How to organize your financial paperwork


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Home-entertainment centers are all the rage, but maybe what your family needs is a “home-information center” — a place and a system for organizing all the stray bits of paper that get tucked into the first convenient spot and then seem to take up permanent residence.

Stuff gets tossed on the dining room table or in a spare drawer, where it remains unloved, unsorted and neglected. Among the missing-in-action paperwork: bank statements, warranties for household appliances, manuals for all the electronic gear your family got at Christmas, financial information you need for taxes, credit card statements, bills and so on.

Most people tend to fall into one of two categories: pack rat or purger. Either they save too much or they toss out everything in a relentless mission to eradicate clutter. The end result is the same — the inability to find information when it’s needed.

It’s a good time to do some spring cleaning and learn how to sort things out. Below are some general tips from the experts on how to get and stay organized by following one of several filing systems.

What to keep

“The beginning of organization is exploration,” says John E. Sestina, a certified financial planner and president of John E. Sestina and Company in Columbus, Ohio. That means gauging the importance of information as it comes in and deciding whether to keep or toss.

Take time to read through documents to figure out what they mean. Then ask yourself, “What’s the worst thing that can happen if I throw it out? Can I get another copy? Is it something that I’ll need later on?”

“People are so afraid of losing something or needing a piece of information,” says Julie Morgenstern, a professional organizer based in New York City and author of “Organizing from the Inside Out.” “What I try and do is not convince them to throw everything out, but to determine what they truly need to hold onto and then devise a system so they can find what they need, when they need it.”

“Don’t pile, just file,” is the mantra of Chris Jones, an accountant and president of Progressive Solutions in New York City and White Plains, N.Y. It’s one you may wish to adopt. If you start opening mail, finish the job. File bills appropriately — perhaps in a “bills to be paid” folder. If you need a timely reminder, jot down on the calendar when payments are due to ensure you won’t incur any late fees.

Keep the most up-to-date copy of information. For example, when you get a new homeowner’s insurance policy, toss out the old one, or when you get a new stereo, discard the manual for the one you’ve just given to the Salvation Army.

Also, keep in mind your space limitations. People blessed with large homes can stand to keep more papers than someone living in a studio apartment in New York City.

Where to keep it

A common mistake that people make when storing important papers at home is to squirrel it away in various spots around the house. Instead, choose a central location so you’re not scavenger hunting every time you need to find something. Make sure your storage spot is convenient.

“I would say that 75 percent to 80 percent of the clients I work with choose the wrong place for their files,” says Morgenstern. “They tuck it away in some remote location like a spare bedroom or in a basement.”

Not many people enjoy sorting bills and filing paperwork in a windowless home office or in the basement, she says. Pick a spot where you might be willing to spend some time filing. Your home-information center should be near your computer, especially if you pay bills electronically or balance your checkbook using a financial program.

Morgenstern has seen some clients successfully adopt a filing system by using a spare cabinet in a kitchen or pantry. “Clear out the old wedding gifts and the fondue pot that you never use and use it for your files instead,” she says.

Consider going electronic

Have you thought about trading a paper storage system for one you can access on your computer’s hard drive or on a CD? Generally it’s easier to search for a document on a hard disk drive than by combing through file folders by hand, and it takes up less space.

Dana H. Korey, “chairman of order” at Away with Clutter, a professional organizing company based in Del Mar, Calif., is such a fan of computer storage that she not only recommends getting your bills and statements electronically, but using a computer scanner to scan in documents that only come in paper form.

Also, remember that much of what you get in paper form — mail-order catalogs, owner’s manuals, credit card statements — can be found online. So, while you’ll want to keep your passport or your birth certificate, you may want to toss all those mail-order catalogs.

Long-term or short-term storage?

Professional organizers classify storage into two categories: immediate-access and deep storage. Obviously, items you need constant access to belong in the former, while other information can be stored away and out of sight. For example, you need immediate access to monthly bills, but you don’t need to get your birth certificate every day.

For immediate access storage, most experts recommend folders in a filing cabinet or, if space limitations apply, a spare drawer. However, some people can get along with a binder system or an accordion file.

Morgenstern usually doesn’t recommend binders to her clients. “It’s too labor-intensive for most people since you have to punch holes as well as file,” she says. Choose a system that you’ll most likely use.

For long-term storage for important legal and business papers, such as wills, insurance policies, stock certificates and the like, consider paying for a safe-deposit box or buy a fire-proof box where these important records can be safely stored. If you choose the fire-proof box option, also consider keeping the papers in waterproof bags to protect against flooding.

Simple solutions work best

“The key to being organized is to set routines for yourself,” says Jones.

That means no matter what type of filing system you settle on, develop routines for when and how you will file items. Try to spend a few minutes each day filing, and schedule a time to pay bills and review financial statements. Jones, for instance, pays bills two times a month and sets aside Saturday mornings for filing and other paperwork chores.

Jones has another tip for making sure you stay organized: Reward yourself for doing your filing. Jones “wins” a trip to the gym for a workout if he does his filing on Saturday.

Also, try to coordinate your filing system with your organizer, whether it’s an electronic personal digital assistant, a paper-based Day Timer, or a conventional calendar. In other words, mark due dates for bills or the dates and times of social events on your calendar at the same time you are filing the invitations or credit card statements in your filing folders.

It’s also important to use a system that you understand and will want to use. For instance, it doesn’t matter if you file automobile-related papers (insurance policy, warranty information, maintenance records) under car, automobile or Toyota, says Korey. What matters is that you’re consistent and you choose the filing system that you are most comfortable with.

Also be flexible. It may make sense to keep an 8½-by-11-inch manila envelope next to your computer so that when you pay bills that are tax-deductible, you can simply move the receipt into the folder after paying the bill. Find the simplest way to keep order among your papers.

Most people will want a filing framework that can be sorted by month, topic or another method. Then determine if you really need subcategories. “I believe that you want your filing system to be as simple and user-friendly as possible, which usually means fewer categories versus having 200 folders each with one piece of paper inside,” Morgenstern says.

Sorting out filing systems

Month-by-month. If you don’t have a lot of different suppliers and vendors to pay and don’t own a lot of credit cards, setting things up month by month can be a great way to organize your paper files, says Morgenstern. You can even buy a self-contained accordion file if space is at a premium. If you find you have too many bills and statements to sort through each month, you can set up such subcategories as bank, utility, credit card.

Subject or category. Choose topics such as “insurance,” “bills to pay,” “auto,” “Johnny’s soccer,” to file your different papers and then file alphabetically. Feel free to further subdivide by category, for example, by having a general folder for credit cards and then separate folders for each credit card company that you do business with.

Color-coded. Korey is a big fan of using color-coded folders or folder labels so you can tell at a glance what’s in a folder. Financial folders can be green; social invitations, red, and insurance policies, blue.

Action, hold onto, reference. Karli Bertocchi, of Organized with Style near Chicago, recommends a filing system in which you put bills, wedding invitations, magazine renewals and other items that require a timely response in an “action” file. If you have a lot of action items, you may want to get a circular file so you can assign specific due dates. For example, put RSVPs under the third of the month if you need to reply before the 10th of the month. Legal documents, such as wills or insurance policies, go in a safe place. A separate folder could be for current items that you may need to refer to, such as warranties, receipts for bills paid, etc.

Staying organized

Once you adopt a filing system, stick with it. Don’t fall back into bad habits or delay filing so long that it will take a whole day’s effort to file everything. Instead, chip away at your filing. Set aside a little time each day or at least once a week to file.

And if your papers fall into disarray because of illness or more pressing work-related deadlines, don’t give up. Instead, schedule time to get things back in order once you have more free time. Tackle the problem a little bit at a time.

In other words, set achievable goals. Before you know it, you’ll be back to being organized.