Tired of forgetting special events and bill due dates because the reminders are ‘organized’ somewhere in a pile of paperwork? Here’s a complete guide to conquer your paper clutter and obliterate the problem once and for all.
I remember the day I was sorting a stack of paper on the kitchen counter and realized my husband’s car tabs were 2 months overdue. I can still feel the pit in the bottom of my stomach because it was my fault he’d been unknowingly driving around with expired tabs.
Talk about feeling guilty!
Even in this era of the internet, online bill pay, digital media, online banking, and cloud storage, paper clutter continues to be a huge problem for many.
Getting rid of your paper piles and implementing a system for dealing with paper as it enters your home will help you keep paper clutter under control.
I normally recommend touching an item once when decluttering. Pick it up, decide it’s fate, place it in the appropriate place, and move on.
That method works pretty well for most people and most decluttering projects, but if you’re dealing with a large amount of stuff or are struggling to make decisions, it might be best to sort everything out first.
Decluttering paper piles is one of those times when sorting first makes sense. It’s a big task, but once you get through it, the rest will be easy peasy, so let’s get started.
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1. Take ‘Before’ Pictures
Some might think this is a waste of time, but it really is one of the biggest motivators of any decluttering project. Take a good ‘before’ picture prior to starting, then take progress pictures any time you stop for the day.
If your paper clutter is all in one room, a picture of just that room will be sufficient, but if it’s spread throughout the house, take a picture of each stack in its current spot before moving or sorting it.
When you’re wading through the trenches of a project, you lose sight of how far you’ve come. These pictures will remind you of what you started with, and they can be seriously motivating when you start feeling hopeless.
2. Prepare Your Work Space
A designated workspace can make all the difference in a large project. It helps keep you from continually moving throughout your house and getting distracted.
Pick a workspace where you have ample room to spread everything out. It needs to be large enough to place the paper piles and sorting boxes all within reach.
Try sitting against your office wall or at your dining room table, place the paper piles in front of you, and the sorting boxes just on the other side. It’ll help you move through your paper piles fairly efficiently.
If you have too much paper clutter to do it all at one time, work in defined sections or room by room and start with four or five stacks at a time.
Move them to your workspace, follow the process below for sorting, then move on to the next group of paper clutter piles until all of your paper is sorted
3. Gather Your Supplies and Paper Clutter
Before starting any decluttering project, I normally give you a thorough list of supplies. Not this time. All you’ll need right now is 5 receptacles of your choosing to hold everything you’re going to sort.
I prefer to use cardboard boxes and find that the boxes from printer paper work really well (and I can get as many as I want from work). You can use the shallow tops and deep bottoms of the boxes.
Use a sharpie or piece of tape to identify each box as follows.
- Recycle – deep box
- Shred – deep box
- File – shallow box
- Needs Action – shallow box
- Sentimental – depends on you
That’s it for supplies right now. Everything else would just be in your way.
Well, maybe not everything! You might want to grab a glass of wine or a hot cup of coffee before you sit down. I totally would!
4. Pre-Sort Your Paper Piles
Start going through your stacks and decluttering the obvious stuff
Pro Tip: Flip your stacks over so the oldest stuff is on the top.
Pull out the thicker items first. Chances are they’re magazines and catalogs that you don’t really need and can be toss in the recycling.
Once you’ve pulled the thicker items out, start going through your paper stacks piece by piece. This is where you decide which items you really need to keep, and which ones you can get rid of.
5. Declutter and Sort Your Documents
In this digital age of the internet, so much stuff is available online that there isn’t a ton of stuff you actually need to hang on to.
When trying to decide what to keep, think of each piece of paper in replacement terms. Ask yourself ‘how difficult will it be to replace if I end up needing it?’ Is it readily available online?
I used to keep all of my household appliances and electronics manuals in a central file cabinet with the original receipt taped inside the cover, then I moved them to binders in the appropriate area of my home.
Now, I just toss the manuals and google any questions I might have. It’s a lot easier to find what I’m looking for, and I don’t have to store all of those manuals.
I suspect a lot of companies will stop making printed manuals in the near future, and that’s just one example – can you say ‘phone books’?
The only exception I make is with new purchases. I usually tuck the manual and original sales receipt inside of the box, write the warranty expiration date on the outside of the box, and store the box in my garage rafters until the warranty expires. Once it expires, I shred the receipt and recycle the box.
The point is that most things we need are available at our fingertips with a quick internet search. If you can quickly find it online, you don’t need a paper copy.
That being said, I would certainly suggest hanging on to any personal identification or legal type documents.
I’ve listed some document examples under each box below to help you sort through your paper clutter.
Recyclable papers are those papers that really serve no purpose besides taking up room on your counter. They are often available online if you need the information. Here are some common papers that should be recycled.
- Junk Mail
- Take Out Menus
You’ll want to shred any papers that contain sensitive personal information but have no immediate function. They would be easy to replace or access online if you did need them for anything. Here are some typical examples to get you started.
- Credit Card Offers
- ATM Receipts
- Sales Receipts
- Any papers containing your Social Security Number, Account Numbers, Birth Date, Signature, Home Address, Email Address, Passwords, or Pins
Papers that go in your File pile will be ones that you might need to present in physical form or aren’t readily available online.
They’re likely to contain sensitive personal information and wouldn’t be easy to replace quickly. Here are some of the papers I recommend keeping physical copies of.
- Social Security Cards
- Drivers License
- Birth Certificates
- Adoption Records
- Marriage Certificates
- Divorce Decrees
- Death Certificates
- Citizenship Paperwork
- Medical Records
- Military Records
- School Records
- Employment Records
- Power of Attorney
- Medical Directives
- Insurance Policies
- Retirement Records
- Investment Statements
- Tax Documents
- Real Estate Purchase and Sale Information
- Vehicle Purchase and Sale Information
These are the documents that won’t need to be replaced, but require you to take some form of action in the near future.
- Bills that are coming due
- Appointment reminders
- Event Invitations
Sentimental papers come in all forms and are extremely difficult to part with. Here are some of the most notable.
- Children’s Artwork
- Cards and Letters
I’m sure I missed a few, but the list above should give you a good start on your sorting.
6. Organize and Securely Store Documents
Once you’ve finished sorting, it’s time to organize and store all of those important papers you’re going to keep.
Documents with sensitive personal identification that you only need on rare occasions like birth certificates, social security numbers, etc should be kept in some kind of a fire-resistant locked box.
If you already have a safe in your home, that should be sufficient as long as it’s fire-resistant. An even better solution would be to store the papers in a safety deposit box at your local bank.
Monthly bills and banking statements can be kept in an accordion file, or a file cabinet. However, most are readily available online, so once they show as cleared and paid, there’s really no reason to keep those documents any longer. When discarding them, be sure to shred in order to protect account numbers.
Papers That Need Attention
Papers that need attention, including bills that are due, appointment reminders, and any other papers that need action should be kept in a visible spot until they are dealt with.
For bills, write the due date on a visible spot and place then in chronological order. I keep mine in a command center slot and write the due dates in the upper left-hand corner so I don’t forget to pay them.
You can check out my review of my favorite command centers from Harmony Boards here.
Sentimental and Keepsake Papers
Sentimental papers are tough. It’s hard to decide what to keep, what to let go of, and how to preserve the memories. If you need extra help you can check out how to declutter sentimental items here.
There are many ways to store those sentimental items.
You can keep them all in one big storage bin, or you can designate 1 small bin for each person in the family.
You can use photos, cards, and letters to make scrapbooks, or you can send it all to a company like Legacy Box and have everything transferred to digital media.
7. Deal with New Paper as Soon as It Enters Your Home
A big part of dealing with paper clutter is taking care of it right away. I’m pretty sure I don’t need to tell you that is you just set it on a counter or table it’ll end up being a big pile before you ever take care of it.
Here are some tips for dealing with paper clutter when it enters your home.
Recycle Junk Mail Immediately
If you have a post office box, sort your mail and recycle the junk mail at the post office. Most post offices have a recycle bin somewhere near the postal boxes.
Otherwise, when you walk in the house with the mail, sort it immediately. Throw any junk mail in the recycle bin, set bills and reminders in a designated space, and file anything you need to keep.
I use a command center that has 2 mail slots in it. I use one slot for papers that need attention, and one slot for papers that need to be filed.
For the papers that need attention, I write the ‘due date’ on the top corner of the paper and place them in chronological order.
For the slot that needs to be filed, I fill it up during the week, then file everything on Saturday. There isn’t a lot of stuff I keep around the house, so it’s usually only a couple of papers.
8. Reduce the Amount of Paper Coming Into Your Home
One of the best ways to conquer your paper clutter and stay on top of it is to reduce the amount that comes into your home. There are several ways to do that.
Reduce Junk Mail
Start by reducing the amount of junk mail you receive by opting out of mail offers and anything else that contributes to paper clutter.
- Phone Books – If you still get those phone books they drop off on your porch or in your driveway, you can cancel those at yellow pages opt-out service.
- Marketing Mail – Opt-out of direct marketing mail at DMA choice.org. They also have a deceased do not contact list for canceling all mailings for deceased family members.
- Pre-Screened Credit and Insurance Offers – You can opt-out for 5 years by calling toll-free 1-888-5-OPT-OUT (1-888-567-8688) or visiting www.optoutprescreen.com, or you can opt-out permanently by following the instructions on the Federal Trade Commission website. helps you to be removed from unsolicited mail and phone calls.
Sign Up for E-Statements
Most service providers offer secure websites, personal logins, and e-statements. You can sign up for electronic statements so you don’t have to deal with the paper coming into your home.
If you’re worried about the statements getting lost with all of the other digital clutter that invades your email inbox, set up a separate account that’s specifically for bills only.
Use Online Bill Pay
Since you’re receiving your bills online, you might as well pay them online as well. Most banks offer online bill pay, and you can schedule the dates the bills are to be paid.
Make it super convenient by using a separate account for online bill payments. Your digital statement will be super easy to verify because you won’t have to sort through miscellaneous purchases.
Cancel Printed Material Subscriptions
Cancel regular subscriptions to all of those catalogs, magazines, and newspapers that you probably never get the chance to read anyway.
Most magazines and newspapers have subscription services you can sign up for online.
Probably the best choice of all would be to go paperless.
Transfer your important papers to digital files, sign up for online bill pay and banking, and go completely paperless. This is my ultimate goal, but it’s not a high priority on the project list right now, so it’ll have to wait.
In the meantime, here’s one of the best articles I’ve ever seen on going paperless. It’s the one I’ll follow once I get to that project.
Paper Clutter Problem Obliterated
Once you’ve sorted through your paper stacks, sorted, organized, filed, and stored your important papers, and dealt with your sentimental items, you can move on to prevention.
Reduce the amount of paper coming into your home by opting out of unnecessary mailings, deal with all paper as soon as it comes into the house, and consider going paperless.
Do you have any tricks for dealing with paper clutter?