Taming the paper clutter beast

August 21, 2013

There’s one thing that’s an ongoing struggle for me in this house. Every year I go through a decluttering process and try to figure out a better way to make things work in our home. And I think it’s normal that it’s an on going process – maybe?

I’ve mentioned a few times that after nine years in our home, I feel like I’m finally finding a spot for everything…slow but sure. Even with that there will always be stuff to purge. ;)

But for years I’ve tried to figure out the solution to my biggest nemesis, and that’s the paper. I’ve blogged about it numerous times and every time I think that solution is the one that’s going to work for me. And little by little it does help – but it’s never a perfect fix.

organizing all the paper in the house

Here’s the thing – the older I get the more I know what processes I’m going to stick with. When it comes to the paper clutter, a perfectly organized routine is not one of them. And the older I get, the more I’m OK with that. ;)

If I’ve heard it once I’ve heard it a million times – the key to keeping the paper under control is touching it once. Getting it out of the mailbox or the back pack or the purse and dealing with it immediately. But it’s just not in my DNA. I mean, really. It’s just. not.

organizing the mail

Now that the Bub is in school it brings the paper insanity to a whole new level – and even though my process is never going to be a perfect one, it’s mine and I own it. For me that means I have piles and I have hiding spaces (for the paper, not me) and I procrastinate. But I have learned some things along the way that I know will help some of you who have the same struggle.

Step 1. Stop it from coming in.

This is KEY for me. Muy importante! The biggie, in my opinion, is to cut down on what even comes in your mailbox. A few minutes on the computer will help quite a bit. First off – you know all those monthly bills for things like the mortgage, the utilities, the bills? Most of them would rather not send you something in the mail, honestly. It saves them money and makes things easier for you if they can email it. So mark that little box on your bill that says “stop sending me paper statements.”

Of course this one comes with the added stress of remembering eleventy billion usernames and passwords, but I can only fight so many battles. ;)

Another big one for me is cutting down on the catalogs we get in the mail. I mentioned this one years ago, but it’s worth telling you about again. The site I use is Catalog Choice – you sign up and then can search hundreds of catalog titles to unsubscribe. You can also do this by calling the company directly, but this is a much more time efficient way to do it, especially if you have more than one.

Yesterday I updated ours again – this time unsubscribing from American Girl (uhhh…I have a six-year-old boy) and Restoration Hardware (have you SEEN their catalogs? A bit crazy – they are SO thick, like a phone book!) I feel like I may have saved a tree with that one. ;)

And along the same note – you can opt out of receiving unsolicited mail (like credit card offers) by going to this site. It will take you to another site where you’ll have to enter some personal info in order to do so. We did this years ago and it helped a ton but we need to do it again.

Step 2. Find a spot.

So this is where I struggle. I don’t have a perfect spot to put all the incoming paper every day. It ends up on the island and on my desk, and that used to drive me crazy. Well…the island part still does. ;) But I’ve come to terms with the fact that having a small (key word) pile on the side of my desk is just fine…for me. Once I hide things away I tend to forget to deal with them.

I have a box on the dresser in my office where I keep a pretty storage box, and honestly I think I may just get rid of it. I’m learning the more places I have to put the paper the less I deal with it:

organizing paper clutter

HELLO. That’s a big thing for me – I think I just had a break through. :) I used to have about five places to put the paper before I actually filed it away. I’m getting closer to that whole “touch things once” mantra and have it down to maybe two or three. ;)

Now if the pile is on the island I move it to the desk. If it’s in my car I move it to the desk. I just focus on keeping that pile under control. Once I’ve gone through it, it goes into one of two spots in my little hanging file folder I showed you here:

hanging file folder

Our big file cabinet is down in hubby’s office, so when the folder gets full I know it’s time to take a trip down. (Which is every few weeks.)

Step 3. Decide what to keep.

For years I kept a shredder by the mud room door from the garage and decided I would take care of junk mail before I even walked in the door. Well, when 90 percent of the mail coming in is stuff that needs to be shredded, that meant I was standing there for a few minutes, feeding everything in. (I shred anything with our name and address on it, even the back page of catalogs.)

Well, I got things to DO people. It wasn’t working. Then I would let the piles and papers add up and this would happen:

shredding bills at home

OK, well that time it was a little extreme, buy you get the idea. Ain’t nobody got time. For that.

So now I use a small recycling bin and fill it up and once every few months I spend $10 and take it to a local shredding place. It’s SO much easier, for me anyway. The ten bucks is so worth it – they take care of it and I know it’s secure and done and I only have to deal with it a few times a year.

And then of course there’s figuring out where the paper you’re going to keep will stay. Like I said we file most everything away in our file cabinet, and most household bills and statements we keep for a year. Anything tax related we keep pretty much forever.

Things like the Bub’s school stuff, magazine tear outs, blog stuff – it all goes into binders I keep in my office, just so they’re within reach and easy to access:

organizing incoming paper in bindersIt’s helpful to have it right there when I need it – especially stuff for the kiddo.

My process has changed over the years and I’ve given up on it being a perfect one. I will always have piles of paper – it’s IN MY SOUL. I told you, I’m a piler. I guess the biggest point here is that someone else’s method may be pretty and organized, but you gotta do what works best for you. (Small) piles…they work for me. As long as I can stuff them in a drawer when company comes over. ;)

Do you have a method that works for you? Does it involve piles? Have you just come to terms with that like me? (It’s OK to pile, I swear.)

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  1. I am a piler too. In fact I always seem to have a pile of papers on the corner of my kitchen counter and I hate it! I am going to follow some of your tips. I think my biggest problem is that I keep almost every single thing from my kids' schoolwork. I have bins in the basement for each grade but by the time they graduate my basement will be full! I really need to edit!

  2. Thank goodness for websites like Catalog Choice. Have you ever tried to call a catalog to cancel their mailings? UGH. I think it should be illegal for companies to use your credit card info to send you stuff, then sell your info.

    That said, I am SUCH a piler :) I can't throw away ANY Do It Yourself or Real Simple mags. My guest room is a messy mess.

  3. Really? REALLY?? You don't have a handle on it? Because it seems to me you have a perfect solution (as evidenced by the photograph above) right under your nose: let the kitty take care of it! :)

  4. I am in the process of figuring out where to put everything. Especially the paper. I am googling ideas and I think I will have my own solution soon. I am a piler too but want it to be pretty piles... LOL

  5. Sigh.. I try to do this a lot too Sarah, but somehow, the rush of life gets in the way and things go back the way it is... then I start over again!!!! Aaaahhhh! But I agree with you on everything, it's a process and everyone on the house has to be IN ON IT too!

  6. I'm a piler too, and I too have come to a place in my life where I'm ok with it. I have also learned that the pile that needs to be dealt with better be visible or it will never get taken care of - no more hiding places :). I am constanting trying new things too!! We have been in our house 12 years and I think I am close to getting it all working - so I think you are doing great if it's only taken you 9!!

  7. Since we built an office at the front of the house I "think" I've gotten the paper clutter under control. I only check my mail once a week. The mailman probably hates me, but it helps. I sort through everything right away. I've got a stackable labeled tray, a trash can, and my filing drawer within reach of the desk. I usually pay my bills right away on my phone (via bank app) so I don't have those looming over my head. I've also got a pinboard in my office for stuff I need to see. I just put one up in the mudroom area for the kids stuff above their backpacks, too. That's new, but everything else has been working out great. Organization is trial and error!

  8. Sarah, what kind of binders are those? Are they 3 hole punched? I like the outside, where did you snag those? Great post BTW! I love organizing and especially love anything that will help with the "piles" ;)

  9. I like things neat and tidy, too. It gets out of hand, sometimes,but since we have become "empty nesters," it certainly is easier. My husband owns his own business, so I collect my shredding and do it there. I have a folder for receipts. My biggest problem, is that I am a visual person - if I'm working on a project (or 3),I have to be able to see it. That gets a little messy, but when it's done the stuff is gone.

  10. I've actually never heard that "touch things once" mantra even though I'm a lover of all things organized and orderly. I'm so glad I read this, because if I actively start trying to "touch things once" instead of shuffling my piles, that might give me a organizing break through! :)

    Thanks for the post!

  11. Oh the never ending paper!!! I need to get my paper organized again and get a system down. Thanks for the tips!

  12. I have "homes" for all my paperwork, although that doesn't mean that the paper actually gets to the home by the fastest possible route! but my OH is "Mr Paper" still reads a large newspaper daily, 2 at weekends, tears out the pages he hasn't got time to read now, and is always writing website addresses down on little bits of paper that float around the dining table for A.a.a.a.ges! Got to love him though!

  13. We recently got rid of our file cabinet in favor of a Fuji ScanSnap and the Smart Filer software that comes with it. So now, I scan all our bills and important papers and then shred as necessary. The school papers are never ending, so I try to keep only what's important, I sort right away when the kids get home and i have two Nandy Memo Holders on my fridge, one for each kid that holds menus and reminders we need to keep awhile. I do have stackable file trays on the desk - 1 for each kid and 1 for family, but I'd really like to get rid of those too. So far, the paper clutter is getting better and i'm determined to keep it that way.

  14. Sarah, thank you so very much for the links for the "opt-out's". On any given day, we get 2-3 credit card/insurance/whatever requests and it's very annoying. I was wondering what list I was on to receive so many. Catalogs too. While I love to peruse the catalog from Pottery Barn, Pier 1, and Crate and Barrel, I NEVER buy anything from them unless I happen to be in the actual store.

    Again - thanks! My kitchen table graciously thanks you!

    Carol Hake
    Lakeside, California

  15. I agree this takes trial and error to figure out. As others have mentioned, my piles need to be visible or I will never get to it. I have a big basket on the end of our island to contain the pile of stuff I need to go through. Sometimes I am able to go through stuff daily and that basekt is empty. Often, stuff is sliding out of the basket onto the island and I am forced to go through it. Then I deal with it, throw it, or file it!

    My biggest tip is to have a nearby "temporary" location for stuff that comes constantly. For us, these are recycling, school papers, medical and tax receipts and coupons.

    1) Recycling - I keep a cute little wire bin under the desk for paper recyling. If it's close by, I am more likely to throw stuff in there. On trash day, it gets dumped in the big recycling.

    2)Coupons for restaurants, hair cuts, oil changes, etc. get put in a household binder in the desk drawer. Occasionally (usually when I am on the phone ordering take out), I clean out expired ones.

    3)Kids stuff - I keep temporary baskets for kids school papers close by - anything I think I want to keep goes into temporary baskets I keep in a hutch. I have a cute file box with folders that I keep on the desk. I keep a folder for each kid for stuff that comes home from school that they need in the near future -spelling lists, instructions for that big project or book report due next month, study guides for that test in 2 days.

    4)In here I also keep files for things that I know will be coming in regularly - medical receipts, tax receipts.

    At the end of the school year or after tax time, I clean the files out and move what I want to keep to more permanent files. Since everything is already organized in files and not in piles, this is easy. I used to have giant piles of kids stuff, tax stuff, medical stuff, bills. Ugh! This has been a big improvement! The "touch once" mantra never works for me. Generally it's 3 times - pile, temp location, permanent location!

  16. I have been using the same system for school papers for the last couple of years and it is working great for us. Each boy has clear file holder attached to the fridge that they put all of their papers in when they get home (no piles on the counter, yea!) and then I look through them in the evening. Anything that does not need returned to school (like completed work and art projects) all goes into a box in their closets. At the end of the school year we go through the box and keep some of the artwork and some of the journals and other work and put it in a large storage box, everything else gets recycled. I like that I can just sit down and deal with it all at once and be done.

  17. We stick all our papers that tend to clutter in a recycle bin as well, but then instead of shredding them, we burn them in our fire place in the winter time. Saves everyone time!

  18. Girl, you are singing my song. Paper, paper, paper. I seriously need 2 weeks to completely clean out my desk and sort though the file cabinet (don't be fooled by the term "File cabinet"....it's kinda two big drawers with SOME files and then some other paper and what not that I've stashed in there).

  19. OH my word. My husband used to put papers on every flat surface in the house, eversingleone,. I have just started doing the bills myself and now have a fabulous organised system...if I stick to it, it is fabulous...BUT I DON"T . ha ha ha

  20. OMW...I have just figured it out. We all need secretaries. Sweet little ladies that will magically keep it all paid, and hidden and done!

  21. Love the post and the helpful comments. I read about the "Freedom Filer" in the BHG magazine a few years ago and have loved it. It does take a few trips for the paper to make it into its correct file, though. :)

  22. Nice job Sarah!!! Get that organizing bug in you and it's hard to stop it, right? YAY!

    Becky B.
    Organizing Made Fun

  23. When we bought our house, I decided that instead of having a pile on the kitchen counter, we would just put it in the huge spare drawer. Yeah...that didn't work. I need to see it to deal with it, too. I went through that drawer last year and I threw away coupons from three years ago. Oops.

    I do a pretty good job of putting papers where they belong right away, but so many papers are in the "misc." category and I just don't know what to do with them, so they find a home on the counter or the desk and stay there for a while.

  24. I have a basket on my countertop where I dump anything that has to be dealt with. When I get home from work, I have two hungry kids. Then it’s playtime, then it’s bathtime, then it’s bedtime….there is NO time during the week to deal with it.

    On Fridays, my hubby puts the kids to bed. During that time, I deal with everything in the basket. It never takes very long, but somehow having one set time that I deal with it feels so much more manageable than trying to deal with everything I need to do right away before I forget.

  25. We are ALL pilers - so that makes 5 of us, piling crap all over the kitchen counter and table. Thankfully I found a great little 3-slot organizer at Target back in the spring. After a smidge of personalization (with stickers I found in a pile that moved from our last house!), it works really well to corral the boys' school papers. They are responsible for emptying their backpacks as soon as they get home. Anything paper goes into the organizer (which hangs on the wall with said backpacks), lunch bags get put away, and I don't have to rip my hair out over yet another pile of crap on my counter.

    Of course, I have yet to discover a good way to handle the mail...

  26. Evernote, Evernote, Evernote!

    If I receive any piece of paper with any quantity of importance, I scan it or just snap a photo with my phone and store it in Evernote. Any of the text becomes searchable, and all of the paper goes byebye!

    Evernote keeps it all synchronized between my home computer, work computer, smartphone, and whatever tablet device I'm trying out at work at the time.

    Yes, I am an Evernote evangelist, but that's ok because it's free!

  27. I tear open the mail, throw away all envelopes and misc crap that we don't need right away, then put the actual bill on the desk until it's paid. After everything has been paid, I toss the bills/receipts into a box in the closet that's marked "2013 Tax Box". In that box I keep receipts for any major purchases and anything else pertaining to that particular year (completed tax return, bank statements, birthday cards, etc.). Since the IRS only requires you to keep your tax return and any receipts for 7 years, I usually go through my "Tax Boxes" periodically and shred the receipts, tax return, bank statements and anything else I don't need, then save the personal items and group them together with other years in one box.

  28. I gave up on shredding at home as well. 1) Just about everything that comes in the mail has to be shredded, 2) It's time consuming, 3) It's messy, 4) Home shredders are expensive and they just don't last. Several organizations in my city offer FREE shredding services throughout the year, most often around April 15. I just fill a box, seal it, and wait for the next free shred day in the area.

  29. Paper clutter is an ongoing struggle in my house, too! For junk mail and catalogs, I tear off our mailing address, and just chuck the junk mail into the recylcing bin that we have outside (without ever bringing the junk mail inside). For all my kids' school papers, I keep a box for each of my children, and just throw the papers in there as they give them to me. At the end of the year, I go through the boxes and whittle it down to a smaller pile. It's easier to throw out some of the school papers after some time has passed!

  30. My name is Samantha and I am a piler. But I think I just had a break through....I love the idea of having one pile in one place. Then I can deal from one spot instead of eleventy billion...which I loved so I'm borrowing that phrase, cause I so relate! One pile, one spot, in a drawer, until sort day. Love. Thank you for putting that in writing so my brain could see what it was thinking. :)

  31. When you think of the PERFECT solution to paper piles....please let me know!! :) We struggle with this at our house on a daily basis! I love the idea of only touching them once though. I try to read my mail by the trash can, then rip up all the junk mail, since that's what most of it is anyway! That seems to help. But then there's that guy I live with.... ;)

  32. Oh girl! Will this problem ever really be solved?! It seems like my kitchen counters are always cluttered with paper- and I am a person who loves organizing! I love your first tip about stop it coming in the first place. Give me some of your peace:)

  33. I have piles too ha..I have a hard time with paper clutter..Luckily, the apt. complex I live in, has a recycling bin right by the mailbox...So anything w/o my address/name such as sales flyers, etc., go right in there BEFORE they have the chance to make it inside to my "piles" lol

    I wanted to say how much I LOVE your blog & writing style!! You're a funny and great writer!! I also love your DIY stuff..I really am checking almost daily now(which is rare for me to remember to do lol) I get excited when the newsletter comes.

    You cracked me up with "eleventy billion" haha..You think so much like myself!! Keep up the great work! Love coming here..Brings a smile to my face!!

    1. P.S. I have linked your site to many friends/family already:) I don't always get time to comment, but I really enjoy the posts!!

  34. I think that you actually were writing this post about me - right down to the shredding! I have begun "piles" in my computer that I might actually move to cloud storage. I try and enter all school paperwork with due dates in my online calendar that reminds me when they are due. I keep files of recipes there. If there is something in a magazine I am interested in I now pin it. I go through my magazines and tear out anything that I am interested in reading. I put the articles in a file and I try and read them when I am waiting - picking up my kids, in a doctor's office, etc. It has helped some. My husband always complains, but ya know what? I can always find what I need right in my pile!

  35. I have the same problem and have tried many of the same things you have. I still can't seem to tame those paper piles! Life gets in the way and distracts me so I can't be responsible and routinely take care of the clutter. :\ I know I'm not alone...

  36. I did a post on this quite a while ago. I never posted on the system I came up with, but it has been working now for 3 years. I have a small hanging file folder box in the kitchen. I have folders for each of my kids school work, receipts, coupons, things to file, things to pay, things to read, important things that I will need to find easily, take-out menus from local restaurants, checks to deposit. You can make whatever folders you need. It has been a Godsend!!

  37. I don't think I've ever commented on a blog before, even though I've followed so many for the last few years. But I have to come out of hiding to say: Paper Karma! I have it as an iPhone app. It's absolutely free. It seems to be secure - I've had no issues with them sending any unwanted mail or e-mail. I snap a picture of my name, address, and identifying information (including those bar codes) and the app unsubscribes me - or anyone else in my household! We're talking magazines, catalogs, CREDIT CARD OFFERS, insurance solicitations, TrueGreen, etc. solicitations. It has been a godsend, especially while I'm preparing to move and don't want a chance that credit card offers in my name will come to the next tenant! Check it out, I'm a convert (not paid or associated in any way, I just love it this much).

  38. I have the same battle at the house. I feel like I am swallowed up by it when it's sitting at my desk while I am working. I am just an organized person too but for some reason I can't get that part of me together. I also take my paper to a shredding company. Ours is $6.00 a box, I probably go every other month and it's a life saver. Best $6.00 ever spent!

  39. Very thoughtful. I love this whole blog and the inexpensive, fun and cute solutions. I think you might like my last post, a do-it-yourself photo board: www.vievault.blogspot.com

  40. Thanks for this post! I feel like I have just been so organized lately, both at home at and the office, so this was a huge help.


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