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Paper Clutter Avalanche Prevention

Updated: Nov 5, 2019

Ugh. Paper clutter. The clutteriest of all clutter has got to be paper. (Followed closely by cheap plastic toys from parties and the dentist.) This topic is so full of life-sucking procrastination, I have been procrastinating on even writing about it! I know I am not alone in my feelings about this particular category of clutter.

The reasons for my paper dread are:

1. Adulting

Many of the papers adults have to deal with are just no fun. Especially if they remind us of stuff we would rather not think about, like payments, debt, health problems, or poor decisions. Even with paperless accounts and automatic payments, these kinds of papers add up.

2. Onslaught!

School papers enter our homes at breakneck speed. Keeping up with kids' communication folders can be daunting. And then there is the junk mail! The rate of accumulation can easily exceed rate of processing and disposal. Even after decluttering, the papers keep on coming. Just like cleaning dirt, it takes continued maintenance to keep up and that requires a system. The easier the system, the better!

3. Mushy Stuff

Sentimental papers like kids drawings and letters and the like can be really hard to part with. Kids drawing are my nemissis. Too cute! Don't. Have. The. Power.

Paper is the third category of the Konmari Method of organizing. (It's also the gift for a first anniversary. Nothing says "I love you" like a box of stationary?) This category is boooorrrring, but it is important to keep this quickly accumulated clutter in check. Piles of papers can seem to appear on every flat surface unless you have a plan. Not only will your house look cuter, but you will rid yourself of the visual procrastination. It wears on you more than your realize. If you are in danger of a paper pile avalanches, are tired of doing the paper pile shuffle, or have more files and file cabinets than a law office, have no fear. Read on for the steps to fight the good fight against paper overwhelm. Your mission: Search, categorize, and destroy.

So many drawings! How can something so cute also drive you a tiny bit crazy?

I know. I know. I will miss it someday.

1. Search

Gather all your papers throughout the house. This includes every piece of paper in your house. Every. Single. Paper. I know. I don't have to look too hard to find them in our house.

2. Categorize

Go through each one of your papers and categorize into the following piles.

-Papers that need attention (unpaid bills, forms to be filled out, etc).

-Papers you need to keep short-term (warranties, notes for a course you are

taking, etc).

-Papers you need to keep indefinitely (contracts, mortgage paperwork, birth

certificates, passports, etc).

-Papers to recycle.

-Papers to shred (before recycling).

Plan, Label, and File

We used to have a filing cabinet full of papers we didn't need. Then we downsized to a wall mounted file, which looked super cluttery because it held a bunch of papers we didn't need. So we switched to a small file with a dozen categories of files. Again we were keeping papers we didn't use. Finally, we submitted to the Konmari method of only three categories. It really does keep things much simpler to keep on top of what's important now. Nothing hiding, hoarded, or being forgotten.

This system has only three categories for keeping papers "Needs Attention", "Keep Short Term", and "Keep Indefinitely". The first two should be placed in vertical files or folders labeled “Needs Attention”and "Keep Short Term". Papers that need to be kept indefinitely should be placed in plastic sleeves and placed in a binder. Label this binder with “Keep Indefinitely.”

Examples of Papers that Need Attention

Once you know these are correct, they’re no longer needed. Sign up for e-delivery of these wherever possible to reduce clutter. Shred these now (or soon):

-ATM receipts: once you record the transaction

-Bank deposit slips: once the funds appear in your account

-Receipts for things you bought on a credit card: when charges appear on your statement, unless you need it for a return or a warranty

-Credit card and bank statements: when paid/reconciled

-Utility bills: Keep until you get the next statement showing that you paid, unless you need it for tax deductions (such as a home office)

Examples of papers that are Kept Short Term

You might have to hold on to these a little while longer to make sure everything looks right, but at least once a year, you can purge these:

-Paycheck stubs: once reconciled with your W2 and annual Social Security earnings statement

-Brokerage statements: once you get your annual statement

-Medical bills and supporting payment documentation: until you know for sure the provider has acknowledged payment in full, by you or your insurance company. And keep in mind that you can deduct unreimbursed medical expenses in excess of 10% of your AGI (7.5% if you’re over 65).

-Informational papers that are referred to for a period of time that are not easily accessed online. Pertinent information from kid's school schedules, snack calendars, events in emails, and PTO Newsletters should be added to one calendar and then recycle the paper. Even better, add them to Google Calendar. You will always be in the know wherever you are with your access to your calendar on your phone.

Examples of papers that can be scanned and Kept Short Term

or Indefinitely

-Tax returns with proof that you filed and paid (if you owed). The IRS has three years to audit your return if it suspects good-faith errors, six years if it believes you under-reported your income by at least 25 percent and an unlimited time if it is investigating fraud.

-IRS forms relating to nondeductible traditional IRA contributions and/or Roth conversions

-Retirement and brokerage account annual statements

-Receipts for large purchases, for tax and insurance purposes

-Payoff information for all satisfied loans

-Annual Social Security benefit estimate statements

Examples of hard copies that are Kept Indefinitely

Some things just need to be kept in their original form. Usually, a fireproof home lockbox or safe is preferable to a bank safety deposit box for these, since safety deposit boxes can be difficult to access in case of your death or incapacity. If your original estate documents are in a sealed safety deposit box, your heirs, executor, trustees and others you’ve asked to carry out your wishes will incur additional expense and delay in making sure those wishes are honored. Make sure a trusted relative or friend knows where the lockbox is and how to open it.

-Wills, living wills, powers of attorney, health care proxies

-Marriage license

-Birth certificates

-Adoption paperwork

-Deeds and titles for real estate, vehicles, etc

-Citizenship papers

-Custody agreement

-Divorce certificate

-Military records

-Social Security Cards


3. Destroy

Some papers can go straight to the recycle bin, others need to be shredded first. Papers to shred are anything identity thieves might find useful or embarrassing love notes from your ex you are ready to part with. Fire might be more cathartic than a shredder for those. Shred worthy paper kind are good kindling for a wood stove if you are lucky enough to have one. (75 degree house all winter makes me happy!) Stores like Staples, Office Max, Fed Ex and UPS offer shredding services if you prefer not to own a shredder or become a lumberjack. These services save you the noise and jamming of shredding at home, not to mention time if you have a lot to shred. Unless you like that kind of thing. Watching the flames like a proper pyro is my thing.

Yes, but what about....

Stationary Supplies

Stationary supplies should be dealt with during the office supplies category of tidying and should be kept with your office supplies.

Sentimental Papers

If you have boxes of sentimental papers such as letters/cards and children’s artwork or school work, it should be gathered during this paper category, but many will likely be dealt with later during the sentimental category (the last category in the Konmari Method) and should be kept with those items. It is easier to be more discerning of what to keep at that point.

These are the papers that came home from school today with two of my kids. Three thick packets of paper from my 8 year old! So much paper and this isn't even including the mail. To keep up with the onslaught, you need a plan.

4. Maintain the Peace

Keep it as Simple and Enjoyable as Possible

To keep things easy to maintain, keep all papers in one location so they can’t drift to other rooms. Do not further subdivide your three categories. The more simple your system is, the better. Vertical files or containers are best for storing your "Needs Attention" and "Short-term" papers. This makes them easier to access and will prevent paper clutter from accumulating.

Fighting accumulation is key. The drudgery only worsens the longer you procrastinate and the more papers you have to deal with. There should be few papers in the “Needs Attention” folder. Taking care of the "Needs Attention" file as part of your daily or weekly schedule is the best way to stay on top of things. Every Monday evening is the time to attend to the folder, perhaps. Sounds thrilling, right?! Perhaps some chocolate built into the routine will make it better. If you keep after the folder, it shouldn't be so bad.

Slow Down the Source

The best way to reduce paper clutter is to avoid bringing it into your house. Switching to automatic bill pay reduces paper mail. Recycle mail right out of the mailbox if possible. Want to get off junkmail lists? There's an app for that. Paperkarma is an app that allows you to photograph the mail and it will remove you from lists of most junkmail and catalogs. Less work for you and better for the environment (and your wallet with no catalogs to entice).

System for Curation

Some papers really can bring us joy. These are the tricky ones. We have some very prolific artists in residence. We hang some pieces up in our gallery and when the gallery becomes too full, the artist makes a decision to keep or recycle. My oldest recycles a lot more than she used to. If they choose to keep, we place the artwork in their "portfolio". Each kid has a keepsake file box that they store in their rooms. Each box has a file for each year of school. They place artwork and stories and anything else that's a flat treasure inside that year's file. At the end of the year we reassess and further curate the contents. It's a fun end of the year activity to see how much they have learned over the year(s).

Keeping paper treasures to the size of this box holds the girls (and me) accountable to how much we keep. The older they get, the less we will save, I'm sure. Chances are, someday my girls won't be that interested in the contents of their keepsake box and they may only hold onto their high school yearbook. Until then, they are learning the art of letting go of what no longer serves them.

An alternative to a box is to keep artwork digitally with an app such as Artkive which allows you to photograph, store, and create books of artwork. You can also send them a box of art to scan and turn into a book. Perhaps we will turn our boxes into books someday if my girls are into keeping the memories in this way.

I have a small box of special notes. I have never been one to save cards. Limit yourself to a box and don't exceed it.

Make it Pretty

Once your paper clutter is under control, make your flat surfaces pretty. Keeping a container of fruit or fresh flowers on a table might be inspiration enough to keep up with your system and direct paper to it's proper place. When there is a bouquet of flowers on our dinning room table, junk mail and school papers look really out of place (because they are). Daffodils from our garden bring so much more joy than piles of papers. If they don't bring you joy or serve, let your papers go to make room for that which does.

Simplifying your home is a great way to form new habits. Need help? We can help you create an intentional home. Learn more about our method and services. Financial assistance available upon inquiry.

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