Monday, October 24, 2011

Top Clutter - Paper Rules

As promised, the first in the Top Clutter series:  Paper Rules!

Now that the filing cabinet is in its proper home, DH and I teamed up to declutter more stacks of old paper.  The target?  DH's filing system ever since we moved to this house - one poor filing basket.

Easily 90% of the stack was clutter.  Bank statements, insurance information, and papers that were never important.  What a warm feeling, especially because I burned it all in the fireplace.  (Spring is not here every day yet.)

Broken from years of overloading

We can't yet live without it, so we need to learn to live with it.

Here is your new attitude:
  1. Keep Nothing
  2. File any exceptions
  3. Review exceptions often
Keep Nothing

You don't want to keep any pieces of paper.  Each piece you keep is a layer in a looming stack next month that will waste lots of time to sort or lots of space to ignore.

File any exceptions

Will I get in trouble?

A tiny minority of papers are so important to your government that they must be exceptions.  Birth certificates, passports, tax documents - these need to be kept in their original form.  If you don't have them, there is a chance you could end up in serious trouble.

A note reminding you what to pack for your child's school trip is not most valuable in its original form.  Stay out of minor trouble by putting the information you need into whatever daily reminder system you have - then get rid of the note (because there will be another note tomorrow and they will gang up on you). 

The more complex your financial situation, the more gray areas there will seem to be.  Again, ask yourself, "Will I get in trouble if I do not have this record?"  If you have the only copy and don't know how to get the information again, it might be an exception.

Will I lose money?

If the paper represents enough money to be important to you, it might be an exception. Receipts may be crucial when something goes wrong.

Some papers (like passports) can be replaced but only for a fee or with a waste of time.  This is another reason to make an exception.

Will I be unhappy?

Some papers mean something to you - they are sentimental.  This is a good thing - as long as you have the space and energy to store these mementos. 

As you look through mementos, most of them may give you a little buzz.  Ask instead whether you would be unhappy if you never saw it again?  Would you notice and miss it?  Could you keep just one of a group of mementos?
These rules may sound tough, but even using them strictly, you will still have more paper than you really want to handle.

If you don't have a system, you won't find what you kept when you need it.  You may need a plastic stack tray, an accordion file, or a 3 drawer filing cabinet.  We have a 2 drawer filing cabinet and I'm not sure we need that.  It might be that we need it but need to use it better.  Work always in progress.

In any case, design your storage for your papers, not somebody else's guess at what you need.  You may have totally different categories now and 5 years from now.  Be flexible.

Review exceptions often

Within 2 years, most important papers aren't. 
Tax documents are supposed to be kept at least 7 years and I would be wary of tossing them even then.  They could get you out of trouble years from now that you didn't even know could happen.  You can research IRD (or IRS) horror stories at your leisure online.
But as the years pass, some papers like receipts will no longer be needed.

Papers with a short shelf life need to be filed front and centre.  Book yourself an appointment at least once a year to sort and toss.

Stop your paper

Your job is much easier if you can stop paper arriving in the first place.

Online bills and statements

Electronic communication has partly replaced paper.  We are able to choose to read and pay lots of bills online.  Ironically, having switched power suppliers to EnergyOnline, we now receive paper statements again.  I just emailed them about this, and the great news is that we can get online statements.

But National Bank claim that because our bank account has an overdraft, our "statement cannot be suppressed".  I've requested and am still awaiting a logical explananation.

Someone is regularly ignoring my "NO ADS" message on our box - perhaps because it is in nail polish but probably because they can't read.  I probably need to get another official badge instead.

In our neck of the woods they are even sneakier.  I enjoy our free local paper - but of course it isn't free.  It comes with ads inside it - printed inside and bundled inside.

If you haven't stopped the ads arriving, you can certainly reduce their impact.  Plan not to let them land anywhere but the recycling place.  If your recycling place is not convenient enough, make it so. I used to let the kids play with ads and their pretty coloured pictures, but they know about buying now.
How do you handle your paper?  Are you happy with your system?
Next in the Top Clutter series:  Toys!  (kids and grownups )


  1. Anything to do with credit (mortgages, credit cards, overdrafts) must have a paper statement I believe. Savings accounts and the like can all be online. I'm not sure why, I just have asked, and that's been the answer.

  2. I wandered over here from 365 Less things and I am glad that I did. I had given my room/office an overhaul on Monday but kept my growing inbox of papers until another day. Well, that day turned out to be today, after I read your blog. It gave me that encouragment to tackle the task. Although I did not throw everything away, something I really tried to do I would say that I got rid of 75% of it. And you know what? There were things in there that I needed to deal with but did not realize were there! Thanks so much for helping me with some good clear guidelines and the incentive I needed.

  3. snosie, thanks for that information! I still wonder why, because from what I understand, online information is now considered just as legal.

    My best guess is that an online statement could fail to arrive more easily than a paper statement. Neither is foolproof but the post office is still pretty good.

  4. Hi Grace, I'm glad you wandered over here too!

    How inspiring to know you've accomplished so much in your inbox - it's alarming what can get lost in the clutter.

    I hope you find lots more here to enjoy.

  5. I'm having such a hard time getting the companies here with whom I do business to do online statements. It would be SO much easier if they would.

    Can you give a suggestion on how to do this? I've called to ask, but they act confused.

    In the US, we used to have all of our bills sent electronically, and paid them electronically, so it was easy-as and paper-free. What gives?

    It's really only 3 bills for our business and two for our home, but STILL i don't need 5 envelops of stuff around! GEEZ! :D

  6. Jenifer, I wish I knew.

    One option is to contact them electronically instead of by phone. Call centres employ people in other countries and they probably will be confused by a request like that if the company doesn't already provide the option.

    But an email might eventually make it to someone who can register your customer request.

    Thanks for your comment!