How to Declutter Paper (and Stop it From Coming Back).

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No matter how “green” we try to be, there always seems to be an excess of paper clutter in our lives. Like, hello, it's 2022, and all this information should be available online. Oh wait, is it already available online? The answer more than likely is yes! If you need to know how to declutter paper, this article will give you all the steps, but be prepared for a little tough love as well…

Overwhelmed by Paper Clutter

Whether it's junk mail, vital documents, or bills, it is very easy to become overwhelmed with paperwork. First and foremost – if you struggle with getting rid of paper clutter – you need to realize that 99% of the papers can be stored electronically. I know – who wants another app, right? But, I challenge that thought process because you probably already have an online sign-in for the company that is sending you the papers.

You can quickly become overwhelmed by paper clutter.

Think about it; you don't need to save every bank statement. All banks offer online banking now, and you can easily access every statement for your account. And, if you already use online banking but are still receiving paper statements, you can contact your bank or change the settings online for your account. Boom one document handled.

Now, if you absolutely do not want to track these bills online, that's fine. You will need to formulate a plan to tackle your current paper piles. I'll help you break the steps down, but first, let's look at how to reduce paper clutter and transition to a digital paper storage system.

How to Get Your Documents Online

Technology provides us with so many tools directly at our fingertips. Some good, some bad, and some just because (I'm still an avid Candy Crush player…). However, the fact that we can do nearly all of our business online is a considerable advantage when compared to previous generations. While there are risks involved with having your information online, I really think the ease of use trumps all of that (for the most part, work with me here…)

Did You Know…

In January 1997, Sumitomo Bank launched the first online banking website, but banks had been working on the technology since 1994. By 2010, almost all banks had online banking services, even though they didn't all offer the same services. However, all banks have online banking today. Even if you don't use an app or a website, your bank still keeps all your documents electronically. This means your statements, debits, credits, transfers, checks, etc.

So, WHY would you keep your bank statements? Again, I get it if you want to be able to check the activity of your account, and you may like to make check marks and verify the purchases. However, why wouldn't you shred them after they've been reviewed?

If they haven't yet been reviewed, there really is no reason to keep them. If you've checked them, they no longer provide any value, right? Right. I know what you're thinking, “ok, fine, but that's ONE document,” and I respond with the fact that bank statements and online banking are just the beginning.

Common Paper Clutter That Can Be Done Online

Accessing personal information online is not limited to banking. If you have any of the following items in your paper clutter pile, you need to know that they can also be accessed online. I suggest you contact the issuing agency to inquire about online options and see if you can turn off paper billing.

  • Credit Card
  • Utility Bills (Water, Gas, Electric, Trash, etc.)
  • Mortgage (Keep the Original Papers)
  • Insurance (Keep the Initial Policy)
  • Auto Loan (Keep the Bill of Sale)
  • Tax Documents (Keep at Least 3 Years)
  • 401(k)/Investments
  • Bills (Phone, Internet, TV, etc.)

This is not an all-inclusive list, but you get the idea. If part of the clutter you have in your home is on this list, you should try to look at moving to an online-only option. Make sure to make a note, or get a password notebook, of the website address, your user name, password, and any security questions and answers.

What About Receipts?

Honestly, the only receipts you should keep are those for big purchases, like furniture or jewelry, and any for your taxes, like expense receipts. Again, if you keep the receipt to verify the purchase, why keep it after you've confirmed it? Now, if you fall into the business owner category, you likely have to save many receipts. However, you can move to digital too.

Use your receipts to verify purchases and then toss them.  If you need them for business, store them digitally.

Even if you require receipts for work, you can easily store them digitally. Snap a picture of the receipt and store them on your phone, or move them to a folder on your computer. There are even one-touch scan apps available, like Expensify, to store your receipts for you. If you must keep them, and you don't want to take the time to snap a picture, then keep them. But they shouldn't be cluttered. Have a dedicated staging zone only for receipts. Also, set a reminder (or five) to file them appropriately weekly.

Decluttering Paperwork

While I advocate for digital storage solutions, you still need to have a system for your must-have documents. Or, if you have decided not to transfer to a digital option, you need to declutter and organize the documents. Let's start with paper decluttering:

Step 1 – Gather the Paper

If you have more than one area where paper piles up, gather it all together. You will need to make a mess before fully tackling your paper predicament. Ensure that you include filing cabinets, storage boxes, and safes. If you're going to go through the paper – you want to make sure you go through all of the paper.

Step 2 – Know What to Keep

Before sorting the documents, you need to know what paper documents you actually want to keep. For instance, you need to keep at least 3 years of taxes. You will also want to have your birth certificates, passports, etc. You can review the list below to get started:

What Important Documents to Keep

Step 3 – Sort the Paper

Now that you know what to keep let's get to sorting! Begin at the top of the pile, and then put like documents together. Some of the groupings I suggest are:

  • Items to Shred
  • Vital Documents (Birth Certificates, Passports, Wills, etc.)
  • Insurance Policies
  • Tax Returns, 3-7 years
  • Legal Documents (Deed of the House, Car Title, etc.)
  • Retirement (Keep the Initial Information)

Step 4 – File Neatly

Once you have your keepers sorted, let's get them filed. It's recommended to have vital documents stored in a fireproof safe. An accordion or an expandable file folder works excellently if you don't have a file cabinet. Keep in mind that you want to eliminate paper if possible, so if your filing area gets too bulky, you may need to review the items you are keeping.

A little tip – I usually file my taxes in a folder for the “year”. My file folders are labeled as “taxes – one year,” “taxes – two years,” etc., so I can easily rotate them each year when our taxes are completed.

Step 5 – Shred the Trash

If you have access to a paper shredder, you will want to shred any documents with personal information about you or your household. If you do not have a shredder, there are services you can contact to have them shred your documents. For any items that don't need to be shredded, you can place them in your recycling bin.

Our shredder went out before we moved this last time, and I haven't replaced it, but I've gone through the steps to keep my files digitally, so I don't get many new documents in hard copy. However, if I need to shred something and don't have a shredder, I will typically tear them in odd angles and spread it out amongst 2-3 trash bags. I'm not sure if that's good advice or not, so proceed with caution… (but it totally works in a pinch!).

Step 6 – Maintenance

Lastly, we need to maintain the organization you've put in place. Do not let what you've decluttered become cluttered again. I recommend adding a paper staging zone in an area where you will see it often. Set an alarm to remind you to sort through the papers in your staging zone and discard any documents in your files that are no longer needed(i.e., swap the new with the old) every week if you have to.

It's also a good idea to monitor the junk mail you have coming in. If it is a magazine or ad you no longer want to receive, you can contact the company and request removal from their physical mailing list. These items are also available digitally through email subscriptions and such, but I get it if you want the paper copy – I'm like this with books (no digital reader for me!).

Final Thoughts

Paper clutter is a thing of the past, or at least it should be. Technology has taken us to a more eco-friendly, and honestly way easier, filing system with access at our fingertips. I highly encourage researching your options to minimize the amount of paper that comes into your home and understand how to declutter paper.

For the items you need to retain, adding a staging zone for incoming documents and a dedicated filing place will work wonders to lessen the paper burden. Take the time to quickly declutter your paper clutter, and then maintain it! If you want to keep going, you can start decluttering your home today with the Declutter Boot Camp course! I can't wait to see what you tackle next!

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