OK. I’m going to talk about the elephant in the room.
You know the one.
It’s disguised as a big pile of papers in the corner of your bedroom or on your dining table. Maybe you’ve managed to tuck it away in a closet or a drawer.
It doesn’t really matter if it’s in plain sight or hidden away – it’s BIG. And it takes up a LOT of valuable space – physically and mentally – of your life.
And it’s not necessarily a friendly elephant either! It’s causing you stress and anxiety – probably a lot more than you even realize. The thought of dealing with it and ordering it out of your life is so overwhelming that you can’t even begin. And maybe the times that you have attempted to tackle it, it wasn’t long before you realized just how heavy an elephant can be.
I’ve been there.
I speak from experience when I tell you I understand. I know what it is like to be reduced to tears, completely defeated, drowning in a disorganized, chaotic mess of paperwork.
“I know that receipt is here SOMEWHERE!”
Three years ago, my husband and I downsized from our home, where we had raised our children to adulthood, to a one bedroom apartment. About a year before we moved, we got serious about de-cluttering our whole house taking a good, hard look at exactly what we needed and what we could do without. We also devised systems to effectively store and organize what we do need for the management of our home. There’s nothing like packing up a house that you’ve lived in for more than 10 years to make you realize just how cleverly you can tuck away clutter and things you’d rather not deal with! (Big ‘ol elephants can hide anywhere!) Absolutely shameful!
When it came to our paperwork, I knew two things:
1) I did NOT want to move all my paper clutter with me, and 2) the “filing system” I had was just not working,
My previous system involved a Pendaflex file box that I bought our first year of marriage (!), a cardboard box, a nightstand drawer, a 2 drawer vertical filing cabinet, an end table drawer and a stand up file.
You know where I’m going with this. As long as I had my paperwork “put” somewhere, I was organized, right? Yep!
Up until the point I needed something anyway.
Like the title for the car I was selling. Or the vaccination record my son needed to get into college. Or the receipt and warranty information for the washing machine that had quit working.
I cannot tell you how many times I said, “I know I have it, I’ve just got to locate it.”
The next step is not easy. It’s just not. There’s no way around it. There are ways to make it manageable, but it can still be daunting and overwhelming. All that mess has to be sorted, gone through and somewhat organized before we ever get to the point of purchasing pretty file folders and a nifty label maker. But, you know what they say –
“there is only one way to eat an elephant: a bite at a time”
I tackled each storage (ahem!) area individually. Sometimes I would set a time for 15 – 30 minutes, sometimes I would just work on it until I was completely disgusted and in tears. Either way I did it, I was still making progress. And the more I chipped away at it, the more motivated I became to conquer it and make sure it never consumed me like that again!
I armed myself with sticky notes, a pen and notepad and got to work.
I dumped the nightstand drawer onto the floor of my bedroom and did a quick “pre-sort”, just quickly glancing at everything and assigning it to a pile. Once everything was kinda sorta sorted, I was able to get an idea of what I actually needed to keep and began formulating my organization system. I labeled each pile with a sticky note according to category and if I found a receipt for something, I made a note to match it with the manual (wherever it may be!) and vice versa. With each stack labeled with a sticky note, I was able to create a stopping point for myself enabling me to walk away and save my sanity. If I needed to do something else, if my timer went off, or if I just simply needed to take a break, I could stack the labeled piles and pick back up when ready. Having an “In Progress” pile let me know that’s where I had left off.
I then moved on to the box, to the pendaflex, to the other drawer, etc. sorting in the same fashion until all my “put” places had been emptied and sorted. Next, I took each category (pile) and did a further sort. I was amazed at how much paperwork I was able to actually get rid of!
One of my curses is I love sub-categories. I also love to take a simple project and make it very complicated. My brain does not think in a straight line. With that being said, I’ll spare you the next several paragraphs it would take to explain how many times I created a system and dismantled the system to finally arrive at what works best for me. 🙂 Since we were downsizing, I had to take into consideration the amount of actual space I could designate as well as keeping it efficient and something that I would actually stick with.
I keep our bills in a folder until they are paid. Once they are paid, they are moved to the Tend To tray. This is a designated tray (just ONE!) that I keep on top of the Pendaflex file for incoming paperwork. I started the habit of clearing that tray each and every Wednesday. Receipts for purchases, paid bills, paystubs, recipes I print, etc., all go into that tray. By dealing with it on a weekly basis, I’m able to stay on top of it and easily keep everything organized.
I broke the actual filing system down into 3 key areas that satisfy my sub-category addiction while managing to keep it simple!
- Current Quarter/Easily Accessible In the Event I Need to Grab It: Contained in the Pendaflex file, I have 3 hanging file folders for each month of the current quarter. Paystubs, paid bills, and bank statements are examples of what go into the monthly files. Also contained in this file box are our medical insurance benefits booklet, our auto loan paperwork and insurance dec page, apartment lease and storage unit agreement, a folder for each of our cats, a folder for financial or medical bill disputes, and a folder for each tool and piece of equipment we’ve recently purchased containing the receipt, manual and warranty registration card. These are the items I felt were important to keep within “arms reach” for referencing if needed.
- The Archives: I purchased a file tub to store papers that were important enough to keep, but also didn’t need to be “front and center”. Since space is a premium right now, I wanted something that could go onto a closet shelf and not be too heavy or bulky to deal with. It holds letter size hanging file folders so I didn’t have to purchase any special supplies. At the end of each quarter, everything is moved from the monthly folders in the Pendflex box into one hanging file folder labeled for the whole quarter in the Archives box. This is also where I keep copies of the past 5 years tax returns.
- The Vault: This is where our important legal and identification documents are stored. Car titles, birth certificates, social security cards and statements, medical records, advanced directives, life insurance policies, and our will are all stored in this locking fireproof/waterproof safe. My Person has a copy of all the pertinent documents contained in the safe as well as a spare key.
The beauty of this is all three of these storage areas fit in my bedroom closet. They are out of sight, but still on my mind. When I open them, they are neat and organized rather than a looming pile of “I’m not sure what’s in there”.
Yes, this was a tough area to tackle and deal with. This is one of those organizing projects that can be not only physically exhausting, but mentally as well. I don’t know why, but for some reason I had a certain amount of guilt, and even shame for just how out of control this area of our life was! I felt like I had been lazy and inattentive. And i would get downright ANGRY when I couldn’t find paperwork that I knew I had!
Was all the pain worth it?
I cannot tell you how much better I feel since taking that last bite of elephant and creating a system that works with me and for me. It literally takes me about 5-10 minutes TOPS each Wednesday to deal with the paperwork from the week before. I have mental peace, knowing that should I need a document or receipt, I know exactly where to go to get it. Stress is one of those “death by a thousand paper cuts” things. And often times, it’s the stress that we don’t even know we feel that does the most damage. I truly felt like a huge weight was lifted off my shoulders once I started using my system and seeing how well it worked.
So , really the only advice I can give is just start. Work on things a little at a time. Get help from a friend or family member if you’re comfortable in doing so. Any little bit of progress is still progress. Remember, this is YOUR system and it has to work with YOUR personality and YOUR family. No one else!