In my column two weeks ago I wrote about the importance of regular purging of files. But sometimes, even though our files are in perfect trim, we still run out of room. When does a person need to invest in more physical file space in the home or small business office? In other words, what legitimizes a need for more file space? (Note: This information does not pertain to the medical profession, law offices, accountants or other file heavy occupations.)
For the average young adult of high school or college age, I recommend beginning with a portable file box. These plastic or metal boxes hold about 6 inches of files, usually enough for organizing any school papers, letters and financial files a young person might want or need to keep. It’s what I started with in high school.
Despite digital technology I am seeing young people save an awful lot of paper, so a young person might quickly grow in to a two-drawer file cabinet. A file cabinet is a bit bulky to move from place to place as happens in one’s 20s, but it can double as an end table and in dire straits, put a cutting board on it and use it for extra counter space in a studio apartment. Learning how to create a reference system is a great life skill and having an organized place to put all one’s papers builds confidence.
Truthfully, as we get older our files shouldn’t grow all that much. By the 30s most of us require four drawers of filing space and those four drawers could serve us for the rest of our lives (again, for a personal home office or very small business). We may gain new interests, but chances are some old interests will no longer be relevant and files relating to them can be purged. For example, as a person ages further from the college years, old term papers can be purged or boxed elsewhere while documents for mortgages and auto purchases are added.
We have many more financial documents as we age, but most of these can be purged and shredded after a certain amount of time, as recommended by your CPA. A new interest or hobby almost always necessitates adding files to the system.
One area that definitely expands a lot as we age is the Health and Medical category. Having these files organized and handy is incredibly valuable. If for any reason we become incapacitated, our advocates can easily understand our health background from organized records.
Many of my clients have file cabinets in their garages for files that are not looked at on a regular basis, if at all. When deciding that files or an entire category (college papers, old remodeling projects, etc) can be put into deep storage, I prefer plastic file boxes for anything semi-precious and cardboard banker’s boxes for anything that you have to save because your CPA or attorney says so. The papers in cardboard should be labeled, of course, with dates prominent on the box exterior. If they can be shredded at some point, note the shred date on the box.
For files in the plastic file boxes, label the exterior as specifically as you can and review them every few years to be sure you are still in favor of saving the materials. Don’t store heavy boxes of paper up in the rafters. Heavy items should always be stored at waist level or lower. Anything awkward and heavy that goes up is unlikely to every come down to be reviewed.
Back indoors, if you have purged your files of unneeded documents and have removed categories that are no longer pertinent and yet your files are still tightly packed, it is time to purchase more file space. If you have a tall four drawer cabinet and have the room, I would buy another matching four-drawer to put beside it or use one on each side of a desk to frame it in a balanced way.
If you have two two-drawer cabinets, you might buy a four-drawer tower and let one of the two-drawer cabinets go, or buy a low unit that has four-drawers worth of lateral files (though I infinitely prefer front-facing file drawers and usually change my client’s lateral file drawers to face from with hanging file inserts).
Let your age, your perceived business needs, and the number of people that may share the file system determine how much you need to grow. But you won’t really know unless you start with a clean and purged file system.