A Plan for Paper: Back to School Edition

Can you guess the biggest organizational challenge for me and many I’ve talked to?  Paper clutter. And, with the start of school it usually gets a whole lot worse.

Even though we are a society that has gone digital for many things, we still have to deal with a lot of paper. It comes in many forms:  bills, coupons, junk mail, school forms, medical paperwork, invitations, receipts, even checks!  When I got married it doubled, and once we had two kids, it quadrupled.  What was once an annoyance became a serious problem, and a costly one.

For us, this paper clutter ended up in one of three places: shoved into our kitchen drawer, stashed into our nightstands, or stacked on our office table.  As a result, we racked up more credit debt than we realized, we were constantly paying late fees on our bills and credit cards, and accruing over-draft fees.  We also weren’t questioning the bills we received, which cost us in a different way. All this because we weren’t dealing with the paper in our lives.

When I overhauled our finances and created a working budget (which I will write about in a future post), I quickly saw that one of the root causes of our financial problems was paper clutter. I realized I had to get it under control.  The things I had tried in the past— cute mail slot organizers, pretty baskets, even a repurposed over-the-door shoe organizer turned mail organizer did not work.  I needed something else:  a central paper processing location near where the mail comes in, an inexpensive container, and an easy process for handling it.

Here’s what I did, and what I suggest you try if paper is an issue for you:

1. Get real with your habits.

I didn’t want to walk all the way down to the office to go through the mail, file school forms, get stamps and checkbooks, and pay bills.  It is too far from where the mail comes in, where my kids school forms come in, and where I spend a lot of my time at home.  I realized I needed to create a system in our kitchen.

2. Make space in a central location.

Our kitchen is very small, and devoting an entire cupboard to bill paying and processing paper, just isn’t an option for us.  But, I realized I could make space on just one shelf in the cupboard I use the most often, closest to the front door.

3. Designate one processor.

In the past, I would go through the mail and put it into two stacks:  one for my husband, and one for me.  I would split the kids’ mail between us.  Huge mistake.  He’d put his stack somewhere, and I’d put mine somewhere else, and even more went unaccounted for.  We decided that I would be the one in charge of all family paper.  That meant that I would get the mail, open all the mail, and process it using a system I came up with.  Designating someone to be in charge of the paper was half the battle in keeping it organized!

4. Define a process.

Here’s my process:  When I pick my kids up from school, I bring in the mail and paper work from my purse, my car, and my kids backpack. Then, I go through it at a set time each day, and I do it the same way every time.  I recycle the junk mail first, then I open the real mail and immediately schedule my bills to be paid, or pay them with a check and put it in my outgoing mailbox, and I mark any important dates from invites and school forms on my calendar. Once the bills are scheduled and the dates are recorded, I recycle those invites and bills.  Anything that needs to be saved, such as school forms, coupons, or important medical documents etc. I file right in the kitchen using the container I’ll describe next.

5. Choose an effective container.

I bought a $5 accordion filer that is small enough to fit in my purse and the top shelf in my most used kitchen cupboard.  The key is that it is small, so I have to manage it.  It is also portable, which is a must.  Yet it is big enough to hold what matters most to my family paper processing:  pens, a small notebook for list making, stamps, address labels, my checkbook, and it has slots for school forms, receipts, coupons, gift cards, important paperwork, and more. The key is to figure out what’s causing your paper clutter, and label your filer to accommodate it.  I file things away all month in this little filer, and at the end of the month, I walk down to the office and file it in my permanent filing system if I need to.  Often, I only need things for the month and then I can recycle them.  This container keeps everything central to where I use it the most often, it is accessible to my husband, and it saves me from having to file things every day in the office, which I just wasn’t doing.

I’ve used this system for six months, and I have completely eliminated our paper clutter, and much of the stress that it caused. I can find the school forms I need, we no longer pay our bills late, we figured out how to lower our monthly bills each month, and we put all that money to paying off our credit cards. That $5 dollar filer has literally saved us a few thousand dollars in the past six months!

Have you also found a great way to solve this problem?  Write me or post in the comments and let me know!  I’d love to hear from you.  If you want to work with me to get your paper clutter under control, get in touch!


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