How to Kill the File Beast

Ok, I admit:  I hate filing.  I mean I will go to great lengths to avoid doing it (like not file a thing for six months) as such I will run into problems once in a while.  Like this weekend where I realized I hadn’t archived my files since 2005. Yikes!

That doesn’t mean I haven’t filed anything from 2005 onwards, but rather I hadn’t pulled anything out of my files since 2005 and thus I had very thick files that made filing an even less than enjoyable task than it already was.  You can see where this spiral is going right?  I don’t file because it is harder to do with thick files which means more mess in the house making me even less happy with myself.  So I avoid filing and the piles get bigger and then repeat.

So this weekend in one day I archived every piece of paper from my files from 2005 to 2010.  Basically unless it had a 2011 date on it I pull the paper from my files. Achieving is a simple process as I do is pull out all the paper from that year and put it in a huge pile.  Then once the huge piles are formed I place the paper into a series of large envelops or files with all the same year label and shove them into a box in the closet.   Then after seven years I shred the contents since even the government isn’t going to audit me the income from my first job.

The result is a much thinner and easier to use files.  I almost don’t even mind filing my pay stubs now which is obvious since I also filed every bill I’ve got for 2011 in ten minutes or so.  So beyond archiving your files, what else have I learned from my battle with the file beast?

  1. Keep paper out.  Avoid the paper in the first place by signing up for electronic statement and bills where possible or go for broke and get a high speed scanner and do it all digitally.
  2. File it at once.  The second you are done with a piece of paper file it.  Don’t wait as trying to batch the task will fail if you really hate filing (like me, I have failed to do the weekly filing thing for years).
  3. Make the system easy.  Don’t create more files than you need and feel free to colour code.  For example, I keep my utility bills separate (power, water, natural gas, phone) since I need the separate totals for taxes but colour code them all orange so I can see them easily.
  4. Make it personal. If you never remember something by a company name feel free to use another description.  For example, my water and property tax bills both come from the city.  So it is fine to label one file ‘water’ and the other ‘property taxes’ or mix in ‘The City of Regina’ for one of the files. Do what works for you.

So now my files are finally under control for the first time in years and I feel a lot better about filing new things…just in time for a postal strike where my bills and other papers will now be delayed in coming to my house.  I can really appreciate the irony of now I’m not waiting to file on me, but rather my mail carrier.

So how do you make your file system work?  Have you had problems creating a system that actually works?

5 thoughts on “How to Kill the File Beast”

  1. I use the “sedimentary filing system”. Basically, I have a box in a drawer and all my receipts, statements and bills are tossed in there as I get them, roughly in chronological order. If I ever need to refer back to something, I just dig through the layers to go “back in time”. At the end of each year, I empty my box into a bag that goes in my store room.

    It’s an extremely simple but effective system. I track all my finances in Quicken anyway, so for tax time, I just run a report to pull out all my tax related transactions. Quicken can of course also tell me how much I spent on whatever, anytime I want without cracking open my sedimentary filing system.

  2. I do a “sort and shred” session every 3-4 weeks when the junk mail and paper stuff begins to get messy in my limited space. This includes filing the papers I get from various places such as bills, money stuff, and other items.

    I am not into solely electronic storage of these things, but I don’t mind that.

    Less often, I do a purge of other papers such as older bills. With bills and most money stuff, I keep one year plus the current year. This limits my accumulation of papers to 2 years. For my mutual fund stuff, when I receive my year-end annual statement of transactions, I shred the confirmations of the individual transactions and the quarterly statements.

    For more important items such as income tax returns, I keep more years of them in a box but keep the latest 4 or 5 years in my filing cabinet. I keep any correspondence related to (but not limited to) my mutual funds, banking, and insurance in their colders in my filing cabinet.

    I have some folders for important correspondence with my elected leaders, as I often write them. Some of those folders are getting a bit bulky from the mailings I get from them so I should sift through them.

    I have some folders related to my hobbies and volunteer work (school Scrabble).

    I was able to purge lots of banking info when two banks canceled my credit cards with them after 10+ years of nonuse. That was helpful. When I did my ER in 2008, I was able to purge most of my old 401(k) statements and company stock info (whose info I store electronically). That felt good on several levels!

    As long as my file cabinet can hold what I put in there, I can find everything pretty quickly and easily. No tug-of-wars with the folders.

  3. Off topic but related:

    I went and put all my investments on Mint.com. That’s the only thing I use Mint.com for.

    When I log in to their website, it updates all my monies in my different accounts. And if I have a large transaction, Mint will let me know via email.

    I’m an organized guy, but I actually found $70K I didn’t know I had. That was a very nice surprise.

  4. Hmmm.. How do you manage to calculate your net income without organizing?

    I put all mail and paid bills in my filing tray and file them every 3-4 months. Once a year in January I do a purge of my filing box and archive the last year or so to a bigger filing cabinet in my basement. I just started doing my net income calculation/statement last month and want to do it every 3-4 months. I think I will plan to combine my filing and net income statement and do them at the same time when I receive my quarterly investment and mortgage statements.

    My suggestion is to have a small mobile filing box, that way you can do your filing while watching a movie or TV and it is much more enjoyable (filing is a menial job and does not deserve your full attention anyway).

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