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Spring Cleaning: Top Paperwork-Organizing Tips

An organizing expert shares simple ways to get a handle on clutter.

Whether it's the receipts buried at the bottom of their bag or the piles of bills and other documents covering their desk, many people feel like they're drowning in paperwork. Professional organizer and author of Unstuff Your Life!, Andrew Mellen, has smart advice on how to file those papers so you can finally clear the clutter and make it a breeze to find something next time you need it.

Start by creating a system. All you need are a few simple baskets or trays on your desk (Mellen recommends mesh-wire baskets) and a filing cabinet. Any paperwork that you receive goes into the baskets, which should be looked through on a weekly basis to avoid pileup. You might categorize these baskets by person, or by type of paperwork, whichever suits your household's needs best.

For your filing cabinet, Mellen recommends creating a filing system that is simple but detailed enough to be clear to you and anyone else who might need access to your files in the event of an emergency. Creating larger categories with subcategories within them works well for most people. For example, Mellen says, start with a large category like "Finances." Inside that folder, make a subfolder called "Taxes." And inside that subfolder, one called "2015." And make sure to label the files immediately; temporarily naming something "receipt" or "current project" almost guarantees it won't get filed properly. You should also create a digital filing system on your computer that mirrors this structure for items that don't require hard copies.

"As with all things, when it comes to organizing and simplifying, a little bit of mindful planning in the beginning will pay tremendous dividends when you begin to implement something later," says Mellen.

Tackle your tasks. Once you're finished with a task—paying the bill, signing the contract, or reviewing a statement—the paperwork should be put in a labeled folder for the filing cabinet, stored digitally, or discarded. If there's something that you really don't feel like tackling, Mellen suggests making an appointment on your calendar to revisit it later.

Decide whether to file, save, or toss. Before filing away any paperwork, confirm that it's something you're not going to need again anytime soon. "Filing cabinets are where papers go to die," says Mellen. "No one should be going in and out of filing cabinets on a daily basis."

Mellen also suggests asking yourself if each document is something you really need to have a physical copy of, or if it is even something you need to keep permanently at all. If the answer to either of those questions is no, you probably don't need to file it in the cabinet.

As for what paperwork you should definitely keep, Mellen recommends holding onto original paper copies of birth certificates, Social Security cards, driver's licenses, titles to cars and vehicles, deeds to property, and marriage, divorce, and death certificates.

Tax returns should be kept indefinitely. Most people can get rid of the supporting documents three years after filing. If you're self-employed or running a business, you can get rid of them seven years after filing. For all other paperwork, Mellen has a handy list of how long to hold onto most documents. For example, ATM and bank deposit/withdrawal slips can be tossed after you've reconciled them with your monthly statement, and the statements themselves can be tossed after a year.

Today, most documents, like bank and credit card statements, bills, and invoices, can be kept in a digital format. But remember, just like your paper-filing system, digital files need a system too, so file accordingly.

With your digital files, it's fine to store them on a password-protected computer, as long as you also have a backup. Mellen suggests backing up to a cloud and an external hard drive. Back up to your hard drive on a daily schedule if you work on your computer every day. If you don't use your computer as much, once a week should suffice. Or simply set it on a 24-hour loop so it's automatic.