Despite efforts to become a "paperless" society, we're still faced with mountains of mail, receipts, bank statements and tax documents.
"We are inundated with paper," says Linda Henderson, certified professional organizer and owner of Concepts in Organizing in Raymore, Mo.
Much of it can be tossed, but some of it you need to keep -- and be able to retrieve when necessary. And what better place to store it than in a file cabinet? Don't shudder at the thought of one of those gun-metal gray steel boxes wedged in the corner of a room.
Today's cabinets come in bold colors and materials (often so disguised they don't even look like file cabinets).
"You can choose file cabinets made of metal or wood," says Vickie Stewart, an interior designer with Rosemann & Associates in Kansas City, Mo. Some are designed to look like furniture, or maybe you prefer one that's "out there in your face," she says.
Make it fun
"A good filing system streamlines the business of life," says Peter Walsh, professional organizer from the TLC show Clean Sweep and author of several books on clearing clutter.
First of all, remember that 80 percent of what people file is never retrieved again. "It never sees the light of day," Walsh says.
"But 20 percent of it you're going to try to find later," points out Tracy Hoth, owner of Simply Squared Away in Kansas City. "There's no right or wrong system. If it works for you and the rest of your family, then it's great."
The key is to keep your system simple, so you'll do it. Here are some pointers to get you started.
Sort the papers you have, Henderson recommends. Put like with like. You may end up with 15 to 20 piles.
Decide on categories based on your piles of papers.
Create folders for each category, such as automotive, household, medical, utilities and taxes.
Go through and purge from each category. "You don't need 14 copies of your car insurance," Henderson says. A fourth-quarter statement for your 401(k) may include a summary of the year, so you can shred earlier statements.
Hoth suggests asking yourself "what's the worst thing that can happen if I throw this out? Can I find it online or elsewhere?"
Make a cheat sheet of your categories, and place it in the first file in the first file drawer.
Use color-coded files or products to make it easier to find files. "You can see at a glance what's what," says Jen Bilik, CEO of Knock Knock, based in Venice, Calif.
"Organization is critically important," she says. "If you can make it fun, it's more likely you'll get it done."
"All files are not created equal," Walsh says. He divides them into three categories.
1. Active: This is what you're working on now. It may include bills, school papers and sports schedules. You may want to keep these in a portable file system, in a box on your desk or even in a tote.
2. Primary: Medical records, insurance papers and warranties. These belong in your file cabinet.
3. Archival: Don't clutter your file cabinet with papers, such as old tax returns. Put them in a banker's box in a storage room, basement or garage -- wherever it's dry and pest-free, Walsh says.
Bob Letterman, CPA and owner of Letterman & Co. in Lee's Summit, Mo., recommends keeping tax returns indefinitely. Supporting documentation for taxes can be tossed after seven years. Ask your accountant or financial planner if you're in doubt.