How to Organize Important Documents at Home
Updated: Mar 1
Figuring out how to organize important papers in our homes can feel intimidating. Just the amount of paperwork that comes into our homes each week is enough to wonder how to keep it all organized. Knowing what to keep, scan, or shred, and then how to store what you chose to keep is time consuming.
Let’s dig deeper into that last step of taming the paper clutter monster: how to organize important documents at home.
In this blog post, you will find:
Which documents are not as important to store as paper versions?
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Which documents are important?
Life documents such as social security cards and birth certificates
Tax returns and tax records
Copies of wills (originals should be kept with your named executor)
Home ownership records
Which documents are NOT as important to store as paper versions?
Credit card statements
Cellular phone information
These types of essential documents work well with a digital filing system. You can save (or scan) these digitally into a file on your computer or external hard drive. You can also access through your bank or credit card company online. Most banks offer downloadable files for the most recent 12 months. You can also request electronic files from your bank prior to that timeframe.
Financial statements are reproducible by your bank and these kinds of personal documents are less important to keep in a hard copy paper version in your home.
One great way to dispose of important paperwork with personal information that you do not need anymore is by using a shredder. We have a shredder in our home from OfficeMax and it's lasted nearly 15 years. Here's a similar one. Your local office supply store may offer shredding services near you.
We dump the shredded papers into our recycling bin.
However, note that paper versions of certain months may be needed for tax purposes if you do not have receipts. Consult your tax professional.
How to Sort and Organize the Paper Clutter
Your first step is a macro sort. Organize piles by “Important Documents” and “Other.”
I’ve used any easy access surface to macro sort in the past. The floor, a table, and my kitchen counter all serve as suitable flat surfaces to sort important information.
You may need to ask a family member to help sort this step with you. Even kids can help sort since it’s two piles. They hold up a piece of paper and you tell them pile 1 or pile 2.
Organize important documents. We will talk about supplies to organize this pile below.
Declutter and organize your “Other” pile. Grab this 9 step checklist to declutter this pile. This step may be the most time consuming as this pile tends to be large.
After we review how to organize the documents from steps one and two, this blog post will talk about decluttering and organizing that “Other” pile that haunts our dreams.
Supplies to Organize Important Documents at Home
We use this waterproof, fireproof document bag in our home for the important documents named above except for tax records. I like that the bag waterproof and fireproof in case of an emergency.
Then, we use a portable file bin for important documents AND other documents that do not need to be protected in our bag. I call these “long term keep” papers and will break that down below.
You could use a portable fine bin or a standing file cabinet. It is a good idea to consider a secure location for important documents like a safety deposit box, if budget permits. This may give you the peace of mind about the preservation of your documents.
I’m not a professional organizer, but I have learned the value of using file folders in our document bag. File folders offer an easy way to toggle your fingers through categories to grab the folder you need to access after you’ve organized.
You may wish to use a separate folder for each important document.
If you are using a portable storage bin or filing cabinet, you’ll find hanging files help control and organize the file folders. I use hanging files in our tax records section to organize by year. Consult your tax professional to identify how many years to keep.
Here is a chart suggesting how to keep important documents by storage type:
Waterproof, Fireproof Documents Bag
Portable File Bin or Filing Cabinet
Tax returns and Tax records
Copies of wills
Home ownership records
How to Declutter and Organize the “Other” Documents
The “Other” pile from your macro sort may be large and disconcerting. Allow me to help you tackle it.
Now that your important documents are stored and organized, you have space to tackle all remaining paperwork. A micro sort of this pile will help you decide what to keep and what to trash.
The best way I have found to deal with this stack is to touch each piece of paper and make a decision for categorization. Here are a few categories that may get you started:
Long term keep
Records related to prior home ownership
Short Term Keep
Any paperwork you haven’t processed yet. An inbox, a desk, or a designated bin by your front door could serve to capture this category until you have time to process that paperwork.
Any paperwork that requires your action. After the action, it may need to move to long-term keep, important documents bag, or the trash.
What about sentimental papers?
This is a personal and subjective category. If the papers are very valuable to you, store them in your protective important documents bag. If they need special preservation like acid-free paper, consider investing in that to preserve the documents you are keeping. They could be kept in your long term paper storage bin or even in a special flap box on a shelf in your home.
I keep love letters from my husband in our sentimental bins in the basement. The bins are waterproof but not fireproof. Writing this blog post makes me want to relocate those love letters to my important documents bag!
Read more about how to deal with sentimental clutter.
Children’s Artwork and Paperwork
As homeschoolers, I am usually required to keep annual records per kid per grade (depending on the state we live in). We keep past paperwork and artwork for my children in portable file bins with hanging folders organized by grade. Current paperwork is kept in a binder in our school room.
Three Habits to Maintain Organization
Ultimately, you are designing an organization system in your home for paperwork. Developing habits to simplify your paperwork process will help you maintain this organizational system.
Habit 1: corralling inbound paperwork
Habit 2: processing short term paperwork
Habit 3: decluttering
Several years ago, I simplified my inbound paperwork process. It held too many steps for keeping up with inbound paper. First, I made notes of how paper came into our home and found three sources: online and printed at home, the mailbox, and activities like sports, music, etc.
Next, I paid attention to the path the sources took once the paper came into our home.
Lastly, I simplified the steps. Instead of putting the paperwork in various places, I now either put it on my desk or in the trash. I also moved the shredder to my desk to make that easier too. My desk is the “short term paperwork” dumping ground.
My desk gets noticeably messy quickly, and it sits in our family room. Forcing myself to look at it each day motivates me to deal with short term paperwork. After I take action on the paperwork, it either goes into the trash, long term storage file bins, or into the important documents bag.
Decluttering takes practice. If accessing financial records online is new to you, it will feel uncomfortable at first. Do what works best for your system and your home. A three drawer filing cabinet may get your paperwork system set up and organized. Go with what you already own and adjust your system as you go.
Fear of decluttering paperwork you may need later is normal. Learn to scan and save. Ask yourself if you’ve ever needed that bank statement from three years ago. Be honest and be ruthless with your answers and time will help you form these habits.
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