How to Set Up a Filing System

Put Paper in Its Place, part 2 (of 5)

Does your paper pile look like this?

Now that you’ve disposed of all the dross (see last week’s post, “Do I Really Need to Keep It?”) it’s time to set up a filing system that will work for YOU. If you don’t have room for a filing cabinet, or don’t want a filing cabinet for whatever reason, I’ll be writing about setting up a binder system next week. The key here is to figure out what will work for you, not what works for someone else. If you have a method of storing papers that works, you’ll have a much easier time actually using it. And, that is the point, right?

First things first. You do NOT need to go out and buy an expensive, wood-grain, four-drawer filing cabinet. Spend some time thinking about how much paper you REALLY need to keep. If you’re just an average family, probably one drawer is sufficient, or even a filing bag/box, or a large filing envelope (or two). If you’re filing homeschool papers or if you have a small business or work from your home, you may need a two- or three-drawer cabinet. Resist the temptation to acquire more storage space than you need. Empty spaces (files) have a tendency to get filled, so the more space you have, the more stuff with which you’ll fill it. Here’s this week’s true confession: the small, two-drawer filing cabinet that I use was garbage-picked by my dad for me. I spent no money on it!

Before you start labeling every folder in sight, take everything out of your filing cabinet. Gulp. Pile it neatly and temporarily on the floor or desk. If you have hanging files, start with those. Begin with larger categories. For instance, label one file “Bills to be Paid.” Label another file “Utilities.” Label one “Health Care” and one “Important Documents” or “Personal Papers,” and so on. Take a look at the papers you have and make hanging files to fit them. If you don’t have hanging files, make a file folder for each of these categories.

Now put the hanging files (or file folders) into your cabinet or container in alphabetical order. It’s okay if you don’t have something for every letter of the alphabet or if you have several things that start with the same letter. Just put everything in order. If you started with hanging files, now go through and make separate file folders for each smaller subject within each larger category. For instance, within the “Utilities” file, put a folder for each utility bill that you plan to keep (for only a few months, of course). In the “Health Care” file, make a folder for each person in your family and/or a folder for things that can be deducted from your taxes. Not all of your categories will have sub-categories. If you have school-aged children, make sure you have a file labeled “School” and then a folder for each child within that file. If you homeschool, put the papers you’re required to keep by the state into the appropriate folder. If your children attend a public or private school, this is where you file the plethora of papers they bring home.

You do not have to own a labeler to make this system work. You don’t have to have pretty, matching file folders to make this system work. For a long time, I put plain, white, address-type stickers over pre-labeled, used folders with my hand-written titles.

At this stage of the game, you should have a filing cabinet (drawer, box, envelope, whatever) full of hanging files and folders that are all neatly labeled and are in alphabetical order. Now go through your neat stack of papers one by one. Put every piece of paper in the appropriate folder. You may come across a paper that doesn’t have a folder. That’s fine; just make a folder for it right then. You may come across a piece of paper that you don’t really need to keep. Toss it! WARNING: this process may take several days if you have a limited amount of time to work on it. Don’t give up! Keep working at it, and before you know it, you will have a beautifully organized filing cabinet.

The next trick is to keep your filing cabinet organized for the long haul. Yes, it can be done! I realize that it is not always feasible to file every single piece of paper the instant that you touch it (which would be preferable), so you need to set up a “To Be Filed” spot. This spot should be convenient and contained so that you’ll actually use it and so that the papers won’t accidentally be knocked to the floor or all over the desk. I suggest using either an upright hard plastic folder holder or a single letter tray. You can add another slot called “To Do” if you wish. Train yourself to file papers from your “To Be Filed” folder weekly. It should not take more than ten or fifteen minutes if you keep up with it. Condition yourself to check your “To Do” file daily and take care of business as needed. This way, you won’t run out of time to order from your kids’ fundraisers or forget to make cookies for youth group.

One last piece of advice: carefully evaluate every piece of paper that comes into your home as it arrives. If you don’t need to keep it, throw it away right away. If it needs attention, but not immediately, put it in one of three folders: “To Do,” “To Be Filed,” or “Bills to be Paid.”

That’s it! It may take a while to get your files set up in a way that works for you (and to go through all the papers you already have to make sure you really need to keep them), but it is time worth spending. Be persistent, and eventually you will achieve your desired result: an organized filing cabinet/box. Discipline yourself to keep it that way. You can do it!

** This article first appeared on the Lesson Pathways Blog this past Friday. **

4 thoughts on “How to Set Up a Filing System”

  1. I just stopped in a for a quick visit…you must be a blessing to many! You are a great resource for the \”organizationally challenged\”…I'll bookmark you to refer others who want to get organized! 🙂 Love the picture are the top of this post…they say a picture says a thousand words…well \”they\” were right! :)Blessings,Camille


  2. It's the dealing with the papers right away that I struggle with. And what to do with things my husband needs to look at/go through/do something with! He never looks at anything. I have papers on 3 desks, the kitchen counter, ON TOP OF the filing cabinet…. OK so you've given me a push in the right direction. I'm going to clean off the top of a desk now, and go through all of that STUFF that I know I put there because it needs to be filed. 😛


  3. This is so timely. My project this winter is to get the four filing systems I've started and abandoned in order. It's crazy how I'm organized with so much, but papers to keep are killing me softly. My husband handles the bill files…I'm just dealing with everything else. It causes great angst! Thank you and God bless you for helping!


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