The Perils of Outdated Papers

When clients contact me for help with managing papers, I always ask them, “Do you have a file cabinet?” The answer almost always is, “Yes, but it’s full.”

Usually their file cabinet is full with outdated papers that haven’t been reviewed in a long time. One of the first things I’ll do when I work with these clients is go through the old files and get rid of anything that is no longer relevant. Going through old papers is time-consuming, but it’s worth doing for several reasons.

The obvious reason is that if you don’t ever remove old, outdated papers from your file cabinet, there will be no room for new, current papers. But another important reason is that the outdated papers can cause a lot of confusion.

When I first became a Professional Organizer, I arranged with my elderly parents to spend a day with them organizing their papers so that I would be aware of anything I needed to know if they should become incapacitated. My mother had only a few papers in her desk relating to her financial accounts and her retirement from her government job. Those were well organized and clearly labeled.

My father, who did all the bill paying and management of their joint accounts, was another story. His desk was piled with interlocking desk trays stacked several levels high. We started going through each layer. The further down we got, the older the papers were. It was like an archaeological dig. I would pick up a bank statement and ask, “What about this account?” His reply would often be, “Oh, I closed that account years ago.”

My organized file cabinet

It was so helpful to be reviewing these papers with him while he was still alive and mentally sharp. Imagine if I were trying to piece together his financial picture after he passed away. I wouldn’t know what papers were relevant and which could just be shredded.

I was reminded of this a couple of weeks ago when working with a long-time client. He has several files that pre-date his work with me. He decided to review some of them and found financial account statements from a long time ago. He no longer remembered if these accounts still were active. This required him to make phone calls to each of the financial companies. Not surprisingly, none of the accounts were active, and there was no money there. The statements could be shredded.

I manage the finances and other details for my family. I try to be meticulous in documenting what my family would need to know if I should become incapacitated. Having a process for reviewing, replacing, and recycling or shredding old papers is key to making sure that there are no questions if I’m not here to explain.

If your papers represent an archaeological site rather than a well-organized and up-to-date collection of carefully curated papers, then I suggest you take advantage of all the stay-at-home time we are experiencing now and start reviewing! Should you need some help, contact me or visit the National Association of Productivity and Organizing Professionals to find a Professional Organizer near you.

Let’s Start at the Very Beginning

Remember back to last spring when you were preparing your taxes. Pretty annoying, right? Didn’t you hate digging through all your papers to find relevant information, some of which was already more than a year old? I bet you made a vow back then that you were going to be more proactive in the future.

January is a great time to get things set up for a smooth tax process. As I described in Reducing the Pain of Tax Time, setting up some Excel spreadsheets now will make your life so much easier when you starting working on your 2016 taxes. Each time you execute a transaction that is going to be included somewhere on your tax return, enter it in the spreadsheet. It’s a no-brainer to keep track of that information throughout the year, rather than having to dig it up after the year has ended.

Here are some items that you can be tracking:

  • Charitable donations
  • Medical and dental expenses
  • Home office expenses (electric, cable, phone)
  • Non-reimbursed business expenses
  • Education expenses
  • Cash income

The great thing about Excel is that it easily computes totals. So when tax time comes next year, you’ll have your totals all ready!

You’ll still need to hold on to any proof of expense (receipts or bills) so create a Taxes folder — or multiple folders — to put those in. Get into the habit of entering the data into the appropriate spreadsheet prior to filing away the paper. For expenses that come to your attention electronically, develop the habit of opening the spreadsheet and recording the data as soon as you get the proof of expense, whether it comes to you via e-mail or on-line.

I guarantee that this method will simplify your life at tax time!  So what are you waiting for? Go set up some spreadsheets!

Focus on Action

Like you, I struggle with paper.  I no sooner get my desk cleared off than it gets covered up again with the next day’s mail.   I’ve written about my struggle and my strategies for mastering paper in some of my previous organizing tips, most notably Divide and Conquer the Pile and What Color is Your Desk?

Attacking a pile of paper is very intimidating.  It can be time-consuming to figure out what needs to be done with each piece of paper.  If you’re like me, you’ve already done the easy stuff, so the papers left in the pile are the hard ones.  One of the key strategies I teach my clients is to put a sticky note on each piece of paper stating the next action required, and the due date if there is one.   Next time you come back to the pile, it’s much less intimidating if your action items are clearly spelled out.  You might actually do them!

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In Praise of Automatic Bill Pay

Have you ever felt stressed because you knew you had bills due but weren’t sure where the bills were or if you had missed the deadline?  Have you ever been charged a late fee?  Have you ever spent hours on the phone trying to straighten out a bill payment that was never received?

If these sound like common occurrences in your life, I have three words for you: automatic bill pay.

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