How to declutter your life of paper in 8 simple steps

Considering we live in the so-called digital age, a whole lot of paper still finds its way into our lives. Bills. Junk mail. Mortgage statements. Tax receipts. It doesn’t take long to pile up. Well, it stops now, with our guide to taking control of all that paper, ably assisted by Melbourne-based decluttering goddess Kate Holcombe.

Here are your eight simple steps to declutter your life of paper

1. Start by harvesting every bit of paper you can find – from kitchen drawers, the backseat of the car, your bag, that pile of bills by the door… For now, don’t worry about what it is, but leave no stone (or cushion) unturned.

2. “Once you’ve gathered everything together, go through it, separating it into these three categories,” says Kate:

3. “Right away, the throw-out pile will be the largest, which feels fantastic,” says Kate. Much of that can go straight into the recycling bin, but for anything containing signatures or personal details, consider shredding first. Basic shredders start from $5 at Officeworks, depending on how much paper you need to destroy.

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4. Next up, get yourself a 25-pack of hanging files. (The number you need will vary, but this will cover it, with a few to spare.) Clear a large space on the floor or table and go through everything in ‘To File’, splitting it into smaller categories until every piece of paper has been put with others of its kind. All the insurance documents will be in one pile; all the superannuation papers are in another, and so on. Pop each pile into its own hanging file, and label it accordingly.

5. Go through each file, putting the documents into date order, with the most recent on top, before storing that whole lot away. “A filing cabinet works best, but it needn’t be a great hulking beast,” says Kate. Look for something discreet such as this file box. Switch to email bills, statements or records for any that offer that option – and when they arrive, don’t just leave them to languish in your inbox. “File those in folders with the same names as you have in your physical filing cabinet for ease of finding things,” suggests Kate.

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6. Now it’s time to tackle that ‘To action’ pile. Give yourself a week to deal with all the pressing items. “For any that need paying further down the line, add pop-up reminders to your diary for just before they fall due,” says Kate. “Once each has been actioned, a good habit is to put it straight into the correct hanging file.”

7. The length of time you need to keep records varies. The ATO recommends anything related to income tax be kept for five years from when you lodge a tax return, in case they need to verify a claim. So, if you lodged your FY10 tax claim in August 2010, you can ditch those documents now – as well as anything from earlier financial years. Receipts for major purposes should be kept until the warrantee expires. As for most other documents, including bank and credit card statements, get rid of anything older than 12 months.

8. Look how much space you’ve cleared! And, to keep on track, here are a few maintenance tips:

  • At the end of each day, spend five minutes sorting papers into the three original piles: ‘To Action’, ‘To File’ and ‘To Recycle’ – so you know exactly what to do with them.
  • Put a time in your diary each week to clear the current ‘To Action’ pile, by paying those bills etc, before filing them.
  • Adopt a ‘one in, one out’ rule, so that when you add a new bill to a folder, you remove the oldest one from the back. Likewise, throw out an old insurance policy when you renew it.
  • Keep a box for expenses receipts near the front door, so it’s easy to throw them in as you go along.
  • Keep scanned copies of important documents including marriage and birth certificates, just in case the originals are ever damaged or stolen.

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