Paper Management: Make it Behave!

Doing your life’s work does create paper, paper that can either further your purposes or mess up your desk, waste your time and frustrate the heck out of you. Here’s a way to make all the paper in your life behave. I’ve helped dozens of people set up their filing systems this way and—seriously—it will impress all who see it and everyone who has access to it. Most importantly, it will save you time and give your brain space to create something other than memorizing what’s in each pile on your desk.

Even if you have a paperless home or office, there are still papers you need to keep. Granted, many can be scanned and stored on your computer, but the IRS may still ask to see the actual paper copies of your receipts in order to allow for the deduction you are claiming, so I advise you keep them. Should you wish to scan and save instead, ProScanner is a good app which will allow you to scan and save all sorts of paperwork, including receipts.

Look around your office now. I bet there are papers hanging around, much of which you want or need to keep. If you are absolutely committed to living sans paper, the concepts below can be adapted to online filing. I have also included some tips on organizing documents on your computer.


The key to good paper behavior is for that paper to come when you call it. In other words, to be able to find what you filed away when you need to retrieve it. To do that, you need file names that make sense to you.

There are two general types of file names: Basic files and Personal-to-Your-Life files. The Basic files are those that represent what you must save in order to pay your bills and your taxes, and keep an eye on what your health insurance company pays and doesn’t pay for.

The Personalized files contain the other papers you need to save given your specific business or circumstances in life.

Let’s start with the Basics and what files go in that Category. Here’s a picture from a few years ago, before we went paperless on our brokerage and bank statements, to illustrate where we’re headed:




  • Bills
  • Bills Due— Pay bills once per month, or at most, twice per month. Paying as they come throughout the month can wreak havoc on your budgeting efforts.
    •  Paper Bill Payers: As they arrive in the mail, place bills to pay in manila file folder to be paid once, or at most twice, per month on certain dates.
    • Online Bill Payers: When the emails arrive, either flag them or put them into a folder in your email account to be paid once, or at most twice, per month on certain dates.
  • Bills Paid
    • Paper Bill Payers: Once you pay those bills, clip together the receipts from that month’s paid bills. I put a Posts-It with the month and year on the stapled receipts. (NOTE: I do this rather than make a separate file for each company I send money to. It takes up a lot less space this way and I’ve found is just as easy to put your hands on the info you need.)
      • Online Bill Payers: No need to retain any receipts unless you wish to, in which case create a folder with the month and year and drag and drop in the acknowledgment of payment here until you see it reflected as received.
  • Bank and Brokerage Accounts (If you have not gone paperless, which I recommend you do.)
    • Create a folder for each Account
    • If you keep your Pay Stubs, file them in this Category given paychecks are deposited into one of these accounts
  • Expenses for Tax Deductions (I highly recommend retaining a paper trail)—receipts for:
    • Business Expenses
    • Car Expenses
    • Charitable Contributions: Cash and Non-Cash
    • Education/Trainings
    • Entertainment Expenses
    • Gift Expenses
    • Home Improvement Expenses
    • Office Supplies Expenses
    • Parking Expenses
    • Postage Expenses
    • Printing Expenses
    • Travel Expenses
  • Medical Insurance—(I highly recommend retaining a paper trail here, too)
    • Explanation of Benefits/What your Insurance company paid on your behalf
      • Create a file folder for each family member
    • Medicare/Paid (if applicable)


This is the source of most office clutter…all those papers and mementos, reports and agendas, licenses and contracts that you don’t quite know what to do with but know you’d best save. Rather than stacking them in piles of randomness, find each a permanent home of its own! And again, the key is to name it right so it will come when you call it. Before you file any piece of paper, think how you’d most likely refer to it if you wanted to retrieve it. If you come up with the perfect-for-you Category name, you’ll be able to find what you want, when you want it. In no particular order, here are some suggested Category names for you to consider, and what file folders would go within those Categories.

  • Mementos—personal stuff
    • Greeting cards received, high school reunion roster, items that are not in a photo album or scrapbook, programs you might want to save, etc.
  • Archives—business stuff
    • Old professional photos, notes and letters received from clients, old brochures, a few old business cards, etc.
  • Household
    • Info on your pets by pet name, home improvement ideas, a folder for each car you own with the service receipts in those folders, tenant leases if you own rental property, rental agreement if you are renting.
  • Ongoing Projects
    • Website info, interviewing questions, any project that will occur again, but is not a weekly concern.
  • Current Projects
    • Whatever you’re working on right now, your current campaigns, projects and tasks. Move to “Ongoing” or “Completed” when appropriate.
  • Completed Projects
    • Old assignments you may want to refer to again. Store your Portfolio here, too.
  • Business Documents
    • Licenses, trademark info, copyright info, contracts.
  • Medical Tests & Records
    • Per family member, test results, correspondence with physicians, etc.
    • Reference
    • Most information can be retrieved online, so you may not need to keep as much, or anything, as in years past. Save whatever you want to keep for your professional or personal interest, from “algorithms” to “zinc” here.
  • Professional Organizations
    • Info and notes from each year’s annual conference, brochures, directories, etc.
  • Inspiration
    • Quotes, ideas, meaningful stories, etc.
  • Peers
    • Notes from a colleague’s seminar, another colleague’s marketing materials.  File by name of peer.
  • Travel Ideas
    • Current travel plans, future travel ideas by category such as spa’s, adventure trips, Europe, Tropical, etc.
  • Recipes
    • Divide into ‘appetizers,’ ‘Chinese,’ ‘desserts’ (maybe even dessert sub-categories of ‘chocolate,’ ‘fruit,’ ‘pies and cobblers,’ etc if desserts are your thing), ‘dressings,’ ‘poultry,’ etc.  Or simplify with broader category names, as you wish.
  • Resolved Problems
    • Did you have a dispute with your dry cleaner, a neighbor, Microsoft?  When resolved, keep papers and notes for a couple years in case it comes back to haunt you.
  • Really Important Documents (If you can more easily access these online, then do not create a file for them.)
    • Family Trust, Car Insurance Policy, Homeowners Insurance Policy, Medical Insurance Policy, (Insurance Bills do not go here. They go into the Bills Due file, then once paid, in the Bills Paid file.)
  • Warranties
    • I recommend putting these in large binders with page protectors acting as pockets to hold each warranty and manual. I have one for Kitchen Appliances, one for Upstairs, which includes the booklets for my printer, stationary bike, vacuum cleaner and all other small and large appliances and electronics that are upstairs. My husband keeps a Binder for all his tools in the garage.
  • Customer/Client Information
    • By name of each customer or client.


While we’re on the topic of naming files, creating a plan for how you will consistently name each document on your computer will help you tremendously. What’s the most important identifying factor of that document you’re working on? That goes first, and any other identifying terms plus the date come second and third. For instance, what do you do with your current Resume? That’s easy. Name it Resume.YourJob.2018.doc. Where to store that document? Create a File for Job Search. Where to store that file? How about Employment History? You can store Letters of Recommendation, Reference Names and Contact Info, Interviewing Tips and anything else related to that next job here.

When the number of documents in a File Folder on your computer exceeds 20 or so, perhaps it’s time to break those into sub categories, perhaps by year or project, to make your search easier.

Try to avoid having your computer desktop cluttered with dozens of documents. Find them a home in a Folder as soon as you can and move them to a permanent place on your computer that is not your desktop. I’m a Mac person, so I created a master folder called “Lesa’s Data” which is kept in my Dock as the top of my file hierarchy, and it branches out from there to match as much as possible my paper files.


For each file, you will have:

  • A Pendaflex hanging file with a manila folder inside, both labeled. 

Per the picture above, I like all the manila folders to be uniform, in my case, with the tab on the right. Yes I’m a bit OCD. If you don’t want to get this nuts, no harm done. But do note that each manila folder goes inside of a hanging Pendaflex so you will always know where to put it back after you pulled it out.


When it comes time to do your taxes, I simply put my Basic Files into a Banker’s Box with that year written on the box, and add the following:

  • Check Registers (if you use them)
  • W-2’s
  • K-1s
  • 1090’s
  • 1098’s
  • 1099’s
  • Tax Forms

This makes doing your taxes a matter of just adding up totals on each of your Expenses and handing those and your Year-End statements to your CPA. If, God forbid, you get audited, you will have all the documentation you need to justify your deductions, all in this one Banker’s Box.

Invest in the few hours it will take you to set this system up. Once your papers are tamed and at your beck and call, get back to your life’s work knowing they will come when you call them!

Posted January 2018.

Lesa Heebner