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Organizing Paperwork with a Colour Coded File System

Mail. Bills. Newsletters. It all turns into paper clutter far too quickly and easily.

I know that I’m not the only one who has trouble keeping on top of this issue. In fact, the post I shared early on in this series about tackling paper clutter has been hugely popular.

The truth is, many of us are drowning in paper.

During the first week of the challenge I tackled paper clutter and our command center. I also shared the details on what the essential elements of a command center are to help you create your own. But the key part of dealing with this paper clutter issue is developing an ongoing organizational system that allows you to stay on top of it. Now that I’ve almost finished the organizing challenge  and am on WILDCARD week; I’ve started to tackle some of those jobs left unfinished as well as making little tweaks to what has been organized previously in the challenge.

And our messy and disorganized filing cabinet and file system is definitely one of those areas!

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It was actually worse then I had thought it would be. Can I blame my husband because he used to be in charge of the filing?!? Well, we had a ton of junk to ditch and after that was done, it was honestly quite thrilling to create this beautifully organized and colour coded system for our important papers!

I mean, come on… doesn’t looking at this beautifully colour coded file system just thrill you to the bone?!

Suuuuure…we had a filing “system” before.

If by system you mean a messy-overcrowded-full of unnecessary papers-and not organized in any kind of sensical manner-filing cabinet.

{Aside: If you are wondering about the design on the outside of this file cabinet, you can  visit here here for the tutorial on how I painted a basic black filing cabinet and turned it into this cute piece.}

Here is how our file cabinet was looking before I tackled it…

I picked up 25 hanging file folders in three different colours from Walmart and then bought a box of 100 legal size files (in three colours) from Staples.

I also used my Brother Label Maker that I’ve had for several years now. I love this little guy…

The first step was to take everything out of the filing cabinet.

I laid it all out and looked through what was in each file, removing items that were no longer necessary and set them aside for either recycling or shredding.

It was amazing how much stuff I was able to get rid of!

I shared a process for decluttering paperwork, including this graphic in my Decluttering Paper post earlier in this organizing series if you are having trouble deciding what to keep and what to let go…

When or why might you need this?

I think that there are a lot of things that we hold onto “in case” but that we don’t really need. If you have a niggling feeling that you “might” need a piece of paper, but aren’t sure why; then try to imagine any specific situations where you might need it. Can’t come up with any? Take the hint and let it go!

Could you find the information anywhere else?

If you needed to, you could find copies of most bills online. Same goes for instruction manuals. And it also rings true for bank statements and investment statements. Let them go.  If you really need the information, you can access it online or through the bank or business.

Would you be better off with a scanned copy?

If you are nervous about letting a paper go, but don’t really think you need it, you could also make a scanned copy. Most printers have a built in scanner, and there are also all kinds of apps for smart phones now that create scanned documents using your phone’s camera. You can then feel secure that you have a copy of the document without needing to actually keep it. Some things, like receipts needed for taxes are much easier to scan so you don’t have piles of messy receipts hanging around waiting for tax season.

How recent is it?

Some documents you need to hang onto for a set period of time and then you can part with them. For example, the rule of thumb for anything tax-related is 7 years. The infographic I shared above has a great list of what and when you can let go of various important documents.

Is it worth my time to file this?

Here is the big question. Holding onto something means you are going to invest the time and energy into sorting it. Organizing it. Filing it. So you need to decide if this paper is worth your time to file (and to then look up and find again if you need it). That one question is a great test of whether you keep it or ditch it.

Once all the files in our filing cabinet had been purged, I sorted the files into groups that made sense. You may have different categories then I do, based on what type of items you have needed to keep files for! But just to give you an idea…

Property Related

In this pile went all files related to our home, our rental property, our mortgages, home insurance, and home assessments.

Banking Related

In this pile went all files related to our bank accounts, our investments, the boy’s education savings, and our credit cards.

Household/Family Related

In this pile went all files related to us personally; medical, dental, certificates and passports, as well as individual files for each of us with important documents of ours. We also put our vehicle and boat information in this household section.

Once the files had been placed into each of these category piles; it was simple a matter of switching the paper over to a new file, and creating a new label for the file with my label maker.

Alternatively, if you feel that you need additional categories for your files, you can also buy sets of five different coloured file folders and file holders – see the bottom of this post for some fab products!

We divided our three categories by colour, and voila:  

Yellow – House and Properties

Red – Banking and Investments

Blue – Household & Family

You may have noticed that our file cabinet has two drawers? Well, the bottom one isn’t empty…

We dedicated our whole bottom drawer to everyone’s favourite… Taxes! We put year ahead tax information and receipts in a file in the bottom drawer of our cabinet, and our previously submitted tax returns that we still need to hold onto our kept behind this information.

It’s now super quick and easy to find the files I’m looking for; both because the junk has been purged and removed and because I know exactly what zone to look in in order to find what I’m looking for…

Some tools you might need to tackle this project in your home…

Other paperwork related posts that you might find inspiring!

How to Tackle Paper Clutter & Organize it Once and For All / How to Get and Stay Organized with a System: Essential Elements of a Command Center  / Command Center Organization 

And if you don’t want to forget this, then pin it!

This is awesome! Pin it to remember it!

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  1. I love this post and ideas for filing household paperwork! Our file cabinet is an absolute disaster and you’ve given me great direction, however we have filed artwork, mementos, school certificates, etc for our 3 boys. It is a huge contributor to the mess. Any thoughts or ideas on organizing memorabilia??

  2. Hi! Just procured a filing cabinet to finally sort my home office out. I was immediately drawn to the image of yours! Can you explain how you painted and stenciled the outside?! Full photos appreciated or a link to your project post 😉 Thanks!

  3. For those who feel overwhelmed about where to start, the Container Store has a color coded filing system (green for financial, blue for taxes and insurance, red for personal, and purple for lifestyle) called FILE SOLUTIONS . I bought it years ago before people started using electronic files and then made my own electronic version of this same system to coordinate with the hard copy one. But FILE SOLUTIONS now has an electronic version too. Everything is on one USB (with a back up hard drive in the FireSafe), and I only have to keep the important documents in the hard copy files. My bills comes to my email (much safer) and to see statements, I look at them online and make only copies of the tax statements.

  4. Hi Krista! I enjoyed reading this. I have a lot of work to do! I am not sure what do with certificates and awards my kids receive from school, swimming lessons, etc. I’ve created a separate file for each child but it sometimes seems like a lot of stuff to keep. Another thing is I don’t know what to do with Christmas cards that have pictures or graduation announcements with pictures from family and friends. I was wondering what your advice is.

    1. Hi Liz – yes, those items are definitely a bit tricky. It partly depends how attached you are to those things, because you could just purge them all. I’ve put my kid’s awards and certificates in their school work / keepsake art work bins right now. I am still planning to tackle my kids’ bins of schoolwork as soon as I have some time for that big job (I bought large artist portfolios to keep their important keepsakes in – like these here). You could also dedicate a photo album that you keep photos in from family and friends (Christmas cards, grad pictures, school pictures etc.). We keeps ours pinned up inside our pantry door for the year and then let them go when the next year’s photos roll in. Hope that helps!

  5. Great timing to start the new year off right! I’m adding a color for Health Care: EOB’s/claims, HSA/FSA, family members health records with their own folder for eye, immunizations records, injuries, test results, pharmacy, etc. As time goes by with technology advancements each generation has been able to declutter more with much less volume. It is so important to have things organized & ready. For those willing to tackle this it will help your loved ones tremendously. I know, i watched my parents struggle with this years ago. . Thank you, well done!

  6. i will be doing this for sure ! My biggest problem with organizing is “a place for everything and everything in its place”. My problem – i can’t figure out the “place”. However, i do think i can conquer the paper clutter with your tips. Thank you so much !!!

  7. I’m getting ready to tackle this at MY HOUSE!

    Believe it or not, I’m a paralegal and am in charge of OTHER PEOPLE’S filing LOL, but my own? Ugh!

    My question is did you put all birth certificates in one file marked, “birth certificates” or or did you make a file for each person and in that put their passports, birth certificates, etc.? I just can’t decide the best way to do this and am sure I am over analyzing the situation.

    Just wanted your thoughts on how best to do this. I can come up with the great colors, file tabs, etc., but its the actual filing system, I’m struggling with.

    I always worry “if I died” would someone be able to find stuff??!!

    Each category could be literally broken down or sorted into many different ways and I just want to make it as easy as possible.

    Let me know how what you did and any thoughts behind it.


    1. Hi Gina! We don’t have too many documents so I made one file for all of our families birth certificates, one for passports, and another for other “important certificates and documents”. I don’t think you can go wrong – as long as the system makes sense to you so that you will remember where you put things when you need them! Best of luck with your project:)

    1. Haha! It’s not the first time that someone has compared me to Monica Geller. Something to do with my massaging skills??

  8. How do you get things like long mortgage papers to fit so nicely? I always have ugly paper hangovers.

    1. Hi Carrie! I use legal sized files and a legal sized filing cabinet so they fit perfectly. Alternatively, you could fold the paper up so that it would fit better inside a letter sized file. Hope that helps!

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