Organizing Papers- Making Files

Remember waaaaay back on day 1 of this organizing series we cleared your desk off? We’re going to get back to it today. Yes, I know it’s a Thursday, but we’re still going to spend about 15 minutes going through papers and files. Why wait until the weekend? That’s when you want to be having fun, not organizing!

C’mon, you can do ANYTHING for 15 minutes.

How to organize a simple home organizing system


If you haven’t cleared your desk, go ahead and do that now. You have to have a place to put your paws, or you’ll spend more than the next 15 minutes fighting physics, trying to put more than one thing in the same place.

There are three basic ingredients to a filing system. If you don’t have these, you’ll spend your 15 minutes today getting them. Or more likely finding them. Most people have them already, but they may be buried under, you know, clutter. These key ingredients are:

  • Hanging file folders
  • Interior file folders (also called manilla folders, shown in the picture above)
  • Something to hang the hanging files in. A file drawer, file box, or file tote are all good, but they should have the rails on the side for hanging file folders. Something like this $10 file box will work for now if that’s all you’ve got.

organizing home file folders in a file box

For just a minute, let’s think about what you need to file. Usually you’ve got:

  • Household files (repair records, bills, auto records, taxes and such)
  • Personal files (education records for you and the kids, medical records, memorabilia and such)
  • Project files (things you’re working on right now, like comparison shopping for new windows, picking a college, or planning that trip to France)

And the final category, which you probably think is bigger than it really is, is STUFF YOU’VE GOT TO DO. Mhhhhhm. That’s the one you’re worried about. That includes the stuff you really have to do (permission slips for school, bills, receipts for store returns) as well as the stuff you think you “should” do (like balance your checkbook). I’m not saying you shouldn’t balance your checkbook. Not at all! But if you’ve not balanced your checkbook in over 10 years, then keeping 10 years of unopened bank statements is not going to make you a better checkbook balancer, ya know? I’m letting you off the hook on that one. We’ll deal with that in Step 3 below.

Here are the steps to organizing that massive pile of papers that I had you pile over to the right side of your desk (aka dining room table). Again, if you didn’t organize your desktop yet, go back and start there.

Organizing Papers into Files Step 1.

Take a sheet of paper from the top of the pile. (No digging through to find “the good stuff”!)

Organizing Papers into Files Step 2.

Decide if you can recycle it or shred it.

Organizing Papers into Files Step 3.

If you can’t recycle or shred it, do you need to do something with it? Do you need:

  • to call
  • to return
  • to research on the web
  • to write
  • to do

If so, then put it aside in a TO DO box, pile, or file for now. We’re going to manage that with a tickler system later, but for this 15 (or 30) minute stretch on your timer, you are NOT actually going TO DO any of it. If you DO this stuff now, you won’t have time to organize it.

Organizing Papers into Files Step 4.

The paper you that doesn’t get recycled, shredded, or put in your TO DO file gets filed.

Chances are, you already have at least some files set up. Start by putting the existing file folders in alphabetical order to make them easier to find, then go ahead and file like mad for the next 15 minutes.

If you don’t have a file system set up, then grab manilla folders, start labeling them (in pencil, if you prefer), and just start putting files together.

People, files folders are CHEAP! Here they are on Amazon at about $12 for 100, which should be plenty to get you started, and probably finish the job.


Be sure to label folders right away, as you are putting papers in them. Many, many file systems never, ever got off the ground because someone didn’t want to “ruin” a file folder by marking on it. Just hand-write on the file folders. No need for a fancy label system just yet. Remember what we said before…

Information Is Only Useful if You Can Find It

Afraid you’ll label the folders wrong? You won’t! Just use whatever file heading words make sense to you. You could use any of the following labels, for example:

  • Car
  • Auto
  • Toyota
  • Van

Each one could be “right”, but one is a better heading for you because it is a word you are more likely to use.

There is one file that everyone needs, and that’s for your Vital Records. Be sure you know where these vital records are, for necessity and for fun. If you get a chance to jet to Paris this weekend, don’t get left behind because you don’t know where your passport is!

Still not sure how to get started? Here is a list of categories and sub-categories that many people have in their files. Some of them are linked to other articles with more detail. Not all of these categories will apply to you, but many will. Start here, in alphabetical order, until you have a reason to not keep your files in alphabetical order.

Reduce organizing overwhelm; keep your file system as simple as possible!

Simple Home Organizing File Headings and Sub-Headings


  • checking
  • savings
  • loans
  • credit report (keep only the latest one

Paid Bills and Receipts (do not put bills to pay in a file system)

Children (official records only. See below for memorabilia.)

  • Daycare information
  • School records (official documents only, like report cards and IEPs)
  • Child Support documentation

Employment/Job Search

  • Resumes/disk
  • Past cover letters
  • Letters of reference
  • Awards, copy of diplomas and professional certificates

Home Maintenance Records and Warranties


  • Car
  • Health
  • Home/renters insurance
  • Life insurance
  • Rented storage unit

Medical records (personal)

  • Health insurance cards (duplicates)
  • Prescriptions you haven’t filled yet
  • Immunization records for each family member
  • Dental
  • Eye care/vision

Memorabilia (This is usually too big for a file cabinet, but start here.)

  • Cards
  • Photos (should not be kept in a file with paper, but start here anyway)
  • Children’s artwork/Achievements

Tax records

  • Past year’s tax returns.
  • Last year’s tax records, including W2, Payroll stubs, tax deductible receipts, and federal and sate tax forms filed
  • This year’s tax records

Vital Records


Keep only what you need to keep. Strive for simple.

Not sure where something goes? What about that “miscellaneous” paper clutter? The stuff that you need for a little while but not forever. You maybe aren’t sure about just now, but it isn’t super important stuff. This includes junk mail, unread magazines, receipts, artwork the kids bring home, and brochures and fliers you pick up around town. It’s OK to put it in an “I don’t know pile” for a few minutes/days/weeks while you finish setting up your system. But if we were sitting there together, where would I suggest that you put it?

…You’re right! Wherever you put it in your files is probably better than the desk, the bed, the dining room table, or the floor where it was before!

Thanks for reading this long article, and now you have all of the tools to get started. Will you get all of your paperwork filed in the next 15 minutes? No way. But you will get SOME filed. And it will feel… Uh-MAZE-Ing!

So set your timer for 15 minutes. And…go!

using an ipad timer to organize

Focus on JUST THE PAPER. Don’t touch pens, books, doodads, thingamajigs, or rogue science or art projects that landed on your desk. It takes a completely different track in your brain to organize those. So if you haven’t already organized your desk, go back and do that first, then put an appointment on your calendar to organize your files after a break or maybe tomorrow.

If you love this idea, but just don’t have the motivation or confidence to do this on your own, you may want to purchase and set up the FreedomFiler.

Paper organizing using FreedomFiler

Are you getting what you need from this 31 Days of Clutter-Free Living series? Join our free Clutter-Free facebook group to get even more ideas for what you are working on!

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