keep them in something like Dropbox or Evernote you can have access to them from anywhere. And the reality is that most bank and credit card statements are already available digitally anyway.
The only downside here is that if you do have paper statements coming in, you’ll need to create a schedule to make sure everything gets scanned before it starts piling up. If you want to scan your old paper files and store them digitally, again, this will take some time to do and a good quality scanner. I’ve had a ScanSnap scanner for years and absolutely love it.
I didn’t want to scan all my old documents because I didn’t want to put in that kind of time but there was one category of papers I felt was worth scanning: receipts. I scanned receipts for big-ticket items because these are what I reference most often.
How Much Should You Keep?
I think we all wonder about this. Unfortunately, there is no one-size-fits-all answer to this question. This will depend on how much space you have and how much of that space you want to use for paper files.
I can tell you that I like to keep sentimental paper. I actually have my old report cards from first grade! I’ve decided to keep these papers because I only have a few folders of them and I feel they’re manageable.
In the end, as long as you’re not feeling overwhelmed you should keep whatever you feel is important to hold onto.
Purging paper files can be really rewarding and free up tons of space. So far I’ve emptied out about half of my filing cabinets, and I find that now it’s much easier to find what I’m looking for. This paper purging process took a while but it really was worth the effort.
Until next time, happy decluttering!
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