This post may contain affiliate links. Learn more
Even with the push to go paperless, I’d bet there is still too much paper flowing into your home. From bills and monthly statements to kid’s school papers and permission slips, the paper piles build up. Then you start to feel overwhelmed by paper clutter. What if I told you that you can eliminate the paper clutter once and for all?
There is a lot of information within this master plan to declutter paper. If you don’t have time to read it all now, then please save it to Pinterest for future reading.
If you’d rather have it broken down into easy to digest, actionable steps, sign up for my newsletter and receive the free printable guide to walk you through how to eliminate paper clutter once and for all.
Stop Paper Clutter in Its Tracks
Paperless Statements and Auto Pay
The single best thing you can do to stop paper clutter is to go paperless in as many areas as possible. It can take a little bit of time to sign up with each company but it will save you so much time going forward.
Most banks, credit cards, utilities, retirement, and investment accounts offer the option to go paperless. When you sign up for e-statements, the companies email you when a new statement is available. They also store past statements electronically.
A common worry is about how long the statements are kept. Each company only makes the statements available for a select amount of time. But ask yourself how often you really need to access old bills and statements.
Auto-bill pay is another great option to cut down on paper and time and goes hand in hand with paperless statements. Usually, when you set up auto-pay, you also activate paperless statements. With auto-pay you won’t have as many bills to schedule to pay and fewer paper bills coming into your home to be filed. You’ll still have to make sure you have enough money in your account to cover the bills but you’ll need less space for your paper filing system.
As a personal preference, I don’t sign up for paperless statements for bills I don’t incur at a regular interval. For example, for a store credit card that I only use sporadically, I still get a paper copy mailed. Since it’s not typically part of my routine or budget, I’m too afraid I’ll miss it and get behind on payments.
Many companies have opted to digitally deliver their special offers and promotions but there is still a ton of junk mail cluttering your mailbox. According to New York University, the average American household gets 848 pieces of junk mail each year, which is equivalent to 1.5 trees! Whether you care about the environment or not (I do!), that’s a lot of unnecessary paper clutter coming into your home!
There are several ways to opt out of unwanted mail. It will take a little bit of time but it will noticeably reduce the amount of junk mail you receive.
The Direct Marketing Association has a service to opt-out of catalogs, magazine offers, retail promotions, credit card offers, etc. It only takes a couple of minutes to sign up for the service. There is a $2 fee. In my opinion, it is so worth your time and money to stop a large portion of your junk mail.
You are able to select the categories you want to opt-out of. So, if you still want to receive catalogs but not credit card and magazine offers, you can opt-out of the two categories you no longer want.
It is important to note that this service is for new solicitation only. So if you have previously done business with a company they still will be allowed to send you catalogs and offers, unless you contact the individual company.
Prescreened Offers for Credit and Insurance
I used to be inundated with preapproved offers for credit cards and insurance. Luckily, the big credit reporting agencies offer a service to opt-out of these types of unsolicited offers.
The service is free but you will have to provide your social security number (to verify your identity). There is an option to opt-out for five years or permanently.
I know it’s scary to provide your social security number but you are providing it to the credit reporting agencies who already have it. This service is recommended by the Federal Trade Commission.
Who still uses the paper yellow pages? I don’t know that I ever really used the yellow pages. Even my mom, who clung to the yellow pages for far too long (in my opinion), stopped using them.
All the information from yellow pages is available online. It’s so much more convenient to look up businesses online and get reviews, click to call, directions, store hours, etc.
So if you’re tired of yellow pages contributing to the paper clutter in your house, then use the yellow pages opt-out service.
Deceased Do Not Contact
It can be hard enough to lose a loved one. But then you continue to receive mail in their names months and years later. DMA Choice offers a sign up for a deceased do not contact list.
Mail for Past Residents
I’ve lived in my home for over two years and we still get mail weekly for the previous homeowners, mostly junk mail. The post office only forwards mail for 12 months, or less for certain types of mail, if the previous homeowners completed a change of address form.
This is a really hard category to eliminate. Your best option is to write, “Refused – no longer at address” on the previous resident’s envelope and then drop it in an outgoing mailbox.
How to Declutter Paperwork
Decluttering is always the first step and it really can’t be skipped. If you don’t declutter your mail, paper piles and file cabinets, then you will never really feel organized. The feeling of overwhelm won’t go away.
Yes, decluttering paper piles takes time but it pays off big time. You won’t need as much space for a paper filing system and you won’t spend so much time moving piles of paper around or searching for the one paper you need in a huge stack of papers. And it will also save you money…you won’t need as many organizing supplies and you won’t incur late payments because you missed paying a bill.
Important: At this point, I only want you to work on purging all of the paper in your house. Do not worry about organizing it until all the paper clutter is eliminated. If you try to establish paper organization systems before the decluttering is complete, then you will likely need to go back and reorganize it.
How to get rid of paper clutter fast
You want to get rid of paper clutter fast. I get it. You’re overwhelmed by paper clutter, you have years of paperwork to sort through and feel like you are drowning in paperwork at home.
The way to get rid of the paper clutter quickly is to be in the right mindset to let go of stuff. If you think you’ll never get through it, then you probably won’t. Go into this project knowing that you can eliminate your paper clutter. Follow each step and you will get rid of your paper clutter fast!
Make Time to Declutter
Set aside an amount of time that’s reasonable for you. If you’re really feeling overwhelmed by this project, start with a small amount of time, like 15-20 minutes. There’s even a time management technique that says start with five minutes. It gets you over the initial hurdle of starting. And once you start, you may find the task isn’t as bad as you anticipated and then you’re more willing to continue.
Where to Start
As I recommend with all decluttering project, start with the area that’s going to give you the biggest impact. Is it a pile of paper on your kitchen counter? Or maybe it’s the stack of paperwork on your desk? What area will make the biggest difference in terms of the relief you feel by letting go of paper clutter or the visual difference within your home?
When it comes to decluttering, you really don’t need very many supplies. Paper clutter really only requires:
- 3 sorting boxes or bags, nothing fancy, as they will only be used temporarily for Recycle/Trash, Shred, and Keep
- Pen and paper to make labels for your piles while you are decluttering
- Optional but strongly recommended: Paper shredder. I’ve had my little shredder for years and I’ve definitely got my use from it. More to come on this a little bit later.
What Papers to Keep and What to Toss
So how do you know what to keep and what to toss? There are some papers that you will need to keep for varying amounts of time for legal and financial reasons. I will go into the types of papers and approximate length of time you should keep them in a little bit. You can also download a printable guide to help you.
There are also a lot of papers that you can shred and/or toss (recycle). Use the questions below to help you decide if you should keep or toss each paper. I’ve also included guidance on a few categories that tend to be an issue for people.
Questions to ask yourself to decide
- Eliminate “just in case” and “I might need”
- Can I find it elsewhere, like online?
- Do I need to keep it for legal or financial purposes?
- Will it be really difficult to get this information if I don’t keep it?
- Will a scanned copy serve the purpose? Just be careful that it doesn’t become digital clutter.
Recycle any noncurrent magazines and newspapers. Maybe you’re saving them for an idea or recipe. But how long have you been holding onto them without actually taking action on the ideas?
You can most likely find the same info online and save it digitally on Pinterest. If you really, really want the hard copy then tear out the page (or photocopy it) and create files by categories. Be realistic about your need for the pages so it’s not a waste of your time to go through each magazine or newspaper.
A better alternative may be to recycle all the magazines you currently have. Then, tear out or photocopy pages from any new magazines going forward. Promptly recycle the rest of the magazine.
I strongly encourage you to toss (recycle) most of the instruction manuals you have. Manuals take a lot of space and a lot of them you will never reference. Most manuals can be found online or you can find instructional videos on YouTube.
Kid’s Artwork and School Papers
This might be some tough love, but you need to toss most of your kid’s crafts, artwork, and school papers. Yes, it is precious. Yes, you want some keepsakes. But you don’t need to save all of it or even most of it.
I save papers and crafts that show off their abilities or are exceptional or are personal in some way. If your child produces a lot of work worthy of keeping, then you need to narrow it down to what is truly exceptional for your child.
How Long to Keep Documents
I’m not a legal or financial expert so I turned to the Federal Trade Commission for some guidance. State Farm also has a simple guide. It’s really hard to find a definitive guide as there are so many unique circumstances. As always, consult a financial or legal professional for additional information. A printable guide to how long you should keep documents is included in the Ultimate Guide to Eliminate Paper Clutter Forever. Sign up for the newsletter and get the guide as my free gift to you.
One to Three Months
Bank deposit and withdrawal slips
Store receipts (exceptions for warranty, proof of purchase and tax-related)
Paid Bills (not including medical)- typically one year
Paycheck stubs – until you reconcile it with your W-2
Credit Card and Bank Statements – one year unless there are tax-related items included
Medical Bills – this is going to vary depending on the impact on your tax returns. I’d recommend at least three years but you want to consider saving them for seven years.
Home Improvement Receipts – keep until you sell your home but I’ve also heard to keep it at least 3 years after the sale depending on the impact on your tax returns.
Length of Ownership
Investments – keep purchase receipts until you sell or if the purchase info is on the year-end statements, you can keep those instead.
Insurance policies – Keep until you get a new policy. Although I did see one recommendation to keep the current policy and the one previous policy.
Retirement accounts – Annual statements for at least seven years after you retire or close the account.
Titles and Deeds
Receipts- Only for warranties and proof of purchase
Social Security Card
Military Service Records
Estate Documents, such as wills, power of attorney, insurance policies, other end-of-life documents
Loans – Paid-in-full statements for each loan
Tax Returns and support documents – keep from 7 years – indefinitely. I see mixed answers on this but most say play it safe by keeping them indefinitely.
Tax-related receipts should be kept with your tax return.
Documents to Shred
There have been so many data hacks of major companies and stores (and more happening every year) that it’s likely your personal information has been compromised in some way previously. But why make it easier for thieves to get your information?
Protect your privacy and identity by shredding documents. But which ones should be shredded? A good rule is to shred any papers with personally identifiable information such as:
- Account numbers
- Social security number
- Date of birth
- Driver’s license number
- Full name and address
- Phone numbers
- User names or passwords
- Medical records
- School records
- Tax information
- Voided checks, canceled checks
- Junk mail with any personally identifiable information, including barcodes that may include personal information, including the return envelopes provided.
How to Get Rid of Paper Clutter
Once you’ve sorted all the paper clutter in your house, it’s time to get a lot of it out of your house.
Any paper in the trash/recycle pile, should go out with your regular trash or recycle bins. Most of the paper is likely recyclable. I always strongly encourage recycling, even if it takes a little more effort on your part.
The paper clutter in the shred pile should obviously be shredded. This is where the shredder I recommend comes in really handy. I prefer to have my own shredder so I can quickly get rid of the paper that needs shredding. You can also ask to borrow a friend or family member’s shredder.
If you really just do not want to handle your paper shredding you can check to see if your city has community shred days throughout the year. Some cities offer select days where residents can drop off any papers that need to be shredded. Typically these events are free or very low cost. The downside is you would need to hang on to your paper clutter until the community shred date rolls around.
There are also companies that offer shredding services for a fee. I have never personally used one of these services. It may be worth a try if you don’t want to shred the papers yourself and community shred days aren’t an option.
Paper Clutter Organization
Well, at this point, it’s not really clutter anymore. You should have purged unnecessary papers and have whittled it down to the essential papers you need to keep.
You’re now ready to organize each category of paper.
File cabinet or bins – everyday paper system and permanent papers (more details below)
Fireproof box for hard to replace documents
Organize Everyday Papers
The papers in your file cabinet clutter up your file cabinet but it’s your everyday papers that clutter up your house. Don’t get me wrong, you need to declutter and organize your file cabinets, too. But you’re likely to see the biggest difference in getting your everyday papers under control.
Mail, kid’s school papers, coupons, and receipts are the usual suspects. It clutters your entryway, kitchen counters or desk. You can get the piles of papers decluttered and organized. It will require developing systems to deal with all the categories of paper. Systems sound complicated but they actually help uncomplicate your life. So on that note, let’s get started on systems for the everyday papers in your home.
Family Wall Command Center/Mobile Command Center
A family wall command center or a mobile command center is an ideal way to organize bills, mail, coupons, receipts and other papers that typically come into your home. Command centers don’t need to be fancy (although they can be if you want them to), they need to be functional.
Everyday papers were a big struggle for me for a long time. I had a system but it didn’t cover all the different categories of paper coming in the house on a regular basis so a pile would start to form on my kitchen counter. Since I created our family command center, I no longer have a stack of paper in the kitchen.
My command center is in the entry off of the garage, which is typically the way we always come and go and it’s also visible from my kitchen. I needed mine to be conveniently located and in my line of vision on a regular basis.
I recommend placing your command center in either an entryway or the kitchen. It needs to be somewhere that you see all the time. You don’t want to stash it away where you’ll forget about it.
Command centers aren’t only on walls. If you don’t have wall space, then behind a kitchen cabinet door or pantry/hall closet door can also work.
A basket with file folders is another hugely popular method. Yes, the basket will take up space on a countertop or desk but at least it will be organized and can be pretty based on the style of basket and folders you choose. Another bonus is that it’s mobile so you can keep it in one area and then move it to another when you’re ready to work on the papers within it.
Wall command centers usually have other components that go along with it, like a whiteboard/chalkboard, calendar, chore chart, etc. But the beauty of the command center is that you make it your own. You decide what to include based on your needs (and that of your family). Check out my family command center and four others for ideas and inspiration.
Mail Sorter, Bill Organizer, Receipts and Coupon Storage
Whether you are using a wall or mobile command center, the file organization will be the same. Your file categories may be slightly different than mine though. Within my command center, I have folders for:
- Bills to pay
- Coupons, one for grocery stores and one for non-grocery stores/restaurants
- Action items, like a recall on my car, a notice to make the yearly vet appoint
- Receipts, for select ones to be saved temporarily in case of a return
- Weekly menus with the recipes needed for the week
- Folders for each one of my kids to temporarily store papers like their math log-in or information about an upcoming field trip.
You may also need folders for specific receipts, like for an expense report or for taxes. Or maybe you want an action folder specifically for kid-related papers for things like permission slips.
Kid’s Artwork and School Papers
So I already covered some of the papers your kids bring home, like permission slips and math log-in information. That is information that either you need to take action or save temporarily. But what about all their artwork and other completed assignments and assessments they bring home?
I allow myself one storage box per kid that will store papers from every year until they graduate. The boxes are pretty full by the time they are in late middle school but they bring home less artwork and fewer papers overall as they get older.
You can read more about my system, including how I decide what to save, in my post, Super Simple Kid’s Artwork Storage Solution.
Organizing Important Papers
So now that you’ve dealt with the everyday papers, it’s time to move on to the papers that need to be stored for a longer period of time. Most of this type of paperwork you need to keep for legal or financial reasons. With the exception of paid bills, it’s papers you won’t have to constantly organize. Once you organize it, you should be set for a long period of time as long as you keep up with the maintenance.
Hard to Replace Documents
The type of hard to replace documents includes:
- Social Security Card
- Title and deeds to current cars and house
- Marriage/Divorce Certificates
- Birth Certificates
- Death Certificates
- Military Service Records
- Estate Documents, such as wills, power of attorney, insurance policies, other end-of-life documents
- Immigration papers
It’s also a good idea to keep some other information in the safe in case of an emergency. This may include:
- A list of all your accounts, such as banks, credit cards, and investment accounts
- Pet ID information
- Household inventory
- Copy of your driver’s license
Other Important Papers
At this point, I hope you’ve switched to paperless for as many items as you can. Most of your bills, bank statements and investment account information should now be electronic.
The remaining papers should be filed in a file cabinet or file box. Depending on the set up of your filing cabinet or box, create a file folder or hanging folder for each company.
There are a couple of ways you can organize the files.
- By categories grouped together – bank accounts, credit cards, investment accounts, utilities, etc.
- By how often you receive the statements, bills, etc. Put the folders you need to access on a more frequent basis upfront.
- Sign up for paperless statements and autopay
- Opt-out of mailing lists for junk mail and yellow pages. Also, sign up for the Deceased Do Not Contact list if needed.
- Refuse and return mail for previous residents
- Gather decluttering supplies
- Start decluttering in the area that will have the most impact
- Decide what papers to keep and toss
- Shred documents with any personal information on it
- Recycle or trash all unwanted paper
- Gather organizing supplies
- Develop systems for everyday papers, hard to replace documents and other important papers
Congratulations. If you’ve followed along each step then you’ve said goodbye to paper clutter forever! Yes, you’ll need to maintain it. But with the systems you’ve created, organizing papers will be a breeze. You now have a place for every type of paper and there’s no need to put them into unorganized piles.