Making peace with paperwork - Part 2 (Maintenance)

Once you have a proper filing system in place, maintenance is simple but requires discipline. Without a plan for handling future incoming items, your organization can rapidly fall back into chaos. Although Libra is available to you to assist with maintenance on a weekly or monthly basis, our goal is to help you become self-sufficient in this area.

Creating a mail center  

Organizers will tell you that it's critical to create a dedicated space for handling incoming mail. This "mail center" should be arranged in a place where you a) cannot ignore it and b) can readily access your files, checkbook, envelopes, stamps and stationery, etc. Common examples are on a section of your kitchen counter, a table in your foyer or at your desk.

Conventional practice is to create three trays: for TO DO items, TO FILE items and OUTGOING items. The idea is to sift through mail as it arrives and categorize it under these headings to be dealt with at a later time. For the very busiest of people and for those who prefer to strictly divorce "work" time from "play" time, this system sometimes works.

F, F, however, proposes throwing those trays in the "circular file." For most people, categorizing papers in this way and putting off the actual doing/filing/sending leads to an overwhelming pile-up that resembles the messy situation in which they began. For a long-term solution to handling paperwork, F, F recommends one of two systems:

1) Just Do It

I personally subscribe to the "Just Do It" system. I was taught that work comes before play so when I get home from my day, the first thing I do is put away my coat and shoes, empty out my handbag and, yes, handle the mail.

First, I trash, recycle or shred what I can. This mostly includes any catalogues I receive, as I find that I'm quite content with my belongings until I start eyeballing the shiny new baubles in those glossy pages! I write checks or arrange for online payments of any bills. I make appropriate phone calls in response to any correspondence that needs to be addressed. I am not a coupon clipper but I set aside any exceptional offers in my special coupon envelope.

Once I've finished the "TO DO" items, I file what's left. Why delay when I can file the few items that I need to save in less than a minute? As for outgoing items, I leave stamped, addressed, sealed mail on my foyer table to take with me to the mailbox when I leave next.

Processing the mail each day takes an average of 1-20 minutes. As soon as it's handled, I feel totally free to sit down and relax, knowing that my papers are in order and nothing's awaiting my attention.

2) The 4-Hour Workweek

Timothy Ferriss' book by this title popularized the practice of saving up all of the "busy work" and getting it done in one shot.It's a valid response to the 24-7 accessibility to which most of us comply via our email and mobile devices. It's not for everyone - I couldn't dream of settling down with a book before I'd folded the laundry! - but if you find yourself slavishly responding to communications at every minute of the day and night, your work/life balance may be seriously off and this might be a good remedy.

Applying this approach to your paperwork requires only a large bin and a calendar. As mail and other papers enter your household, dump them in your bin (I recommend something cute that fits in your home office physically and stylistically). Schedule an appointment with yourself once or twice a week to address the items in the bin - and keep the appointment. I recommend using an electronic calendar to set aside the time but you should use whichever date book you use for all of your other scheduling purposes, as you must honor this appointment as you would any other.

Managing lists and deadlines

Many of the papers that clutter our thoughts and our homes are easily replaced by a single, centralized document. For example...

  • Do you collect rewards cards and find them popping out of every conceivable household crevice? Sit down one day and open up a Word document. Make a list of all of these cards, record the account numbers and customer service contact information - and pitch that pile of plastic.
  • Are you a fan of social discount coupons (available for purchase on sites such as Groupon and Eversave)? Chances are, you have a collection of printouts from deals you've purchased, each with an expiration date. Don't miss out on cashing in on the investments you make with these purchases! Store all the printouts in a dedicated coupon envelope or create a special email folder for your purchase confirmations. Get out that trusty calendar and make a note on the date of each coupon's expiration. Electronic calendars are especially useful here, as you can set a reminder a week prior to the expiration date. You'll never learn too late that you've missed out on redeeming a coupon.

Don't let dates and deadlines weigh heavy on your shoulders. Once you've written down everything you need to do in a centralized place where you're sure to see it, you'll no longer stress about when and how it will be done. Get it onto your calendar and off of your mind!

As with any lifestyle change, implementing an effective maintenance system takes a tailored solution that suits your individual needs and personality. It also requires rigid adherence for at least a few weeks until you've successfully formed your new habits. If you find you need moral support as you begin your new practices, schedule a regular session with Libra. We'll guide you through the process until it becomes second nature to you.

Making peace with paperwork - Part 1

With tax time just around the corner, many of my clients are facing their files - and they're not happy. Organizing a bedroom closet, kitchen or garage might have a big visual payoff, but nothing is as stressful or as risky as having disorganized paperwork. If you don't have safe storage for critical documents and systems in place for tracking finances and paying bills, you are probably continually worried about your financial status - and rightly so. Although I tailor my organizational and decorative solutions to each client based on their individual needs and preferences, there are some basic tips for organizing personal papers that are universally helpful. I present some of them here...

Separate personal and professional files

If you have a home office where you conduct business or store professional materials, separate them from your personal items. Store them in a separate drawer or file box.*

Set aside sentimental items and memorabilia

Everyone has a stash of treasured letters, cards, photos and other personal items. First, eliminate anything that isn't truly valuable to you (e.g. greeting cards with only a signature, photos developed from exposed film, etc.). Then store your truly  meaningful items in a bin or box. (Check out the options available at The Container Store: Whether you keep the container in a closet or out in the open, it will conceal the clutter - and bring you pleasure each time you decide to open it up for a trip down memory lane.

Categorize and subcategorize files

Again, the first step is to destroy and discard any papers you may have kept unnecessarily. Most of my clients hold on to credit card and ATM receipts, bank statements, bills and invoices long beyond the point when they have paid or otherwise handled them. In this digital age, you can always get a copy of your statement online. Once you've recorded your purchase, balanced your checkbook or paid your bill, you can and should shred the paper copy. Only save a receipt if you think you might return the product or if it's a business expense for your tax folder.

Next, take a broad view of your life on paper and create folders for each category, dividing them into subcategories as appropriate. As a general example from which to begin...


Store your birth certificate, passport, social security card, marriage certificate, jewelry appraisals, etc. in a safe place. Some people choose to lock them in a safe, in a hidden location in the home. Don't store these items in satellite locations such as a bank safe deposit box - you might need them in a hurry some day.

Make copies of these documents and store them in a separate location - for example, in a dedicated file in your file drawer or box. This is a true life-saver in the event that you lose one or more of the original documents.


  • Old tax files - We are legally required to save tax documentation going back 7 years (check with your CPA to confirm this applies in your situation). If you have limited space for storage, destroy and safely discard any tax returns and supporting documentation from 2002 or earlier.
  • At the front of your tax section, keep an open folder for the current year. As you collect pertinent documents (e.g. business expense receipts, government-provided tax documents, receipts from charitable donations, etc.), place them directly into this folder. It's a good idea to keep sections within the folder (for business expenses, loan-related information, etc.) so that you have an organized folder at year-end rather than an overwhelming mess.


Keep separate folders for auto, home, life, disability, etc. You don't need to collect invoices here. You just need your policy information and any updates to it in case you need to make a claim. Keep old claim documents here, too.


Like insurance, you don't need to save statements or invoices from checking, savings or credit card accounts. Just hold on to your initial agreements and any documentation regarding claims, disputes or changes to your policies. Keep separate folders for each type of account and each bank. (e.g. Bank of America checking, Bank of America savings, American Express, Visa, etc.).


Ditto for your stock investments, IRAs and the policy or initial paperwork, and discard the statements once you've taken a look.


Other categories you might require include Children (school and medical records), Pets (adoption and medical/vaccination records), Car (lease, or title and purchase information) and Home (rental agreement, or deed and mortgage documentation, as well as home improvement records).

Mirror your hard file organization system in your electronic files

Chances are, you have a home or personal computer on which you store duplicative or additional personal records. Organize your electronic files using the same categories and subcategories as your paper files. This way, you'll never wonder where you stored anything.

Words of wisdom for a new year

Happy new year and welcome to my first blog entry of 2011! I recently came upon this article by life coach Martha Beck for the July 2010 edition of O, The Oprah Magazine that speaks to one of the most common ideas I share with my clients. "The Joy Dividend" takes a logical yet sympathetic approach to spending money. I often encourage my clients to apply similar principles when deciding which possessions to keep and which to let go of. I felt I should share it with you, especially now, as you undertake to honor resolutions to be more organized in the new year!

Martha Beck's Financial Planning for Happiness Strategy -

Just like your money, your time and space are limited resources. Disregard "sunk costs" (e.g. the hideous sweater your grandmother knitted for you or the designer jeans you purchased before you lost weight). You can't recoup value from those items so don't feel obligated to hang on to them. Discarding them makes room in your closet - and in your mind - for items of real meaning and purpose. Then again, if that sweater is one of just a few things that reminds you of grandma, find a place for it where you'll see it and smile. Storing it in a bin in your attic is as good as tossing it.

Each of us makes our own priorities. Think about yours: your children? your work? your art? your clothing? your books? Honor your own treasure by placing it in the center of your space - and your life - and put the trash where it belongs.

Best wishes for simplicity, fulfillment and peace in the coming year...