Organizing Papers Without an Office

saphireJune 27, 2006

Ok, I like to clutter and I am messy but I need to try to be better. We have a small traditional Center Hall Colonial and Five kids (and a total of 3 bedrooms) So obviously we will move or expand one day. For now I just want it livable. At this point I do not want to make a major investment

When you walk in your choices are the living room, the center hall and stairs or the dining room. The kitchen is behind the dining room. There is a tiny bathroom and a closet and the entry to the basement off the center hall. Its all sort of a box. There is no family room and our basement is damp. The kitchen is at capacity and I would hate to put papers in there. So I end up dumping everything in the dining room. My dining room is fully furnished with a traditional set, a serving credenza, a separate china cabinet and a piano! Its only about 14 x 15 so its pretty full already

My biggest problem is paperwork. I do all finances as well as handle some small legal matters for family members (nothing confidential so that is not an issue). I have gotten in the habit of sorting the mail and throwing out the flyers and stacking the rest but then the problem comes. If I file stuff that needs to be done I will never get to it (generally about 20 pieces of paper). Plus there coupons I want to use. Thera are all those account statements that I do not need on hand but need to store. Plus all that treasured Artwork, classwork from 3 of my 5 little darlings who are in school! I am still recovering from my end of year paperwork as school ended last week. My main computer is actually in the kids room and there is no room for paperwork there nor would I want it there since they periodically will dump stuff on the floor and I would not want my paperwork dumped out

Assuming I cannot get a file cabinet in the dining room, how do I store papers neatly but so that I remember to acess them.

Another question, I will often buy things and then return them, for example I recently purchased 4 pairs of shoes in desperation before an event and now find that I want to return 3 pairs. I end up dumping those in the dining room too. If I put them away then I would forget to return them (not that I am making such great strides anyway!)

Putting stuff in my bedroom does not help because DH goes to sleep much earlier than I do and I tend to do paperwork at night

Any suggestions other than flylady?

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My first thought is to scan paperwork into the computer and keep it in there. If you need it you can print a copy. Shoes I would keep in the car to remind me to return them. We made a huge bullitin board for our kitchen out of acoustic ceiling tiles (the back side) covered with fabric and screw to the wall. It will hold lots of artwork and important papers, since you wouldn't dare throw out any priceless paintings yet. You could also get a small filing cabinet for the dining room or living room and cover it with a tablecloth and use it as an end table with a lamp or whatever.

    Bookmark   June 27, 2006 at 5:43AM
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Saphire, I have a filing cabinet in a room that was supposed to be my office. But since the computer is on a desk in the living room, I turned the office into a guest room.

I also have a problem with papers but I am very good at keeping the pile to be filed in one place and filing every few months or even every 6 months. But at least I know where it all is. It really only takes about 1/2 hour to file all this at one time.

Anyways, I too had a problem with papers I needed to get to. That's when I realized that drawers worked well for me. If you saw my thread, I now have a 10-drawer cheap plastic unit that I'm replacing and adding more drawers. Each drawer is organized by category so it's easy to find what I'm working on. I have drawers for clipped coupons, weekly store ads (old ones get trashed), medical I'm working on, kids mail I still get, recipes, etc. The new drawers will have the mail, bills to pay, to file and more.

Drawers are not for everyone but they do work for me.

    Bookmark   June 27, 2006 at 9:33AM
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I think the key is finding what works for you. I don't like all my paper in full view so I use small photo boxes for bills and then accordian files which I can put away. I'm still in the middle of getting rid of a lot of paperwork I no longer need!!! Receipts I keep in a manila envelope. Kids artwork- frame as much as you can and make a scrapbook or large artists book out of heavy cardboard or black posterboard. I now have all of my daughters artwork together so we can go through it. Also I like those standing file holders (you can make them out of cut cereal boxes) for storing on a shelf in the closet. I may have to make some of those myself. Current bills and any paperwork I need quickly I have in a wicker upright file holder. I just started a control journal and like the idea of having emergency numbers etc all together.

    Bookmark   June 27, 2006 at 10:42AM
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I have a rectangular wicker basket that is large enough for a standard piece of paper to lay flat in. This is the "to-do" stack. There are some coupons in there, a few things that need to be filed, and bills to be paid. As long as we keep on top of it, the basket should not be even half full, so the paper isn't easily visible when the basket is on a shelf at eye-level.

I can't tell from your post if you have a filing cabinet or not. I bought a lateral file drawer from IKEA that looks more like a chest than a file cabinet. No one who sees it ever thinks it's a file cabinet and we have it place between 2 chairs in the study with a lamp on it.

But for those account statements you have to hold on to - how about a binder on a bookshelf? You can put pocket dividers in them so you don't have to hole punch each one. A magazine file (standing file holder) as someone else suggested could look great too (a nice wooden one or something that matches your decor, or cover a homemade cereal box one with some pretty paper.)

    Bookmark   June 27, 2006 at 3:06PM
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We all have a finite amount of space. That space needs to hold what the family needs (not just wants). It sounds like it's time to do some evaluating since you are a large family in a smaller space.

Having the papers in a kitchen usually doesn't work well. Water and papers don't mix. Some place on the second floor won't be easily accessable-so that's not a good option. The living room is busy, not a good choice. Laundry room again is a water place and busy. The dining room is convenient. Sounds workable.

A formal dining room is prime real estate, yet most families have items in there which are only used a couple of times a year. Is that true in your case? If so, I would put the stuff in the credenza in under bed storage and use the space for household papers. You say the kitchen is at capacity. I believe you, yet I would also challenge you to see "what" you are really storing in there. How much of your prime real estate is being used for items rarely used?

I have 4 kids and have come to the conclusion that the house cannot be livable and function well with much clutter. We can't find what we need, items pile up, we run just goes on and on. My friend and I played the "prime real estate" game as she was getting her home organized. Say, your home is 2,000 sq. ft. and would sell for $200,000 (I like easy math), that means every square foot is worth $100. A typical credenza might be 2' x 5'= 10 square feet. That's $1,000 of prime real estate. Are you using it well on a daily basis or it just some really expensive storage?

There are endless ways to store the household papers. Baskets, bins, files or envelopes. But "where" is the most important part in my mind. So, we are back to that finite space issue. When I was a kid, a three bedroom house with 5 kids wasn't unusual. What I don't remember is tons of excess around. We have discussed about the kids' papers and the only real way to deal with them is to not save everything. You just can't and have any space to live. Try hanging the artwork in a hallway and rotate it frequently.

There's nothing wrong with a pretty basket on the dining room table with paper items which need to be dealt with a timely manner. I always paid the bills at the table. A two drawer wooden filing cabinet in the living room can make a nice end table for long term storage.

You say you don't want to do Flylady. All of her suggestions are rooted in common sense, just like all organizational systems I've seen. We all end up with items which need to be returned to the store. The secret is making to return trip a priority so that those items don't pile up. Until last year, the DH and I worked opposite of each other so there was very little time I didn't have all of the kids with me. Not fun for running errands, so we set aside a time (usually Sat. morning or Sun. afternoon) where I could run around without dragging everyone. I kept a small list on the fridge to remind me throughout the week of something I needed to do. That way if I needed to return an item, it didn't have to be sitting out for me to remember. I need to return to this system, since I currently have a bag of stuff to take back to the craft store and keep forgetting.

Liking "to" clutter and learning "not to" clutter can take some time. Some of us put things in certain places or just because mom always did that. Utilizing your spaces for how your family really lives can take some creativity.


    Bookmark   June 27, 2006 at 6:15PM
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Thanks everyone for the suggestions. I have to be honest, if there was a scale for clutteres, I would probably be at about the 80th percentile, in other words I am still in the range of normal but just barely! You can walk in my house (unlike some other places I have heard of but never seen where theere is just room for a path) and I allow company in but no one walks in and says how well organized my house it. Most of the compliments focus on the big yard (it is) if that tells you anything.

Thanks for all your words of advice. I get at least 15 account statements each month not including basic bills such as cable, electric etc. We have retirement accounts and each kid has his own account. a lot of it is crap but some I do need to keep but not to access immediately or do anythign with. Scanning would take forever although I have previously done that with certain important papers that need to be shown from time to time such as birthcertificates, I print one out when I need it. Also I have had computer crashes in the past so I worry about that being lost.

I have tried drawers, those narrow plastic Iris ones and that just does not work, I ended up dumping things in there. I have bought a lot of baskets in the last Two years with the idea of just having one basket in the dining room with my important stuff and one in a To be filed but I just ended up with a lot of baskets of junk.

Twice I tried the small file for important papers, one using a plastic magazie thing and once getting a pretty Blue Toile one from Target. That one sits in my bedroom with my important papers from 2003 still in it! Obviously they were not that important.

I have a file cabinet box (3 stacked 12 x 20 boxes that sit on top of each other). That has my important papers from 1996 in it including things like instructions for a cannister vac I no longer own and yes I know for the most part I no longer need to keep any of it for tax purposes). It takes up room in my upstairs closet.

As for for the kids stuff, I really have no place to put it on the walls since I am painting and its a long term project. My solution is to get soem plastic bins and store the stuff in the attic. I will usually put their most recent 100 test or project on the fridege. I have a walk up attic that is great as storage space but cannot be used as living space by code. Since there is still plenty of room up there I figure storing it neatly in plastic bins is a solution (yes I know that this will just lead to more sorting in a few years or when we sell which could be only a year from now). I worry that in my old age or when they are adults they will want to see their early work! I know its silly but I cannot get over it. I guess the litmus test for me is whether its worth scanning into the computer, if its not then its probably not worth keeping. Still I hate the idea of thorwing out their work.

Its frustrating and yes I do like to clutter and I need to get over it. Gloria you are absolutly right. However I am afraid of purging. For example Two days a go I was sorting my dining room mess and threw out what I thought were duplicate menus to our local Chinese place (at least 3 of them). Last night we got home late and the kids wanted Chinese! It tok me 30 minutes to find a menu that I had. Stuff like that always seems to happen! I threw out a light cover to a lamp I thought was broken (kids had gotten hold of it so it was off the lamp). Right before I considered tossing I gijjered with it and got it to work but now its missing hte little plastic sleeve that goes over the bulb and my lamp store does not sell them! I am definitely of the what if I need it variety! Drives DH crazy. He tosses his clothes if they have not been worn in 6 months, I have my lucky exam sweatshirt from college

I tried going on the flylady site to find instructions on paper clutter but found it difficult to navigate

So I guess there is no perfect system and I still have not found the one that I can stick to, sort of like a diet



    Bookmark   June 28, 2006 at 1:41PM
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Saph, I think you're problem is not finding a system that YOU have organized. Having bins, filing cabinets or drawers that are not organized by category is your problem. You just need to pick one system and start organizing into it. Maybe a friend or DH will help you to get started.

If you have lots of papers from previous years, you can just come up with a cut-off date, say 2004 and back and put those in the attic. I wouldn't sort thru those too thorougly unless it was for tax/retirement type purposes. Those I'd want access to. One day, when you're not feeling overwhelmed, you can begin going through those boxes one by one.

Then you can sort the 2005 (or whatever date you pick) and 2006 papers into your organized system. I can relate to your not finding the menu. That's why I have a drawer (could have been a file) for menus. The key is that I will only put the information in the drawer it belongs in. If I would just put papers in drawers, I may as well have just dumped them all in a bin to be sorted out later.

Write down all the items that you are constantly looking for. Each deserves its own category.

I'm not trying to sound harsh but there would never be a perfect system for any of us if it's not categorized. It took me years to get to this point but I'm glad I'm almost there. Just today, I had to call a second time to get information from a doctor because I couldn't locate the original. So, I'm not perfect either. I just can't figure if this information goes in my personal info or medical. That's when I make trouble for myself.

    Bookmark   June 28, 2006 at 3:58PM
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don't try to think of all your paperwork as being the same stuff.

Bills to pay, and insurance papers to shuffle, do NOT belong in the same storage system as kids' papers. Esp. if your system needs to be compact. has some nice-looking file cabinets--I don't know how well they *function,* and I think functionality is ver important in a filing cabinet (if that's how you end up going).

And I'd throw out papers from before 2004, frankly.

As for accounts (savings, retirement, investment), keep the opening paperwork and the last statement. Unless you actually sit down and look at the last 3 years' worth of statements to decide to change your investments around, you don't need to keep them. In fact, if you ever DID want to do that exercise, you could probably get that info fresh from the investment company.

    Bookmark   June 28, 2006 at 5:39PM
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Saph, I bet'cha, bet'cha, bet'cha, you wouldn't have been able to find those menues anyway. I catagorize as to how I need things. Calling for food, menues, why, it's stuck in the front of the phone book! Because that's where I would look for information when calling someone or somewhere. Works for me.

I'm now 50 and my mom kept everything. I kept about 5 papers and threw the rest away. Try not to live your life with "what ifs." Life is for right now, really. Some of my kids' work is professionally framed and up around the house. We enjoy it everyday. Other work is temporary. I save a beginning of the year example and end of the year while they are in the really early grades. Those show big changes. Once they hit the upper grades and on to middle and high school, I don't really think there is much value in the items. My kids don't want them. Those don't usually bring on the warm fuzzies. The only thing I hang onto from upper stuff is my Master's thesis. It represents so darn much work, I can't part with it yet even though everything in it is totally outdated and useless.

We have found that most of our statements like retirement accounts and savings, stocks, etc. all come with a annual statement replicating the same information. Look and see if yours does. If so, you only need to save that, not every monthly thing. We would be drowning in those things if we hung onto all of them. Schwab is starting a new program of a yearly summary that you can download from the computer. DH has a business, so we keep more papers than the average family, but we've found unless a statement has the basis for a stock purchase we can work off the year end ones. For monthly stuff, we have all that we can put on payments with the credit card. We can just glance at the bill and pitch it. Again, we need those for taxes, but the co. put out yearly statements. See if you can reduce the items you need to save monthly. A yearly file is much thinner and easier to keep.

It's important to understand the paper coming into your house and what information you need from it. A retirement account which is like a 401K is easily replicated because you aren't personally managing the stocks. An IRA where you are choosing the investments is more important to save since you will need the basis of the stock purchase. A savings account for a child will have the interest earned each month, but the Dec. statement will have the same thing so that is the only one which needs to be saved. All kids in Alaska have income due to our divident program from the oil company sale in the '70's. We have to claim the interest on their little savings accounts. Monthly statements go in the trash and we only keep the one for taxes.

I checked back on Flylady's website and I didn't see anything which specifically addresses paper. I, too, think her site has gotten a bit harder to navigate. I make a date with myself on New Year's Day to purge papers. All of those manuals, etc. Items in the folders I keep on the kids. Unless you need them for tax purposes, that 1996 stuff can go. By having a set time to purge, I don't feel like I need a huge amount of time. Purge one box or file at a time. You don't need to do it all at once, although, once you get going it will probably be fast.


    Bookmark   June 28, 2006 at 6:06PM
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Here's a good site that helps when you need inspiration...I think the best thing is to keep it simple.

As for taking things back to the store...put them in their original packaging and put those things in the car with the receipt in the bag. Don't give them any real estate in your home. THEN, put it on your list of things To Do this week.

Do you have a bookcase in your home near the place you do your paperwork? That might be a place to put your papers (in bookshelf boxes) so you can pull the file you need and take it to the table. It wouldn't take up as much space as a file cabinet, yet you could do your filing at the table.

Good luck to you!

Here is a link that might be useful: Paper Chase: The ABC of Household Paper Management

    Bookmark   June 28, 2006 at 6:27PM
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I pretty much just scanned these posts, because I'm dreadfully disorganised and am exhausted just reading about how to organise all of the paperwork.
My favorite thing, though, is that you still have your lucky exam sweatshirt from college. :) I still have mine, too, a now threadbare, ripped, given to me by Rob in Greece in 1986, exceptionally comfortable was once bright navy blue but now can barely see the YALE letters on it and I'll NEVER throw it away.
Besides, I'm doing graduate studies next year, so I'll NEED it . . .

    Bookmark   July 16, 2006 at 1:30PM
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I keep coupons I plan to use in my purse, and bills that need to be paid on the counter until they're paid (I've been trying to pay them the day they come so they don't stack up).

I have a 2-drawer file cabinet for papers. I finally made it easy on myself and kept the files vague (I never look at them anyway... but I have to keep them LOL). I wouldn't scan any of them on a dare.

1. Paid bills
2. Taxes & payroll
3. Insurance
4. Bank statements
5. Investments (by company because of the cost basis thing)
6. Household manuals
7. Something I can't think of, but I'm too tired to go look.

Once a year (typically during a snow storm) I purge the previous year's papers that I no longer need.

See if you can get the quarterly stock stuff sent email. I like the paper copies so I've never done it.

ALSO: Is your basement finished, and do you run a dehumidifier down there in the summer? Our is, and we do. It makes a WORLD of difference--no more damp basement problems (we don't have air conditioning to remove the moisture, and the furnace running in the winter naturally dries everything out).

I know you said, "Any suggestions other than flylady?" but you really might want to join and give it a try (forget navigating the website and just sign up for the welcome letter and emails--you can easily delete what emails you don't think applies to you...I hate to cook so I delete anything about cooking LOL). Her de-clutter system has made a difference for many of us. Paperwork solutions are just a by-product of decluttering.

    Bookmark   July 16, 2006 at 7:51PM
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