Whether it’s stacked up in the entryway, lingering on the kitchen counters or spread out across the dining table, stray paper is one of the most daunting and stressful kinds of home clutter I see. Those bills, invitations, receipts and appointments are heavy with obligation—which is what makes paper so daunting to approach and what makes it so relieving to clear up.
With tax season turning our eyes to the piles of paper that have settled around our homes, here’s my fail-free system for tackling paper clutter. I promise: you will not miss it when it’s gone!
Getting Started: Gather It Up
Where do your letters, bills and reminders accumulate? Go to every spot in your house where you let paper pile up—counters, tables, drawers, nooks—and gather your papers together. Don’t worry about sorting them out. We’re going to do that next.
It's always easier to prevent clutter than to clean it up. Sign up for paperless billing to prevent paper from piling up!
Organizing Paper: Five Simple Steps
Sorting, saving and disposing of paper clutter is as simple as dividing it all into five easy categories. Once you choose the right category for each piece of paper, you’ll know just what to do with it.
Identify all the letters, bills and papers that require follow-up. These might be:
Medical appointment reminders
Bills and invoices
Put all of these items together in an “inbox”, ready for your immediate attention. If you’re feeling ambitious, put them in chronological order, according to when a response is required.
Not everything in your pile requires a response, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t important. File important documents you need to save and you want to have on hand for easy access, including:
Home improvement receipts
Medical records (current)
Personal documents (social security cards, birth certificates, trusts, wills)
You can create a filing system with these categories or invent your own.
Some items are important to keep for the long-term, but less important to have close at hand. These include:
Up to six years’ worth of tax records
Closing documents for your home
Put these items in a banker’s box or airtight container and store them out of the way—in a garage, attic or other clean, dry storage space.
*See my June 2021 blog post for ideas about how to pare down and save kids’ art projects.
Get rid of expired bills, medical records, tax records older than seven years (always check with your tax accountant) and other unnecessary paperwork—but take care to shred anything with sensitive personal information on it. A home shredder works fine—or contact Berkeley Shreds or another local confidential destruction specialist.
You have decided what you need to save. The rest can go! Old notes, junk mail, flyers, ticket stubs, expired coupons, event reminders and invitations—anything that doesn’t include confidential information can go straight into the recycling bin.
And don't forget about magazines and journals—they have a sneaky way have a way of piling up. (New Yorker! I’m talking about you!).
If you’re feeling bold, start your paper clean-up process by recycling the obvious stuff, and recycle again at the end when there’s more unneeded paper left over.