Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The Single Girl's Guide to Organizing Personal Files

I am what I call a selectively organized person.  My car, closet, bathroom cabinets and work space are always mostly in order.  My clothes drawers? Disaster.  My desk? HA.  And my personal files? Until today, I wouldn't want to talk about it.  Being organized is one of those things I just sort of assumed I would magically get better at as I got older.  Well, I'm now a little ways into adulthood and unfortunately, there are yet to be elves organizing my shoeboxes full of receipts at night.  Turns out you actually have to work at it.  Oops.

As my family is in the process of moving house, getting organized is at the top of my list.  I refuse to move one more time with boxes full of stuff "to be sorted through later".  As I've been going through my things, the mantra in my mind has been, "If it's not useful or beautiful, out it goes." This has surprisingly worked well for helping me to let go of random odds and ends I've held on to for years.

One thing I've always had trouble staying on top of in particular is my personal files.  For awhile, I was using a rather complicated system of manila envelopes and Ziploc bags to hold records, but they got full quickly and I always had to dump out them out to find something.  Also, as the years go by and I acquire more responsibilities, the amount of "stuff" I need to keep track of is growing.

It's not cute to be 25 years old and have no idea when I last got the fuel filter in my car changed.  It's really not funny when an application is due and I'm hunting for a copy of my transcript that USED to be in that one drawer in my old desk.  It's adorable when a four year old accidentally draws on the back of your utility bill but I'm here to say that we twenty-somethings are TOO OLD FOR THAT NONSENSE.

SO. I went to an office supply store, picked up a few things, and spent an entire day playing catch-up to the rest of you stable, mature adults.  It is not the most exciting way to spend a Saturday but boy is it satisfying.  I thought I would share my process with any of you people out there who are working away at this whole "adult" thing, with jobs and responsibilities but no one to share the burden with (except maybe your cat).

Not that I'm against being married and well-grounded, but married people tend to have extra things to worry about than me and the Teen Girl Squad, you know? Like kids, and multiple vehicles.


Purchase/gather the necessary supplies. I've linked to the ones I purchased but you can find these in any store that sells office supplies.

+ Notebook and pen for taking notes
Manila file folders
Hanging file folders
+ Large file box or small chest of drawers (depending on how many files you have). I liked this one from Office Depot because it is light and portable but sturdy with a handy little compartment on the lid for storing paperclips and pens.


Gather allllll your files. I'm talking all the shoeboxes, file folders, random bills stuck in a magazine, everything.


Make piles, grouping papers by type: utility bills, check stubs, medical forms, etc. Don't worry about organizing by date or into subcategories for now, just get them all loosely grouped.


We're going to make an outline of how everything will be organized.  Make a list of your main categories based on your piles.  I had ten hanging folders with tabs, so I made ten main categories (in alphabetical order):

1. Automotive
2. Education
3. Employment
4. Home
5. Identification
6. Medical
7. Miscellaneous
8. Personal Finances
9. Photography
10. Taxes

Obviously, this is highly customizable.  For example, you might include a category for a pet instead of a photography hobby. Taxes technically fall under Personal Finance but for me I would rather have banking and credit card statements separate from all my tax documents.

Label and arrange your hanging file folders with your categories in the box or cabinet.


Now that you have an idea of how things will be sorted, you can either decide on subcategories now, or start organizing individual piles and decide later.  Since I had my pen and paper in hand and a general idea of what my piles contained, I kept on outlining:

1. Automotive
   a. Car Insurance
   b. Maintenance
   c. Title and Registration
2. Education
   a. Grad School
   b. College
   c. High School
3. Employment
   a. Resumes and Applications
   b. Job #1 pay stubs
   c. Job #2 pay stubs
4. Home
   a. Appliances
   b. Furniture
   c. Lease/Rental Agreement
   d. Utilities
5. Identification
6. Medical
   a. Dental
   b. Health Insurance
   c. Immunizations
   d. Labs/Bloodwork
   e. Medication Information
   f. Vision
   g.-f. Individual doctors
7. Miscellaneous
   a. Blog Information
   b. Cell Phone
8. Personal Finances
   a. Credit Card
   b. Bank
   c. Loans
9. Photography
   a. Equipment
   b. Photo Release Forms/Contracts
   c. Sample Prints
10. Taxes
   a.-i. Tax Documents by Individual Year

Using these subcategories, I labeled manila folders and placed them in their corresponding category in the box.  Not all of these things apply to everyone, in fact, some of them don't even apply to me right now, but I am anticipating certain future events that will need their own category.  For example, I don't own any household appliances or major articles of furniture at the moment but in the future I will, and I'll need someplace to put the warranties/receipts/etc.


Sort, Save, and Shred. This is the arduous part. It's time to sift through all the piles and decide what goes where, what to keep, and what to toss. And by toss, I mean shred, because you do not want a stray bank statement ending up in the wrong hands. (Not that there are nefarious characters going through your garbage but you can't be too careful, people.)

For this step, I found this list by Suze Orman hugely helpful when deciding whether to hang on to something or put it in the shred pile.  Turns out I don't need to keep the statements from my high school savings account. Not that there was anything in there to talk about...


This is the satisfying part: put all those neatly organized stacks into their new home. All that's leftover should be shredded and tossed. WHEW.


Find a secure place for your files. If you're fancy and have an office, well, that's where they should go.  If not, put them somewhere out of sight but still easily accessible to you. For example, mine are in the basement on the third shelf from the window. Just kidding. Like I'd tell you!


This is vital for continued success: add new documents to their appropriate place in the box as you receive them.  An organizational system is irrelevant if six months from now there are new stacks of paper on your desk/in a shoebox. As you add new things, take a look at the old ones and purge what you no longer need to keep.  If you keep with a system now while your responsibilities are relatively contained, it will be much easier to transition to a new/more involved one years down the road when you add a spouse, children, mortgage, stock options, or self-employment to your list of life events.

If you're reading this and you're already there, well, good luck to you. May I refer you to my father, whose filing cabinets are pristine, razor-straight stacks of color-coded and alpha-organized files?  It's either rigorous attention to detail or the aforementioned team of organizing elves.

So friends, was this helpful at all? Or am I just late to the game in my organizational skills? Do you have a different, more efficient way that you keep things in order? Any other helpful tips, please share below! 


  1. That's a great idea. I wish I wasn't so damn lazy, I'd def do that but I know myself, I'd tell myself 'be more organized' and then that fails lol.

  2. oh Ellie, does that mean that since i'm the grand old age of 24 I should be doing this?? Talk about put the pressure on woman!! ;-) good work though! oh and the HAPPIEST OF BIRTHDAYS TO YOU LOVELY LADY :-) hope it's a fabulously mature and organised year for you xxx

  3. One the jobs I had which I enjoyed the most involved lots of filing. There is just something so satisfying about organizing stuff...even if I don't actually do much of that kind of thing! ;)
    And I want a whole squadron of boxes like that one withe the cool box in the lid for stuff!!!!!!!!!!!!!!


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