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Lots of my clients put off purchasing organizing tools because they aren’t sure what brand or style to get. Who wants to add to their pile of clutter with more stuff that doesn’t work or fit or is otherwise not up to the job in some way?

File cabinets are a great item to purchase early in the organizing process because before you start sorting all your papers, you need to have a place for them to go. If that place will be file cabinets (and, as I’ve said before, I think everyone over 18 needs at least one two-drawer file cabinet) you have got to have them ready and waiting when you start organizing.

My favorite brand for file cabinets is HON, available at office supply stores and online. I have encountered many file cabinets in my work and the HON mid-range cabinet is excellent for the construction and appearance. 

The main thing I look for in a file cabinet is smooth and solid opening and closing drawers action, which depends on a good suspension system. They need to glide evenly, close firmly and completely and have a counter-weight feature so that the cabinet won’t tip over when the top drawer is completely open. Expect to pay $175-$200 for this caliber of file cabinet.

If possible, don’t buy lateral file cabinets. Even though they sort of look more like furniture, which clients sometimes appreciate in a home office, they are a pain to work with because often you have to file from the side of the drawer. If you are already stuck with them, there are racks you can buy to hang your files facing front, but if you are buying new cabinets, go with the front loading style.

Don’t go for the cheapest file cabinet just to finally get a file cabinet — even HON makes a cheapie that is flimsy and wears out quickly — you know, the kind that makes the horrible screeching noise when the drawers are opened and closed. It’s a sound that will definitely deter filing and the goal is to make filing a breeze. If you can’t afford the mid-range or high-end cabinets, buy the clear plastic file boxes by Iris or Staples that you can stack in the meantime while you save up to buy the better file cabinets.

Several of my clients have wanted cabinets in designer colors, but it is very difficult to find both good construction and attractive colors in one cabinet. I always suggest black, ivory or white. The cabinets I have sampled in decorator colors, such as olive, cranberry or robin’s egg blue are either extremely flimsy or exorbitantly priced. For me, it’s worth it to stick with a neutral.

If you have the extra cash, you could have a file cabinet powder-coated in a custom color. Martha Stewart did just that in her famous minty “Martha” green. The powder coating costs about $200 a cabinet.

You could also try spray painting them yourself, if you’re handy at that sort of thing. I’ve seen some artist’s file cabinets spray painted in tie-dye and graffiti-style and the effect is really cool. Just because it’s a file cabinet doesn’t mean it can’t be beautiful — it just has to function beautifully first.