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How To: 4 Steps to Less Paper Clutter

Here's a simple way to get organized and eliminate paper clutter at home.

Is paper clutter taking over your house? Between the paper you already have floating around and the deluge of incoming mail that seems to grow every day, it may seem like a losing battle. For a simple way to eliminate paper problems once and for all, Carol Keller, with Organizing Experts in the Los Angeles area, shares her four-step plan.

Step 1: Analyze where the paper clutter comes from.

Start by making a list of the types of paper that you handle every day. Common clutter culprits include the following:

  • mail
  • school or work papers
  • magazines
  • catalogues
  • coupons
  • receipts
  • newspapers


Next, explore the reasons why the paper clutters up your home by asking yourself these questions:

  • Do you have too much paper or not enough storage?
  • If you have too much paper, what are you willing to eliminate altogether? Could you discontinue a newspaper subscription and read it online instead? Cut down on the number of magazine subscriptions?
  • For the paper you want to keep, what kind of storage do you have available? A cabinet, closet or file drawer?

Step 2: Sort and purge.

Now it's time to make decisions about what will stay and what will go. You'll be sorting items into two categories: Keep and Recycle/Shred.

First, gather the loose papers, magazines, newspapers, etc., and bring them to your sorting area, preferably a clean, flat surface, like your dining table or kitchen counter.

Next, set out some boxes or bags for recycling and shredding. Bankers boxes work well for starting temporary files for the paper you are keeping.

Then the real work begins: Pick up each piece and make a decision about whether it goes or stays. If it stays, begin creating categories and group all like papers together.

If you can't decide what to keep, put it to the test by answering the following questions:

  • Whom does the paper belong to?
  • Does the paper have a purpose and what is that purpose?
  • When might you need the paper if it's not important right now?
  • Where might you use the paper?

If you can't answer the above questions, then recycle or shred the paper.

For magazines and newspapers you want to keep parts of, try these strategies from professional organizer Linda Koopersmith.

  • Stick a Post-It on a magazine when you first begin reading it, marking down page numbers for articles you'd like to keep. Most consumer magazines now come with a page of stickers or bookmarks you can also use for the same purpose. After you're finished, find each entry and tear or cut out the page. Place them in a three-ring binder and use tabs to divide them by subject.
  • Use an index for magazines that are kept intact — include magazine name, article/recipe title and date. Place this index in the binder with the other articles and store the magazines in a box in the garage or a closet. Label the box with the magazine name and dates, so you can get the right one quickly.
  • When you like an article in a newspaper, cut it out instead of keeping the whole paper. Recycle the rest.
  • After cutting out an article, instead of placing it in a pile or box, glue it to a white sheet of paper. One sheet of paper can hold an article on each side. Insert these articles in a binder and divide them into sections to make them easy to find.

Step 3: Classify, contain and label.

Papers that you are keeping will fall into two categories: Active or Reference. Your storage solution will be different for each of these categories.

Active papers will need to be front and center on a desk or counter for easy access. Desktop filing boxes work well as you can assign a folder for each person in the household or file by action. Some of the actions may include the following:

  • Bills to pay
  • Cards to mail
  • Phone calls to make/RSVP to invitations
  • Papers to sign and return

Reference papers can be stored away from your desk in a file cabinet or an archival container that can be stored in another room, the basement or garage. They should be labeled by category and placed in alphabetical order so you can retrieve them quickly and easily. Some possible categories for reference papers:

  • Tax papers
  • Personal property
  • Vehicle records
  • Education records
  • Insurance
  • Health history

Step 4: Create a regular decluttering routine.

The key to maintaining your new paper management is to create a regular routine for processing what comes into your home. Here are four tips to help you stay on track on a day-to-day basis:

  • Sort the mail daily. Stand near a trash can as you sort and immediately toss what you don't want to keep.
  • Create a specific place for paying bills and correspondence.
  • Create a communication area with a family calendar.
  • Set aside time for filing at least once a week.

In addition to purging paper on a daily basis, you'll want to take time throughout the year to evaluate your reference papers and rid yourself of any outdated or unneeded info. Here's a guide to understanding what financial records and other important papers you should keep and for how long:

Be sure to consult your CPA or financial consultant as to the length of time to keep papers that specifically pertain to you and your family.

Items you may toss after one year:

  • Monthly bank and credit card statements (if you don't itemize deductions)
  • Monthly or quarterly brokerage statements after reconciling. You do need to keep any buy/sell statements and reconcile with the year-end statement.
  • Monthly mortgage statements but keep the year end statement which shows all interest and taxes paid.
  • Paycheck stubs once you've reconciled them with your annual W-2 or 1099 forms.

Items to retain for seven years:

  • W-2 and 1099 forms
  • Year-end statements from credit card companies.
  • Any business expenses that you claim.
  • Annual mortgage, property tax or any tax-deductible expenses
  • All papers that support your tax return for the past seven years. You can then purge the supporting documents and just keep the return.

Items to keep forever:

  • All annual tax returns
  • Year-end summaries from financial services companies.
  • Information on the purchase price of all investments.
  • Home-improvement records.
  • Receipts for major purchases as long as you still own the item.
  • Beneficiary designations

If you're claiming a home office on your tax return, you'll need to keep everything that relates to those expenses, such as utilities, rent or mortgage payments and office, phone and computer expenses. Keep a file for each category that you list as a deduction.

If you are not claiming a home office deduction, you may toss the following each month:

  • Bank deposits and ATM receipts after recording them in your check register.
  • Credit card receipts after you have checked for accuracy on your statement.
  • Sales receipts for everyday purchases if there is no warranty.
  • Utility statements when the next month's statement arrives.

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