The most common complaint I hear from people is that they are buried in paper. When they describe their struggle to tame the paper in their home, it is often with a look of desperation on their face and the sound of defeat in their voice. Add the rapidly approaching April 15 tax deadline and sheer panic sets in. Even if you can survive for most of the year without having your papers in order, this is one time when locating a specific document and keeping track of all those tax forms really matters. Here are some practical tips for getting a grip on all that paper, for tax time and throughout the year.
— Put incoming papers in a designated spot
It takes about the same amount of time to put something in the right place as it does to put it in the wrong place. The key is to create the "right" space and make sure everyone in your family knows where it is. Put incoming papers like bills, receipts and schoolwork in a designated inbox each day and regularly transfer the contents of your inbox to labeled bins with the following categories: "To File," "To Pay" and "Needs Action." Throw away or recycle all unwanted mail and school papers before they pile up, and don't get frustrated if you are unsure whether to keep a document. For guidance on how long to keep specific documents, financial planner Ric Edelman has a good list on the Web sitewww.nextavenue.org.
— Make sure you have the proper tools
You need permanent filing space, either drawers in a desk or a filing cabinet. It is difficult to get by with a combination of portable boxes, magazine boxes and desktop files unless you are really organized; they can be hard to keep track of. If possible, find a space on the main floor of your house for your papers. Having to tote papers to the basement or the second floor requires time and is one of the main reasons paper piles up.
Filing cabinets are available in a variety of styles, sizes and colors, so finding something that fits in your home and matches your decor should be relatively easy. If you truly don't have space for a desk or a filing cabinet, there are plenty of pieces that can do double duty, such as Crate & Barrel's Incognito Compact Office. It looks like an end table but opens to become a desk with a filing drawer.
Only current files should be in your main filing space. Older and permanent documents that need to be kept indefinitely should be stored in plastic filing bins elsewhere in your home. Buy a shredder to dispose of papers containing personal information, and always have extra file folders on hand.
— Consistency matters
Even the best system requires consistent upkeep. Spend time each day putting papers in their proper place instead of allowing them to pile up in the front hall, on the dining room table or on the kitchen counter. You don't need to do actual filing each day, but you do need to open that bank statement and put it with the other items to be filed. Take a few minutes each night to look through your "Needs Action" bin to make sure you're not missing any deadlines.
— Don't try to live up to unattainable standards
Find a system that works for you. It probably won't be the system described in a magazine or one that a friend uses, but it will suit your needs. Real people have "stuff" that is never represented in magazines. What works for a single person won't work for a family of six. And what makes sense for you now will probably be different in five years. If you are one of those people who like to have papers visible, take advantage of vertical space above your filing cabinet or drawers and use a bulletin board or a magnetic board to post important reminders. Just be sure to remove old items regularly. The most important thing is to develop good habits and be consistent.
— The system won't run itself
Keep your system simple, especially if you want family members to participate. It is not necessary, and can be counterproductive, to create an elaborate system that no one can follow. Be sure to explain the simple process to the people living in your house and to set the expectation that they need to be involved, but also realize that ultimately one person has to oversee the system.
Look at the next two months as an opportunity to organize not only your tax papers but all of your papers. Reducing clutter and getting things in order now will save you valuable time each day and especially at tax time next year.
Nicole Anzia is a freelance writer and owner of Neatnik. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.