How to prevent the infamous mail pile-up

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Without a good system for managing your mail, a paper pileup can often result. Most mail items — other than the obvious junk mail, which can be discarded — require a decision or a response, and that means they are opportunities for procrastination. The good news is that managing your mail can be much less daunting if you invest a little time upfront to create an efficient system.

Step 1: Create a Mail-Sorting Center

I recommend that you create a sorting center and adopt the discipline of reviewing your mail as soon as you enter your house. These steps will prevent clutter from piling up, bills from getting lost and deadlines from being missed.

To set up a well-functioning center for sorting your mail, you will need a small area to house fewer than 10 folders, right next to where you sort your mail. Since I sort my mail at my dining table, I use a portable file box that can be stowed away after I sort. Consider what would work for you — options include a small section of an existing filing cabinet or stacked trays on your desk. Having a recycling bin close at hand would be ideal.

What goes in your files? Your file box or your trays should contain files that are relevant to your everyday life, meaning items related to upcoming events or deadlines. That means that papers such as bank statements or medical records don’t belong here. Keep in mind that the goal is to constantly purge your mail-sorting files, moving items out to file for long-term storage or to recycle or shred. Here are the file folders in my file box:

1. Bills. All unpaid bills go in this folder. I usually pay my bills as soon as I receive them, so for me, this folder is almost always empty. But I have friends who prefer to pay their bills on a weekly or biweekly schedule. Keeping them in a file means that when it is time to pay, all bills are in the folder and won’t end up lost or overdue.

2. Action. Inevitably, you’ll receive mail that requires a response, further reading or follow-up. I place invitations, school forms and pending items in this folder. After the event is over or the item is resolved, I recycle these papers.

3. Scan. Scanning is a great way to reduce paper clutter, particularly for documents that need to be referenced but not kept long term. Having a digital copy can give you the freedom to toss the original. I recommend setting aside half an hour every week to scan your documents and store them digitally. It is much less painful to do this regularly than it is to put it off until you have a pileup. Of course, there are times when you may not feel comfortable getting rid of an original document. But for those that you are comfortable tossing, place them in this folder as they await scanning.

4. Shred. As soon as I pay a bill or scan a personal document I don’t need to keep, I place it in my shred folder. I don’t have a home shredder, so when this folder gets full, I take it to my local shredding service or take advantage of my city’s free shredding day. Alternatively, you could shred at home if you have a personal shredder.

5. Taxes. Although items in this folder aren’t exactly related to everyday life, I make an exception for this category because I regularly receive documents that are tax-related, such as donation receipts, medical receipts and property tax invoices. It works for me to have this folder right where I open my mail. By the end of the year, my folder contains all the documents I need to complete my taxes. It’s nice not to have to spend time searching through different folders and risk forgetting important tax-related documents.

6. Receipts. I’m one of those people whose 90-day warranty item breaks on day 91. So I like to keep my receipts either a) until I’m sure I won’t return the item, or b) until the warranty runs out. If it’s an option, I’ll always choose an email receipt rather than a paper one, for ease of searching later. However, I don’t keep receipts for groceries or items I’ve already started using and that don’t have a warranty.

When you sort your mail, what categories are important to you? I recommend you keep fewer than 10 categories in your file box. The idea is that your system is simple so that it is not hard to maintain. Think about what documents you truly need to keep. If you’re not sure what those are, you may want to consider the recommendations in this guide.

Step 2: Reduce Your Influx of Mail

Traditional filing cabinets take up precious real estate, and perhaps you’d rather use that space for a cozy chair or a beautiful plant. Although it may not be feasible to go completely paperless — after all, you need physical copies of important documents such as birth certificates, house deeds and auto pink slips — minimizing your incoming physical mail can feel great. Here are some ways to do so:

Sign up for paperless billing. Instead of receiving paper bills through the mail, you can receive most of your bills via email and pay them online. Since I check my email far more often than I check my physical mailbox, I am less likely to miss a bill. By registering to pay bills online, I no longer have to wonder where my statements are filed. Nor do I actually have to file my statements! I know exactly where to find them and can access them any time without having paper copies clog up my home.

Sign up for online bill pay. One of the features of online banking is the ability to pay bills through your bank’s website. In the comfort of your home, you can pay a bill without needing to write a check, buy an envelope and a stamp, and travel to a post office. Plus, you can request e-bills for many vendors directly through your bank’s website, which means you can log into your bank’s website and see many of your statements all in one place.
Store your passwords safely. I recommend that you create a spreadsheet with your account information, save it to an external hard drive and store it in a secure place such as a safe. For security reasons, it’s best not to store the spreadsheet on your computer hard drive or your account passwords in your email. If you prefer to keep a paper version of your password spreadsheet, be sure to also store it in a secure location. It is reassuring to have a digital or paper spreadsheet with your account information, since these ensure that after you shred your statements and invoices, you’ll still be able to find your documents, a few keyboard clicks or a phone call away.

Invest in a scanner. While most of your bills can be converted to paperless, you will still no doubt have some important papers coming into your house such as children’s school information, documents with original signatures or pet records, among others. Scanning documents will give you the freedom to toss your papers, but do make sure you digitally file them in a way you can easily find and retrieve them later.

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