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Can’t find a document vital to a loved one’s health in that heap of papers you call your file cabinet? If your files are out of control then you’ve come to the right place. Allow me to make your transition to filing bliss smooth and easy.

Most of us keep way too many papers. How many papers do you really reference later? I am willing to bet that it is a very small percentage. Not even 20%, maybe 10% or likely even less of what you are currently holding onto. Why keep all the clutter? Because you like to suffer? No! You do NOT want to suffer! Ok…now you are getting into the right mindset and I’m sure you know what’s next: you must only keep what you really, really need.

If you dream of being organized, your files really are one of the best places to start. Paper holds less value than other things. That fact should make it easier for you to form good habits of shedding unnecessary stuff from your life. Let’s start by making a lofty goal: to ditch your file cabinet(s)! Yes, it’s possible to actually put your bulky file cabinet into the circular file. All the files for my family of 4 fit in a single file drawer. You can do it too. Here’s how…

First, decide what you must keep. Think in terms of broad categories, such as: taxes, legal, house, cars, medical, pets, school, work, hobbies and receipts.

Did you notice some missing categories? Coupons/Discounts, for one, should be kept in an envelope close to where they are used, which is usually outside the home; so the car is the best place for coupons. Warranty and product information should all be thrown out, as you can find it all online…and besides, when was the last time you actually used a warranty? Also missing: utility bills, bank slips, financial statements, credit card statements, paycheck stubs. Once processed, there is no reason to keep these and if needed these too can all be accessed online. If you keep a checkbook ledger, it’s safe to discard it after 1 year. I don’t keep one, as I like the simplicity of using the free Mint mobile app – all of my finances are automatically updated and easy to review for free with Mint by IntuitVery important documents (such as birth certifications, marriage license, divorce papers, passports, deeds, and titles) should be kept in a safe, rather than your file drawer .

With all that out of the way, you can now create a file system that will work for you. Create file folder labels that are not too specific or too broad.

Keep a folder with copies of your will, trust, and power of attorney (also keep copies of these in a safe deposit box or with a trusted friend or relative). You should also have a folder for any incidents that required legal action. You need a file for each tax year. According to the IRS, you only need to keep 3 years of tax records. Keeping tax records for 7 years is only required if you filed a claim for a loss from worthless securities or bad debt deduction.

Your Home folder would include your current insurance policy, active claims information, mortgage agreement, and documentation for major renovations or repairs. Keep a folder for each of your vehicles for its insurance policy, active claims information, service contracts, and documentation for major repairs. You’ll also need a medical folder for each family member with insurance information, documentation needed for active claims, vaccination cards, and important/still relevant information provided by your doctors. It is easier, not to mention secure, to reference your medical history and referrals with your online medical account. We also have a small folder for our pets with important documentation from their veterinarian visits.

Keep a school folder for each of your children with report cards, honors certificates and state assessment results. Kids bring home a lot of school work. I have them decide what they might want to reference later and put it into a special drawer. At the end of the school year, we go through this drawer together. The first time we did this we threw out over 90% of what was in the drawer. Over the years they have learned from this and have gotten better at purging during the school year, putting far less in their school work drawer. I encourage all my clients to do this with their kids – you’ll be helping them build an important life-long habit.

You can keep a work folder with resumes and performance appraisals. If you own a business, all those non-personal files should be kept in another location. You might need a folder for hobbies, sports or lessons you are taking – but keep it to only documents that will actually be referenced and are not available electronically. I have a folder with my homebrew beer recipes and one for the youth sports teams I coach; however most of the documents I need for this are on my computer.

Finally…receipts. You need to be careful with these, as they have the potential to clog up a working system. I recommend keeping receipts of durable goods for 1 year in a 12-pocket expanding file labeled by month. Once March 2019 comes around, the receipts from March 2018 will be thrown out. I’ve never needed a receipt that was older than a year. Ever!

With the above folders as your guidelines, you can now dive in and start to purge. Get rid of anything that doesn’t belong to any of your defined categories. Shred any documents with personal information, especially SSN or credit card numbers. Yes, this will take time, but the alternative is much worse. Once you are done, finding what you need will always be easy!

With your files now in order, you might be thinking: Wait! There is another paper monster that doesn’t stop: mail. Find out how to tame that monster in my next blog.