One of the biggest time consuming tasks in a home can be paperwork. There is the mail, bills, school notes, tax documents, you name it, there’s likely to be a piece of paper dedicated to it. These individual pieces of paper can eventually add up to a mountain that can seem impossible to climb.
I used to think I had a system for my paperwork. Everything went into the top drawer next to my bed. When I needed something, I simply opened the drawer and pulled it out. It worked, for a while, at least it worked until the drawer got too full. I realised that it was time to change when I lost an important piece of paper.
I had gone to a local family business and purchased a couple of items on account for work. The attendant painstakingly hand wrote an invoice for me and because it was a Friday afternoon and I didn’t want to carry it around in my handbag all weekend, I stuck it in my bedside drawer. You can see where this is going can’t you? I promptly forgot all about it and went about my business.
Eventually the poor little Mum and Dad business were wondering where their money was. I needed to present the invoice to our finance officer in order for it to be paid. I felt terrible that I had forgotten to do that but I wasn’t worried as I remembered exactly where I had put it. I opened my drawer to grab the invoice. I went through every single piece of paper (no mean feat by this stage), I tipped out every piece of paper and went through it all again. It didn’t matter how hard I looked, it was simply not there.
I had to go back to the business with my tail between my legs, apologise and request another invoice. This was again painstakingly written out by hand. This one of course, I was extremely careful to take straight to work so that the whole thing could be finished with.
That sounds like it would be the end of this story doesn’t it? Well, it’s not. A couple of weeks later I opened the drawer and what should I discover lying right on top of the pile? You guessed it, the wayward invoice that was definitely not there when I was looking for it. The only explanation I could come up with was that it had gotten stuck to the top of the drawer and been knocked down when I pushed the drawer back in. Whatever the reason, it was the catalyst I needed to get a system in place.
These are the steps that work for me:
1) Deal with all mail as soon as it comes in. Even if you are dreading a bill arriving, putting off opening it will only cause greater stress in the long run. Open all mail on the day it arrives and make a plan for acting on it.
2) Record all bill due dates on a calendar. I like to pay my bills just before the due date. I’d rather have the money in my bank account than theirs. I like to use my digital calendar as I can set a reminder to pay it but a physical calendar that you refer to regularly works just as well.
3) Put all unpaid bills in the same place. This might be on a cork board in the kitchen or a file in the bookcase. Anywhere you can easily grab it when it needs to be paid will work. Be wary however of cramming them into a drawer.
4) When you pay a bill, write the receipt number directly on to it. More than once I have been required to prove that I have actually paid something and I was easily able to do so because I had my payment record right there on the paper.
5) As soon as the bill is paid, put it into a concertina file. These often come already labeled in sections such as ‘utilities’ and ‘medical’ but you can create your own if they don’t exactly suit.
6) At tax time, empty out all of the papers and put them into their own folder. Label this folder with the financial year and store in a box with the other years’ tax paperwork. Even though a lot of these papers will not directly apply to completing your tax, it’s a nice record of what happened in that year and well, you might as well put it all somewhere. There is a requirement to keep all tax documents for a set number of years. Find out what this is in your country and destroy it once that time has passed.
7) Have a special place for important receipts. You never know when you will need to check a warranty or make a claim for a stolen item. If you have your receipts easily available, it will save a lot of time and effort. Only save receipts for big ticket items, don’t save them for every little purchase but have them all in the one place so they are easy to find.
8) Record important details and throw everything else away. There’s no need to keep school notes once you have read them and processed the information. There’s no need to keep old Christmas cards, store catalogues, old newspapers. Once you have read the information, these things become clutter and just get in your way when you need to find the important pieces of paper.
Perhaps most importantly, remember that a small amount of time spent managing the paperwork as soon as it comes in will save a huge amount of time later. Some ideas for doing that can be found here.