Tips for decluttering, organising and filing paperwork at home

If you can’t see your desk under all the piles of paper, it’s time to clear the clutter. Here’s how to get all your paperwork in order.

Updated 8 July 2019

Tips for organising paperwork: Shelf with notebooks and an ornament placed neatly

Key steps

If you’re looking for home filing solutions:

  • Clear the clutter first. What do you need? What can you get rid of?
  • Keep it straightforward. It’ll be easier both to keep it up and to find the things you need later.
  • Use clear labelling and colour-coding to make categories easier to find.
  • Don’t fall back into old habits, or you’ll have to start again!

Filing paperwork isn’t how most people would choose to spend an evening, but it’s worth doing, especially if you work from a home office. Every time you can’t find a document, you’ll lose a frustrating few minutes searching for it, and that adds up before long. Here are some of our best tried and tested paper storage ideas to help you keep on top of your personal paperwork.

Once you’ve thrown out the papers you don’t need, don’t let the paperwork build up again. It’s worth asking yourself “do I really need to keep this?” before you file a new document. The recycling bin is one of the simplest home filing solutions, but remember to shred anything that includes sensitive information.

The first step when filing paperwork

Before you do anything else, it’s time to clear the clutter. If you skip this step, you’ll end up alphabetising takeout menus for restaurants you were never planning to order from anyway.

Go through all your accumulated paper, deciding what to keep and what to throw away. Be ruthless. Most of us tend to feel we shouldn’t throw away anything official-looking, but that’s the reason you still have the letter confirming your dentist’s appointment from three years ago. Are you ever going to want or need to look at it again? If not, put it in the recycling pile.

File storage ideas

Good home filing solutions might take a little time to set up, but they should be as simple as possible to file new items into. If you have a physical document you know you’ll need later, it’s easy and tempting to leave it on your desk, or to shove it into the first drawer that comes to hand. If your paperwork storage ideas are too complicated, you’ll probably give in to that ‘just put it anywhere’ temptation and end up back at the beginning. You’ll want your filing system to take so little effort that you’re willing to use it even if you’ve had a restless night and you’re out of coffee.

An expanding file is a simple, relatively inexpensive way of getting your papers in order, particularly if you don’t have vast amounts of paperwork to wrangle. You can use clearly labelled dividers to mark out the categories you need, and it’ll look a lot smarter on your desk than a disorganised pile of papers.

If you have a lot of physical documents to deal with at home – if you run a business that generates a lot of physical paperwork, for example – you might be tempted to invest in a filing cabinet. To save space and money, though, you could consider whether you have any existing drawers that could be repurposed for filing. Whether you’re planning to slot in dividers or install rails for suspension files, take the size of the drawer into account.

If anything you’re getting rid of includes personal information, shred it before throwing it away.

“Where does this go again?” Preventing your filing solutions from creating more filing problems

Give some thought to how you want to organise things. Sorting things alphabetically is a classic technique for a reason, but how should you alphabetise them? One option is to file bank statements under the name of the bank and bills under the name of the service provider, but you might find it more useful to keep them in subsections under ‘F’ for ‘finances’.

The important thing is to make a clear decision for filing papers and to remember what that decision is. If you’re filing your statements from the We Love Cash banking company under ‘W’ for ‘We Love Cash’ one month, ‘B’ for ‘banking’ the next and ‘F’ for ‘finances’ the month after that, your filing system will fall apart very quickly.

If it helps, make a note of where your common documents are supposed to go. Just don’t file the note and immediately forget where you put it – stick it on the inside of your file or folder and use it for reference.

Tips for filing paperwork painlessly

  • Can you reduce the amount of paper you need to deal with? A lot of banks and service providers will let you switch from paper statements or bills to e-mail.
  • You can use different-coloured dividers to create subsections. For example, you could use red dividers to mark broad categories such as ‘finances’ or ‘holidays’ and blue dividers to mark more specific categories such as ‘invoices’ or ‘hotel information’. Finding the appropriate subcategory will become much quicker if you don’t have to check every individual label.
  • Alternatively, you can make filing even quicker by using a different colour for every section. Once you’ve learnt that bills go behind the purple divider, you can bang them straight into your filing system without even looking at the labels.
  • If you have both personal and practical documents to organise, you may want two separate systems. Your favourite photographs, your daughter’s handmade birthday cards, the comics you and your brother drew together: these things can be displayed in an album or a folder with clear plastic sleeves, rather than filed alphabetically alongside that snippy letter from your least favourite client.

Filing papers can seem intimidating if you’ve spent a long time accumulating piles of paperwork, but taking a moment to clear the clutter will instantly make it feel a lot more achievable. Once you’ve set up a filing system, you’ll never need to dig through a drawer full of receipts in search of last year’s water bill again. It’s worth doing! Now you’ve got your papers in order, you may want to set up a home budgeting system as well – here are some ideas.

Originally published 4 July 2019