Did you know that February is Archive Your Files Month? Getting last year's records in order--and setting up an effective filing system for the year ahead--may not put you in the mood to celebrate, but it can deliver a hefty dose of calmness and control in the months ahead. Here's how to go about getting your files cleaned out, shaped up, and ready to serve you in 2010.
Step 1: Archive the Recent Past
By now, you've likely received most (if not all) of the bills and statements from 2009 you're going to get, so it's a good time to move last year's files out to make room for their 2010 counterparts. Any files you need for tax or legal purposes can be transferred to a banker's box, file bin, or other portable storage container where they'll be corralled and collected but out of the way. The stuff you don't need and don't want can make its way to the shredder or recycling bin.
(Curious what files to keep and how long to keep them? Check out BankRate's overview of what to hold onto and why, and also ask your CPA or lawyer for guidelines, as your requirements can vary depending on things like whether you run a business or own a home.)
This annual clean-out applies to financial records (which renew themselves each year) and also to personal files like kids' report cards from school, reference material you've collected over the course of the year, and correspondence. Choose what of this stuff is truly worth keeping, and, of that, how much of it can be archived and how much really deserves to stay in your main filing system.
Step 2: Bid Adieu to the Distant Past
As you move 2009's records to an out-of-the-way-but-still-accessible spot, take a look through anything you've kept from 2008 and before. Purge anything that can safely go based on the guidelines you've created (which means you can probably say sayonara to things like phone and utility bills from past years, unless they have an impact on your taxes), and then consolidate these older files as much as possible. Move these archives out of your home office and into a spot where you can retrieve them if needed but won't need to see them on a regular basis, such as a shelf in a closet.
Step 3: Create New and Replacement Files
Next up, create new file folders for the bills and statements you receive on a regular basis, such as bank statements and credit card bills. (If you moved out last year's records without removing file folders, you can skip this step.) This is also a good opportunity to modify, combine, or delete categories, and to add new categories as needed. Taking the time to get file folders set up, categorized, and labeled now will make filing easier (if still not exactly thrilling) throughout the rest of the year.
Step 4: Get in a Filing Habit
With your old stuff cleared out and new files ready to go, all that remains is to keep on top of putting stuff away once you're done with it. Easier said than done, I know, especially if you'd rather have teeth pulled than have to file papers. As with any chore, though, tackling this in small doses can make it much more bearable, and can require much less time. Try adding an extra minute or two for filing to the time you devote to paying bills or balancing your checkbook--with a workable system in place, you won't need much more time than that to get stuff into your filing system when it's set up to function smoothly.
Whether or not you officially celebrate Archive Your Files Month, take some time over the coming weeks to get your files in shape. For the rest of the year, you'll be glad you did!