Help me design a filing system from scratch

Our current system is to leave piles of important papers around the house at random. We need a system. My husband, being a perfectionist, doesn’t want to enter half-assed into a bad system, and so he resorts to no system at all as the better option.

We’re at a turning point. We’ve had the professional organizer in to help. We’ve identified our problems.

But what we need now is some sort of filing/sorting mechanism that WORKS.

HELP! I may never see my dining room table again if you don’t!

:dubious: Clearly, it’s not so this theory needs more work.

I don’t know much about organizational systems but if it were me, I’d divide things into different groupings. Tax stuff, mortgage stuff, insurance stuff, grocery stuff, clothing stuff, entertainment stuff, etc and break the groupings down even further if necessary. Once you’ve got it sorted into these piles, you can begin arranging it from oldest to newest and perhaps for different piles you can have a too old benchmark.

I love to organize!

I have a plastic filing box about 2 feet long that I got at Staples, then bought hanging file folders and individual file folders to put in the hangers.

I then break stuff up like this, with the main part being the hanging folder:

Home Finance
Home Insurance
Home Maintenance


Current year
Past year
Past year

Car Finance
Car Insurance
Car Maintenance

Benefits (Insurance, may break out separate folders for different insurances, may not)
Medical by year (to dump correspondence and account info into)

CEUs (by year)

Etc, etc…

I like this method because some things never quite fit the file folder description, so I just throw it into the hanging file folder that best describes the item. That way it’s still in the right place and can be found, but doesn’t muck up the accuracy of the individual file folders.

I also break stuff up into years when necessary, then just toss the folder of stuff when it seems appropriate.

If I were charged with doing something like this I would get a pack of 8X10 cards. For each paper I would write down a list of the attributes of the paper.

After this was complete, I would look at all the cards and circle the commonalities.

These would be the traits I would use to reference and cross reference my system. So you could file them all alphabetically, or by bill-type, or by who incurred the bill, or the size of the bill, or by date paid.

Best of luck! I love your description of his perfectionism – I am very similar, and while I admit I have a big problem, I think my problem is different to “being lazy”, and that fixes (however well meant) for one won’t necessarily fix the other.

What I suggest for a system is something which (a) is easy to implement and (b) is extensible. Like, “For now, we’ll put all the banking stuff in this file, but if it’s bigger than 20 things, we’ll separate it into two.” I found justifying “good enough” really help me get started. The key for me was not choosing a system where I’d deliberately never get it “right” but choosing one where a good start would fix 90% of the problem, but was always open to small incremental improvements (if we have the time) or not (if we don’t).

The key, key, KEY responsibility for your file system is that it should be simple. This is so that when you get a new piece of post or whatever, it takes 2 seconds to put it in the filing system. If it takes longer than that, you’ll put it off.

The other thing that helped me a lot (don’t know if you need it) is to take any existing large pile of unsorted stuff that’s been hanging around for ages and put it aside with a note on top saying “unsorted papers, as of [today’s date]” and then file everything NEW immediately. Starting with a clean slate makes it so much easier to sort new stuff. And then you can sort the old stuff when you have time (or if it’s just junk, say “I didn’t need this for the last two years, so I’m just chucking it”.

For an actual system, do what the other people suggested. Their categories are way better than anything I can suggest :slight_smile: Basically, buy a concertina file or filing cabinent or whatever that’s large enough. (KEY POINT: large enough,. If not, it’ll be full and you’ll never put anything in it. Don’t live with a full filing thing you can’t add stuff in. Throw stuff away if you have to (it’s better than losing imoprtant new stuff). Buy more space if you have to.) Then designate each file to hold one sort of thing.

The only thing I found difficult was deciding how much there should be a folder for “important stuff”. Originally, when I got my first job, there was one file for “birth certificate, driving license, job contract” and little else. Now that’s split into “personal id docs”, “driving stuff”, “job #1 contract and salary stuff”, “job #2 …” “job #3”.

Out of interest, what sort of professional organiser did you find? I’m curious what’s available.

Imho, the first step is to identify how much storage you need to buy.

For me, I needed a 4 drawer filing cabinet:
Drawers 1 and 2: research articles for my field.
Drawer 3: stories, articles related to writing.
Drawer 4: old stuff, miscellaneous (I like to have a “miscellaneous” drawer everywhere, at least one per room.)

Also, for home stuff, we use another cabinet with:

  1. Bills to pay.
  2. Bills to file.
  3. Papers to hold for 1-2 years.

For now, this is working fine. However, we usually will go out and buy new storage solutions as time goes by and add it into our system.

One closet, for example, is full of banker’s boxes with junk that is grouped by use, subject, etc.

I had a very intricate filing system but I disovered that I was spending hours filing and rarely if ever did I need to retrieve documents.

A couple of years ago I went with “good enough” and bought large filing folder (the ones with 2" bottoms) and now I have:

Household bills - this folder includes utilities, mortgage, water delivery etc
Pets - vet bills, boarding, vaccinations
Banking - bank accounts and credit cards
Business - This one is broken down more because it’s not just retrieval I need my accountant to not curse me at tax time, but it’s still only a few categories
Warranty/Insurance - Documents for warranty are now in ziploc bags attached to the item in question (I think that suggestion came from the Dope!) so the only thing left in this file are my insurance documents.

In each of these I file new documents in order as they arrive or are paid. Filing takes way less time and on the rare occasions I need to find something it might take me a couple mins longer but it’s still way less than the time I’ve saved in filing.

There’s some good advice here. I think that I want things to trend toward “general” rather than “specific” in our filing system because otherwise I fear we’ll get stuck in the land of “well there isn’t an exact match for where to put THIS so I won’t file it right now” and we’ll be back to where we started with piles of papers just laying out.

I think a hanging system is the way to go for us, with subgroup folders where needed and just filing some things directly into the hanging folder.

Anyone else have any tips?

Do you have a pre-filing box? I have a nice filing system but I’ll be damned if I am going to file everything every time I am done with it, so it goes into the pre-filing box next to the filing cabinet. Then about once a month I file.

You guys shouldn’t try to go from “piles everywhere” to “in the proper folder in the filing cabinet.” Instead just try to shoot for everything in the pre-filing box and when you’re bored, file stuff proper.

Also I realized that 99% of the stuff I was filing is online (statements, mostly). I started shredding that stuff as soon as I entered it in to Quicken. There really is no need to keep old statements around - if you really needed that info you could get it from the institution that sent it. Now I just keep stuff like vet records, receipts for big purchases, and mortgage info.

I don’t know that we’re going to go from piles everywhere to totally filed in one day, but the point is we need a filing system in place so that when we are at the “we’re bored, we’ll file some stuff” stage, there is a place to file it into. There needs to be a system, whether it’s actually full of papers yet or not, and it’s designing that system that is where we’re at right now.

To start with, make your system real simple, so it’s easy to get started with it. You can always split things into more categories when you need to.

Start with file folders for:

  • Income (paycheck stubs, investment returns, etc.)
  • Expenses (paid bills)
  • Bank (monthly bank statements, etc.)
  • Important Documents (Birth Certificates, Diplomas, Home Purchase documents, etc.)

I like to use colored manila file folders red for expenses, green for income, etc. They can be stored inside hanging file folders to keep a neat filing cabinet. Keep them by year, and start a new one each Jan 1st (except the ‘important documents’ one).

Keep them in order by date. (Make sure both of you agree on whether new stuff gets added to the front or the back of the folder!)

You can add more folders as you see the need. Like if you have a lot of investments/stocks and get monthly reports, add one for Investments. And you might have one for ‘Warranties/Guarantees/Instructions’ to put the documents or manuals that come with appliances & furniture. You might add a separate folder for ‘Cars’.

But remember that the purpose of this is to make it easier to find something again months later. So the fewer places you have to look, the easier it is to find. If you only have 1 folder for expenses, you know the bill for the new tires will be in there. But if you have a separate folder for ‘Car Expenses’, it might be in either place, so you have to look in both. Simpler is better, to start with.