How to Organize Your Paperwork

How to find important records quickly and easily

Woman organizing papers
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The only time you seem to think about your important documents is when you need them. And, oftentimes, you can't find them when you need them because you either don't have an organized and centralized system for storing your important documents and/or the last time you needed them, you simply tossed it back into the sea of papers in your home office instead of putting it back where it belonged.

Getting Started

With all of your important papers spread throughout your house, you waste a lot of time and energy searching for them. You're also at risk of losing some of them completely. But with a few simple steps, you can organize your important paper documents in one hour this weekend!

You'll need a small two-drawer filing cabinet or a portable hanging file box, multi-colored hanging files (6 different colors), manila third-cut top-tab folders, and a fireproof safe (optional). Or you could purchase a large binder and tab inserts. Once you've got the goods here are the six steps you'll follow to organize your paperwork.

Gather Your Documents

Before you can organize all of your important documents, you must locate them. It is sometimes easier said than done. 

Check your home office in drawers and the papers stacked on your desk or table. Check the piles of paper cluttering your kitchen countertops as well as kitchen drawers and baskets. Look on your bedroom dresser and nightstand (you could have left them there in the morning rush and forgot about them). Last, but not least, check your purse or briefcase for important documents that you're accidentally still carrying around.


The most important documents fall into one of the following six categories. Sort all of your gathered documents as follows:

  1. Home and Property Records - mortgage, property deeds, home improvement projects and receipts, appliance manuals and warranties, property tax information, home insurance policies, and manuals
  2. Auto Records - titles, maintenance records, insurance policies and information, loan information and payment records
  3. Health Records - insurance policies, health insurance benefits manuals, explanation of medical benefits, doctor bills, prescription lists, flexible spending information, medical receipts, medical directives, life insurance policies
  1. Financial Records - bank statements, tax returns, tax deduction records, investment records, loan records, credit card statements
  2. Electronics Records - cell phone contracts and manuals; sales receipts and warranties for computers, laptops, and iPads; cable and Internet plans and bills; wireless router sales receipt and manual
  3. Personal Records - birth certificates, marriage certificate, divorce certificate, custody papers, social security information, immunization records, passports, military service records, baptismal and confirmation records, wills, funeral plan, and burial site information. If you have pets, you can also include their important documents such as veterinary and vaccine information in this category.

    Find Your Vital Documents

    Most of your important documents can be stored in a regular filing cabinet or portable hanging file box. There are some. However, that really should be stored in a fireproof safe or offsite storage option such as a safety deposit box.

    Vital documents are documents that would be very difficult or very time-consuming to replace. They may contain sensitive personal information that could be compromised in the event of a break-in or robbery. In the event, your home was destroyed by fire or flood you'd want these vital documents to remain intact.

    For most people, the following documents would be considered vital: social security information, birth certificates, insurance policies along with your agent's contact information, wills, property deeds, car titles, your passport and any contract or agreement that required your original signature.

    Make a master list of all of the vital documents you place in your fireproof safe or in an offsite storage option.

    Duplicate Your Wallet

    Most of us carry critical information in our wallets each day. Do you know everything that's in your wallet? What would you do if your wallet were lost or stolen?

    Make copies your driver's license, donor card, health insurance card(s), membership cards like the gym grocery store loyalty cards, warehouse clubs, and, most importantly, all credit and debit cards (copy front and back). Keep these copies with your other important paper documents:

    Step Five: Create a simple filing system

    The simpler the filing system, the more likely you are to use it on a consistent basis. Take each category of important document and assign it a hanging file color:

    • Home and Property Records
    • Auto Records
    • Health Records
    • Financial Records
    • Electronics Records
    • Personal Records

    Add the appropriate number of hanging files to your filing system for the number of documents you have in each category.

    Use the manila folders and create a folder for each individual document within each category. Place the folders in the appropriate colored hanging file section.

    If you purchased a large three-ring binder and tab inserts, label the tabs with the above record names, paper hole punch all documents and organize them. If the papers shouldn't be paper hole punched, paper hole punch a folder and put the documents in the folder.

    Now, if paperwork just isn't your thing this may be a freeing moment for you. You could scan all of these documents, save them to a hard drive, and then shred it all. But use your own discretion as some paperwork is better left saved. Use your best judgment.

    Ongoing Maintenance

    Now that your important papers are organized keep them organized. Each month when you pay your bills, file any new documents in the appropriate section of your filing system. At the same time, look for any documents you removed from the system during the month that might still be out of the filing system. Re-file them. At least twice a year, review the documents in your filing system to see if any can be purged. A good schedule to follow is at the first of the year and at the end of each school year.

    With a little effort, you can reap long-term benefits by organizing your important paper documents.

    Edited by Elizabeth McGrory.