Organize Home Office Files (Paper Management!)

Files can be tricky, but they don’t have to be. Replace your old philosophy with a new, improved way of thinking about files.

Old philosophy: Create a file folder for every type of incoming bill, invoice, receipt, etc. Save everything and file away. Wait until the file cabinet gets over-stuffed and impossible to use, then purge excess. Dread repeating, so procrastinate and let files get totally out of hand again. Repeat.

New philosophy: Deliberately create file folders that are self-maintaining. Make difficult choices up front about what to keep and what to shred and/or recycle. You are on your way to a simple, stress-free, self-maintaining way of handling your home filing cabinet.

{Please see this link for how I deal with important papers.}

Scan What You Can

It’s time. For a while, small desktop scanners could be a little wonky, but the kinks have been worked out and it is time to scan what you can.

I organize the scanned files into digital file folders labelled by categories, kind of like they were sitting in a file cabinet. (Digital file folders can be as simple as a file on your computer, or you use OneNote/ Evernote.) Leaving all scanned files in one endless list blob IS NOT OKAY – just don’t do it, okay? 

Selecting a Scanner

Matt and I looked for a LONG time to find a scanner that met all of our criteria. What we were looking for …

  • Scans Quickly
  • Wifi
  • Automatic sync to cloud
  • Scans TWO sides
  • 10-page document feeder
  • Creates PDFs
  • Automatic paper size detection
  • Automatic cropping, blank page deletion and de-skew

There were a few top contenders, but we eventually decided on this one because it met all of our criteria.

What I Scan & Store Digitally …

I want to scan everything that I can to save room. It’s my “kind of” paperless system. It’s just easier to maintain the house when piles of paper aren’t cluttering things up!

  • Receipts: Just for big purchases or things I want to tax-deduct. I am not going to scan every grocery receipt.
  • Papers that go with big purchases.
    Example: I may need to look up a model number. For instance, we needed a replacement part for our backyard playground. Even though I could tell the person on the phone what model (I thought) on their website exactly matched our play-set, they needed the exact model number from the manual. Evidently some of their play-sets are built in the US and some in China, and the parts are different even though they look the same!! The manual is available on their website, but it was handy to have the model number when I needed it.
  • Insurance statements: I don’t keep every statement, I just make sure I have one from the current plan.
  • Home repairs: I keep receipts and records of any sizable repair or improvement we make to the home. {I have a home binder that holds info like paint colors and house plans.}
  • Monthly Statements (utility, phone, credit card): I want to make sure I have at least one so that I have a record of company contact info and account info. I don’t scan or keep every single statement for most types of accounts, unless it is for business/tax deduction purposes.  

Paper File Folder Organizing –

Yes, let’s organize the home office files.

In the age of of everything digital, sometimes you still need a hard copy. These things are debatable, because there is an argument that most things could just be scanned. These are the things I’m still filing.

  • File per child of permanent-record school documents: These folders do not contain memorabilia (nostalgic stuff goes in our memory boxes), just the type of stuff you’d consider important for your own personal permanent records.
  • Resume & Career: I keep copies of our resumes, letters of recommendations, certifications we’ve earned, offers of employment, etc.
  • Auto files: I keep a file per vehicle with pertinent info, tire warranties, record of maintenance, and major repairs.
  • Real Estate (file folder per property, past and present): Important closing or rental information.
  • Loan Documents (one file per loan): Records of loans and loan payoffs.
  • Old Directories: This is the best place I’ve come up with to keep old directories for a while after I move or my kids change schools (I’ve moved a lot in my life). If a directory becomes obsolete, then I recycle it.
  • Ecclesiastical Documents: certificates of blessings, baptisms, and other religious documents.
  • Files for whatever makes your life unique: Just remember to think about how to avoid accumulating unnecessary papers!

Quick Tip: The best way to arrange your tabs is actually straight back in one line instead of staggered. You’ll find it is actually easier to quickly skim one straight line of sight instead of dragging your eyes across staggered tag labels.

Digital AND Paper

Medical Documents

I both scan AND keep some actual papers for medical stuff. 

SCAN: Medical Files (bills and EOBs, organized by year):

If you are running out of disk space, you can delete files from years that are obsolete. I think I have 1000 pages just from my big family’s recent run-in with strep!

Sometimes it can take a while for medical things to settle, so it is good to keep Estimates of Benefits that affect any unsettled years. The longest it has taken to reconcile a medical payment was when my twins were born. They were almost 1 before the doctor’s office and insurance finally agreed! 

PAPER FILE: Medical Keepers:

I file specific medical records that need to be kept indefinitely, information like eyeglass prescriptions and diagnosis, important test results. Under medical, I include dental, vision, chiropractic – anything to do with our health. This isn’t a very big stack of papers, but I can’t go all digital with this (YET – I’m slowly converting more and more to just scanning).

Tax Documents

I have 8 tax file folders that rotate. In January of each year, I shred the contents of the file folder containing tax records from 7 years ago and change the tab to the current year date.**

In the last few years, tax documents aren’t just physical. I now have digital folders for each tax year too, for the digital side of things.

(1 File Folder) Current Year: 

Throughout the year, I add tax-pertinent documents to the current year’s folder. For instance, all my records of charitable donations go straight in there. When it is time to prepare taxes, I have absolutely no compiling to do, it is already in one place! 

(7 File Folders Total) Last year through 8 years ago:

This is an easy thing. These files usually just sit there for years. The only change is at the New Year, shred 8 years ago and mark the folder with the New Year.

**You should verify how long to keep tax records with your own legal and tax professional, though I’ve never seen any stipulation of keeping tax records for more than 7 years.

 

Sounds Fun, right?

Okay, maybe not, but we all have to adult once in a while.

One thing I love about our filing cabinet is the little lock that makes it suddenly baby proof. Why do little kids love opening and closing file drawers so much?

 

Previously posted here – 1/30/2013. Edited to make current, like using scanners. 

Tips for Organizing Files

43 thoughts on “Organize Home Office Files (Paper Management!)

  1. Perfect timing as I have been organizing my filing cabinet this week. I found this post super helpful. What is the ‘rule’ on how long to keep bank and retirement account statements?

  2. Mary you couldn’t have chosen a better time to post this. I just bought a new filing cabinet today and have been contemplating how to go about this task. You have simplified it for me. This will be one more step on my way to an organized home. Thank you!

  3. Above where you say, “(This year, in 2013, I will shred my 2011 files and change the 2011 label to be 2013.) ” do you mean “change the 2011 label to 2012?”

    1. No, you will want to change the year you are trashing into the current year to keep the files rotating. Since I keep 2 years of this info, I will have already created the 2012 label (and it is in use), and I will need to create the current years tab. Just picture the files rotating … hope that helps clear things up! :)

      Mary

  4. So you’re saying I shouldn’t have bills dating back to 2006? Keep just one of each? Wow, that’s going to free up a lot of space! Lol.

  5. Love this!! I am so excited to start this project! I am ready to go home right now and empty out all of my unorganized files (half are organized) and redo it this way! Awesome!! Thank you :)

  6. im so glad I found this. I don’t have very many file folders (yet), as I only have recently started doing taxes, and only yesterday acquired a vehicle. but I have a folder for my important documents already, and have been trying to keep my other related ones in folders (important stuff, medical test results, taxes, car crash). (pretty sure I don’t have enough file folders to need a cabinet, maybe somewhere else to keep them). i just counted out and so far only have 10 (but that is not including my first year of taxes, and one for 2013 taxes).

    Elizabeth

  7. Would binders work as well, instead of file folders? Also, what about keeping files for tax purposes? I was told that you are supposed to keep files and receipts for up the past 7 years, especially if you are self employed?

    1. I wouldn’t want to use a binder for this but to each his own. :) As for the tax thing, just see the section about how I handle taxes. Be sure you get definitive advice from your tax advisor.

  8. This is so helpful! I am moving into a property soon that has literally no space for file folders so I’m trying to come up with an Soave saving option to install a minimum amount of folders and pare down on paper. Thank you!

  9. This advice comes at a perfect time. We are creating a home office in our garage and all paperwork from the previous home office needs to be moved. These guidelines will help me keep what is needed and get rid of what’s not needed. Thank you:)

  10. This is a game changer. I need to get some new file folders. Do you need to keep the insurance big manuals when you have a new policy? They take up so much room.

  11. {See all my Home Office Organization posts HERE.}
    When I click on the link for the above, it tells me page not found. Just wanted to let you know. :)

  12. Going to use your advice and while I am at it, I am going to scan some of our documents, put them on a usb and back them up on a disc too…no sense in having all this useless paper around.

  13. Finally, a detailed manner in which to organize! I grew up with piles, and haven’t been very successful with my filing system as a result. THANK YOU!

  14. Thanks for this. Maybe I’m missing it, but what do you do about your children’s medical records? My son has some issues now and going back to collect data has been time-consuming & frustrating. We switched pediatricians and the new office didn’t input the old office’s info so when we needed to go to specialist, they only had the past 2 years. Plus, I want my own records. Sometimes I don’t realize a cold is relevant until it is and that is not something the doc would have a record of. It’s especially helpful when they ask, “How many times has he had pneumonia? Verified by x-ray?” and then I mix up my children since they’ve both had pneumonia multiple times. They don’t seem to care to look at the medical records themselves. Thank you!

    1. I have a file, I call “medical keepers” where I put the papers with diagnosis or other important info. Of course, you can always adapt the plan for what makes sense for you and rotate through more than 2 years of medical info. Use the principles but feel free to adapt!

  15. Thanks! Unfortunately, I am looking for something more specific! Like, what does that look like? I don’t understand what “rotate more than 2 years” means. Docs seem to think it’s relevant if my child had pneumonia 5 years ago, you know what I mean? I’m thinking of doing a thin binder for each child so can easily grab & bring w/me, and update, maybe sections with heath summary, doctor’s visits, lab work, hospitalizations, medications, immunizations, but IDK, seems like it could get confusing or be too much maintenance work??!

    1. That sounds like a lot of work! Did you read in this post how I rotate my tax files? I do the same thing with 2 years of medical files. My suggestion would be extending the medical files section to rotating more years. I hope this helps! :)

  16. I like your system! I feel it’s taken me 20 years to figure this stuff out. I appreciate how you point out the differences in medical paperwork – “medical keepers” such as diagnosis, test results, surgical reports, basically medical history data. And “medical files” EOB’s, provider bills, receipts, etc. Our oldest son is 13 and has chronic health conditions with over 20 surgeries to date. There is not a lot of specific information on what to keep and toss. I have created a medical history summary that I’ve added to through the years saved as a document on the computer. It is very helpful to bring to appointments, hospital admissions, etc. I also have all of the “medical keepers” organized in a binder. What I was drowning in was the “medical files” – paid bills & EOB’s. Have just recently purged/shredded about 8 years of paper. So many boxes!!! What let me feel ok about finally letting it go, was talking to our insurance company on the phone and asking them how far back they could look up payments in their system. They can look up EVERY payment they’ve made on our policy. I don’t need to keep 13 year old paid bill records. (I have kept the past 5 years). I probably only need 3, but baby steps ;) Per our insurance company, providers have until Dec. 31st of the following year from the service provided date to bill insurance and then there is a 6 month appeal period. ie. service today 1/22/16 could be billed to insurance as late as 12/31/17 and then appealed until 6/30/18. So that makes a case for keeping the paper trail for at least 3 years. Not sure how all other insurance works for others. There is really NOT a lot of information on the web on “how” to organize medical paperwork. Thank you very much for this article!

    1. Yay!! So glad you got the key to my system!!! There really are differences between medical papers – not all should be grouped the same! Glad to help :)

  17. I need to do this badly! We also have a stack of important documents that we’ve been meaning to put in a safety deposit box (like our marriage certificate and property deeds). I like that you’re scanning lots of things. I have been doing that for documents I need to share with others, but I never thought to use it for storage. I use an app called Scannable. It works really well, and just uses your phone camera. I save them all in DropBox folders. :)

  18. Do you use any software to keeps docs or do you just put pdfs in a regular folder on a drive? Any suggestions for naming conventions??

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