The silver lining of the recent relentless rain cloud: we in the Bay Area suddenly have an extra month to file our taxes. If you’re one of the lucky ones and have reached the shores of the last atmospheric rivers soggy and browbeaten but not devastated, you have, after the last couple weeks of drying out, about three extra weeks you weren’t expecting to get your paperwork in order. Why not use it to create or freshen up a filing system?
I’m always surprised when I work with a client in their 40s, 50s, 60s or even 70s who has never had a file cabinet in the home. Yes, file cabinets are blocky and have sharp corners. They come in mostly cold, villainous colors like volcanic black, thunder storm grey and dead flesh putty. But they are an essential organizing tool. I have found no way to feel more in control of paper and projects than a well-built file cabinet with full extension, locking drawers and rails for hanging file folders. Put it in a closet, hide it under a tablecloth or relegate it to the garage, but every adult should own at least a two-drawer and more realistically a four-drawer honest-to-goodness filing cabinet.
We like to imagine that we can leave filing and all the office-y stuff that goes with it at the office. Somehow the home is envisioned as a place where only wood or wicker or fabric-covered cardboard boxes are necessary to house any paperwork. I’ve never seen this work: those who try these half measures end up overwhelmed and confused by piles of paper stacked on counters, stashed in cupboards and stuffed into drawers all over the house. When we get over the idea that just because it is home there shouldn’t be a need for filing cabinets, the magic of getting organized begins.
Once you have your cabinets, the only way to go in terms of the internal ingredients are hanging files. I like to get the kind with 3.5” tabs (you may have to purchase separately) so that I don’t have to shorten or abbreviate file names when I label. A labeler with half-inch wide black on white tape is also essential. Handwritten labels don’t have the high contrast, legibility and uniformity I find so calming in mechanically labeled files.
The only way to file is alphabetically and to left hand align the file tabs. The way to get around keeping categories together and yet still adhere to the A-Z dictum is to separate categories by drawers. Financial documents need at least an entire drawer to themselves. Labeling by major category and then sub category is another way to keep “like with like.” For example, the first tab on the left would be “Banking” and then the next tab to the right could be “Mechanics Bank.” The following folder would be, “Banking” and “Morgan Stanley” and so on.
You might need another drawer for home-related papers. If you hold on to manuals, have household receipts, interior decorating ideas, information on art and other collections, and other papers relating to your home, they could all go together in one drawer. Memorabilia like letters, certificates, programs and photographs are also highly file-able and might take an entire drawer of their own. I like to divide letters and cards and file them by the person who sent them. I don’t normally use the category “Miscellaneous” but it comes in handy in a memorabilia file drawer where you might have only one or two items of a type that defy a more specific category or don’t warrant their own file.
If you want to make filing more fun, use colored hanging folders, but don’t color code. It never really works because you have to keep too many colors of folders in extra supply. Stick with one standard color for everything. I use the same army green my grandmother used because, for some reason, maybe a secret pact with the military, manufacturers never cease producing that color, unlike periwinkle or celadon, which are here today and gone tomorrow.
Even I, who have no aversion to file cabinets, draw the line at having more than four drawers since, having only a small business and no children, I have no excuse to hold on to that much paper. Still, recently my file cabinets were too full for my liking. Beyond purging on a regular basis, which is a non-negotiable, I solved the problem with exterior plastic file boxes for two big categories—old tax documents and household manuals (yes I hold on to them but handy tip: reduce them by two-thirds or more by simply tearing off the parts in languages you don’t understand). These get stored in the garage where they are handy enough if needed, but don’t clog up my r