We are finding ourselves overwhelmed by paper.
Bills, magazines, newspapers, advertisements, receipts, lists, Little Bit’s works of art. If we let paper build up for a day or two, we’ve soon find we’re barely treading with our head above water.
We have a tendency to keep paper way too long, and it easily overwhelms our limited storage space in part because we haven’t really formed a plan. This week, though, we discovered our mistake.
Don’t keep paper. Keeping paper leads to chaos.
“Now wait a minute,” you say. “Surely there’s some paper records that you need to hang onto? At the very least, birth certificates and stuff like that.”
Yeah, you need to hang on to stuff like that. If you want to keep from being overwhelmed by paper, though, you need to make active choices with the swamp of paper life throws your way.
Don’t keep your paper. Store it, Scan it, Toss it, or Burn it.
The $6 Receipt that Spurred Us to Action
We’ve had a paper problem for a while. We would let our paper pile up, and then end up with a mound to sort later. Later would come, and some of it would get sorted and tossed. But we’d throw some of the paper (a lot of it) into a box or bag to keep or shred. Eventually, we would decide that there were too many boxes of paper around and go through them again. Or just take some down to the basement.
That system bit us in the butt Monday.
We got two letters from a certain government agency. They believed we had filed some paperwork after their deadline, and were charging us $390. Twice.
We knew that the paperwork had been mailed on time, and the agency’s rules are clear that the mailing date counts. We just had to find the darn receipt.
(I say we. I mean Jon. Jon insists on handling receipts and similar, because he thinks I’m far too quick to toss them. So I give him all receipts after I’ve put them in our budget spreadsheet, and then they are his responsibility.)
So Jon looked hard for the rest of the evening. He tore through stacks of envelopes and boxes of receipts. This was just shy of $800, and we were sure we had the proof that we didn’t owe it.
And he didn’t find it, even after 5 hours. The receipt wasn’t in the Business 2015 folder (the obvious place.) It wasn’t in the Business 2016 folder. It wasn’t in the desk drawers or binders or stacks of mail.
Heartburn and a sleepless night followed.
The next day, he went back to work. Around 5 pm, he finally opened the “right” box: 2016 receipts. It was amid grocery receipts, gas receipts, and even toy receipts.
It’s time for a new system.
Clean Up, Clean Out
The best news (other than we found the receipt that clearly shows that we mailed the package by the deadline) was that Jon didn’t just search. He used the opportunity to start draining the swamp of paper that had formed around us and inhibited our ability to find things.
I admit Jon has done this before. This time, something seemed different.
Jon admitted that maybe it didn’t make much sense to keep magazines longer than a month.
And maybe, we needed to make some other changes to keep from being overwhelmed by paper every couple of months.
Jon has a system that works pretty well for receipts and records that are clearly tax-related. Receipts go in envelopes on his desk and are labeled with the category and year. Bank, credit card and investment statements go in a box with the year.
That system works for well for those receipts. The problem arises because we keep a lot more than those receipts. We’ve been keeping all receipts. We have kept years’ worth of magazines on the off chance we might read them again. We jam schoolwork and artwork into drawers and onto the refrigerator.
Jon and I need a new system, and we think we’ve found it.
Our new system is Store it, Scan it, Toss it, Burn it.
There are obvious pieces of paper you need to keep.
- Identity records: birth certificates, social security cards, passports, immunization records etc are at the top of the keep list. Preferably locked in a fire safe, but at least in a designated area.
- Paper copies of tax returns are also on our paper list, though I suppose a PDF that is secure and backed up isn’t a bad alternative. We lock ours up.
- Credit card statements, bank statements, etc need to be kept. I know a lot of people only get PDFs or access them online, but it’s a good idea to keep a paper back up.
- Warranties (preferably with the appropriate receipt stapled to them)
- Tax-related receipts, like Medical Expenses, business receipts, etc.
What we realize now is that keeping this stuff isn’t enough. We need to actually store these documents in designated places with designated rules.
And we both need to know the rules, so we’re both storing the same thing in the same place. I need to be doing more than just sliding pieces of paper onto Jon’s desk as I finish with them.
I think we keep some things that most people may not. Again, Jon likes to keep receipts for a couple of years, even for things like gas and groceries. I like to shred old utility bills as soon as I see the next one come in showing the payment, but Jon likes to keep them for a while.
We’ve agreed on a simple solution that we can both follow. We bought an accordion file for these shorter term keepers. We plan on sorting them by category and getting a new file for each year. The idea is that after a couple of years, we can cycle the old ones out. It’s more paper than I’d like to store, but it qualifies as having a system we can both follow.
One of the things that overwhelms us is our daughter’s artwork. Little Bit produces a lot of works of art, but we can’t store all of it. It would take 4 or 5 totes already, and she’s only 6.
On the other hand, we hate to throw it away.
Our compromise is to take pictures or scan all that artwork and schoolwork and store only the best pieces. That way we can load the best JPEGs onto our digital picture frame and keep a constant slideshow going.
Keeping a digital copy of paperwork is a great way of reducing the amount of clutter in your house. To make it work really well, you need to do two things.
- Label and organize your digital copies well. It’s no more fun to sort through a bunch of items that say “Statement 1” or “Scan 12” than it is a box of receipts.
- Back up your records. You don’t want a stray lightning strike or computer virus to compromise your record keeping.
You also want to make sure that sensitive information is stored securely. This is part of the reason we don’t use this feature as much as others might. Jon really would rather keep sensitive information off the computer and off the net. However, he is amenable to loading sensitive digital information on a thumb drive and then locking up the thumb drive.
Yes, toss includes recycle.
Newspapers, magazines, and any unneeded mail that doesn’t have sensitive information can all be tossed into the recycling. So can old greeting cards, grocery lists, unused return envelopes and all of those crappy ad inserts they put in your other bills.
Note the recurring theme here: Nothing we toss (or recycle) is remotely sensitive.
We’ve found that our biggest hangup lies in sorting the at least somewhat sensitive from the not sensitive stuff.
We can toss a lot of paper, but we need to destroy any of the sensitive stuff to make sure our identities stay safe.
I used to just tear up things that I thought were a little sensitive. Now we shred them and then burn them.
Not everyone has the ability to burn their sensitive junk mail, but burning has a lot of advantages, not least of which is that backyard blazes double as cheap evening entertainment. And get rid of fallen limbs and bush trimmings at the same time.
The biggest problem arises when we wait to do our shredding. Put it off for a few days and we start noticing that “overwhelmed by paper” feeling again. So I’m considering moving the shredder next to Jon’s chair in the family room to remove the delay that causes the backup.
Overstuffed but no Longer Overwhelmed
We still have a mass of paperwork to sort through (though somewhat less now that Jon took care of 2016 to date.) Only now we’ve sketched out a plan that should help us going backward and forward.
Swamps, as my Dutch forefathers could tell you, can be drained. You can make good farmland out of a swamp with a lot of preparation and hard work.
We may be temporarily overstuffed but we are determined not to be overwhelmed by paper. We’re no longer just keeping stuff, either through a need to hang on or a tide of inertia . We’re storing, scanning, tossing or burning.
We’ll let you know how it goes.
Are you overwhelmed by paper too? Or have you found a system that works to reduce your paper clutter successfully? What’s your best hint for taming the paper dragon?