The whole point of saving paperwork (as actual paper or digitally) is to be able to refer to it later!. You need to be able to find it, or it’s just clutter! Here are some ways to make retrieving paperwork easy, navigable, and actually useful.
Having nomenclature or “naming rules” for your paperwork helps you find things again when you need them. Use categories to simplify your files–but not too much! A file folder labeled “Home Expenses” packed with dozens and dozens of pieces of paperwork in it isn’t very useful.
For paper systems: Create a hierarchy of categories and subcategories using hanging folders and interior folders. You could still use a “Home Expenses” folder! It just needs to be divided into subfolders like “Repairs,” “Mortgage Documents,” and “Yard Maintenance.”
A good rule of thumb for folders is limiting the amount of paperwork to 5-20 individual documents in each folder. Any folder with fewer than 5 documents doesn’t need to be its own category. Any folder with more than 20 documents should be divided into subcategories. The 5-20 rule makes for easy retrieval, since you don’t have to sift through piles of paperwork to find what you need.
For digital systems: The folder/subfolder system works just like paperwork, but you can use fewer levels of folders with digital filing because they are searchable through keywords. With that in mind, naming your files in a consistent, searchable way becomes very important!
For example, when working with receipts, I use the date, item, and amount in the file name. Those are generally the things I want to look up. That way I don’t even need to open the file to see its contents! If I bought some cleaning supplies on Amazon on the 4th of January, the receipt file name would be “20220104 Amazon Cleaning Supplies 23-56.pdf”. Using the yyyymmdd format for the date keeps files in chronological order, and putting a dash between the dollars and cents ensures the file name will work with any computer system. Keep in mind that it’s important to use the date the file refers to in the actual file name. Don’t of rely on the “Date Added” or “Date Modified” fields to keep things straight.
Using descriptive and consistent file names means you can search your computer faster for what you need.
You waste no time retrieving paperwork if it doesn’t exist in the first place! Opt for paperless billing whenever you can. Creating online accounts to manage your bills and utilities, as well as banking, can give you access to your important documents on the go. You can also share online account access with family members or trusted advisors, which avoids having to send them clutter, too!
But don’t lose track of your documents just because they’re available online. Important letters, bills, and contracts should be saved to your computer (using those filing rules from earlier). Your bank, gym, or utility provider may purge what they store online more often than you’d like.
There are many documents that make sense to keep as physical paperwork, like marriage certificates, birth certificates, and signed lease agreements. But it’s a great idea to scan these items into your computer as a backup in case of theft, fire, or other natural disaster. I recommend at least one local backup like an external hard drive and one cloud backup such as IDrive, Backblaze or CrashPlan. That way you have the safety net of having each item in triplicate, without having any extra physical paperwork.