April 15th was tax day here in the US. For some folks, tax time is a breeze: they take a box of papers to their accountant + head out for a coffee. For others, it’s only slightly less horrifying than their get-up for the senior prom.
Oddly enough, I enjoy the process and the paperwork at tax time. I’m that kid who used to play ‘office’ or ‘Realtor’ instead of ‘house.’ I have always loved papers and can vividly remember how desperately I wanted someone to mail me a bill – or something important – that I had to file away. To me, filing papers meant that you had arrived. (Ah, youth!)
Since I share my bizarre love of organization + papers openly, I am often asked by family + friends how to sort efficiently, what to keep, where to keep it, and for how long. In fact, a conversation with my mother-in-law about just that, inspired this post.
Post-tax season is the perfect time to sort through old papers, organize your office / studio, and clean the slate for a stress-free year…and it’ll make next tax season even easier! I’d suggest starting with your financial documents since they’ve recently been unearthed…but when you get to the random mementos pile and the infamous junk drawer / box / room, don’t stop.
This year, Spring cleaning will be epic.
Fortune Favors the Organized
The Financial Stuff
This is the no-brainer part of sorting. When it comes to finances, we either need something or we don’t. Since there isn’t any sentiment involved, there’s a lot less time spent hemming + hawing over whether or not we should keep something.
A boat load of articles have been written on what to keep and for how long, so I’m not going to add to that discussion. It’s pretty cut + dried anyway. But I do want to share this great resource from Get Buttoned Up with you, though. There’s a free printable chart to stick in the front of your filing cabinet!
Keeping these things in order will help your bottom line + reduce your blood-pressure, should you ever have to produce a specific document for tax / business purposes.
If you’re signed up for paperless billing (e-statements + the like) from your financial institutions, credit cards, and utilities, you’re ahead of the game. Log in to your accounts + double-check how far back your account records go. You may not need to fill a filing cabinet if your documents are permanently stored for you.
A financial adviser once told us that we only need to keep our most recent bills…no need to hang on to paid accounts. That said, I would suggest keeping hard copies of any discrepancies / closed accounts / etc. to cover your tush should the need arise.
Odds + Ends
Printed material seems to pile up quickly. Owner’s manuals, instruction booklets, and the like come with just about everything. Generally, we only keep papers for big ticket items like electronics, appliances, and power tools. More than the manuals, warranty information is especially important to keep. I’ve got all of ours in a large string-closure envelope for quick reference…though truth be told, I only open it when I’m adding to the collection or sorting through it to recycle papers for items we no longer own.
Feel lighter, yet?
With all of that mumbo-jumbo out of the way, we can move on to the fun stuff…
Sort Yourself Out
When we were getting ready for our big move from apartment to car (Back-story: we spent three months road tripping the good old US of A. It was a dream of ours and one we are grateful we had the opportunity to experience. Hopefully we’ll do it again with our kiddo!), we rented a storage unit + for the first time ever, were struck by the real cost of owning things.
We were going to be paying to keep everything we owned safe + dry – even though we wouldn’t be using it (and weren’t entirely sure when we would again.) Wanting to make every inch count, we came up with a game plan + stuck to it.
In order to sort, you need a few tools at your disposal: music (no lullabies – you’ve got to be awake), snacks (non-greasy finger foods are best), water (somehow everything you sort will be dusty + you will choke on it), boxes to sort things into, and if you’re feeling adventurous, a glass of wine.
We purchased a bundle of recycled file boxes + swear by them to this day. Their standard size keeps the piles equal in volume, and makes life easier when it comes time to stack them up. These babies can stack eight-high depending upon their contents! (Have you ever tried stacking old liquor boxes? In our experience, it doesn’t end well.) Not only that, but we’ve broken our boxes down for flat storage + reuse them as needed.
Get Out Your Tissues + Have At It!
Sorting can be emotional depending upon what’s in your pile, so make sure to sort when you feel positive about the task at hand. Crank your music, and the work will be through before you know it.
To start, we agreed upon how many keepsakes we were willing to trudge around with – not in number, but volume. We ended up deciding that we would each keep one small box of special cards / letters / mementos. Whenever they get full, we sort through them and make room for new memories.
We firmly believe that unless you’re willing to part with the old, the new will never feel welcome. It keeps your head + heart feeling light + open…and ready for whatever comes our way. It’s also interesting to see how our sentiment for different events changes over time.
Now, don’t get the wrong idea…I still have every love note Matt ever wrote, old ticket stubs, and a deflated balloon from a party among other things. I’m sentimental, but selective: purge only if it feels good. 😉
Thingamabobs? I’ve got plenty…
In terms of knickknacks / decorative items we decided that for us, one box was plenty. We also made a rule that anything smaller than our palm was up for serious consideration. We’ve seen many bookshelves, window sills, and ‘flat surfaces’ covered in tiny, forgotten things. It’s not our cup of tea. We have a handful of small things that are dear to us…the rest have moved on. You should alter the rules of keep / toss as you see fit. It just so happens that we had a plethora of small stuff, so for us, it was a ‘biggie.’
To help us decide on the more sentimental pieces (gifts that weren’t really ‘us’ or hand-me-down items that weren’t terribly useful) we’d ask ourselves if we were keeping an item because it made us feel happy or guilty. If we were hanging on to something out of guilt, it went in the box for charitable donation. Our reasoning: guilt is not a healthy thing to keep around…and we weren’t about to commit ourselves to it.
Hold that thought!
We also set aside a box for projects / ideas that we wanted to work on one day. This included things like magazine / newspaper clippings, web addresses, business cards, and recipes. Any supplies that we wanted to create with were stuck in there too. I specifically remember throwing an old pair of pajama pants in the box because I loved the fabric + wanted to reuse it.
When we got to the clippings + bits of paper, we had to get really honest with ourselves. We asked questions about the importance of the article (could we find the info easily again if we wanted it? Oh look, it’s online!), the likelihood that we’d try a recipe (Hard to find ingredients? Maybe we’ll just find a restaurant that prepares it!), or if the image still spoke to us (Really? I used to like that!?).
We quickly turned a one foot stack of papers (no joke, I measured) into a one inch pile. That small pile then made it into various folders / binders for quick reference. The easier it is to access something, the more likely you are to use it.
On to the bookshelves!
At the time, we had already started trimming down our book collection + supporting our local library, but we still had a decent number of books at home. Basically, we got rid of anything we knew we wouldn’t re-read. Things like reference books (thanks to Google!), bargain books (bought because they were cheap + looked interesting – but ended up unread), and ‘bad’ books (they started out so well) were all sorted to go.
We took the books to our library for their annual book sale / fundraiser, donated others to a prison books program, and sent the rest to interested readers via BookMooch (some of our books went to Europe!).
Spread the wealth!
The same rules were applied to art / craft / office supplies. Local summer camps + after school programs are often more than happy to take this stuff of off your hands. Thankfully we didn’t donate all of our excess supplies, or we wouldn’t have connected with these amazing ladies!
We didn’t have offspring when we were sorting for the road, but spreading the wealth works with kid’s toys as well. Every few months we’ll ask the bean what toys aren’t really doing it for her anymore + she selects a few items for ‘kids who don’t have as much as me.’ Not only does it keep her room a bit less chaotic, but it keeps her aware of just how good she’s got it. (Great discussions come about from exercises like this…be ready!)
Can it get any funner!? Yes. Yes it can.
All right, Mr. DeMille. I’m ready for my close-up.
There is no day that an impromptu fashion show doesn’t make better. Matt and I tried on all of our clothes and were able to donate a significant amount to a non-profit. Packing our bags has never been easier: everything fits us + looks good! Solo? Invite an honest friend (and their wardrobe!) over for the day. Instagram, anyone?
Have wee ones? How could this not be fun!? Ours plays dress-up nearly every day + is quick to inform us when something doesn’t fit. Kids fashion shows (regardless of gender) can be great fun on a rainy day. Add a few masks / hats / swords / wings for hours of laughter + delight.
Speaking of close-ups, be sure to sort your bathroom closet / medicine cabinet as well…check those expiration dates + get rid of any old toiletries, make-up, or medication.
Light as a Feather
Eventually, we worked our way through all of the closets, drawers, shelves, and shoe boxes. The weight that was lifted + the freedom we felt were reward enough, but we treated ourselves to Chinese take-out + a movie.
Sorting is very therapeutic…and it’s proven that a clean space encourages mental clarity as well. There’s a reason yoga studios are so sparse. After sorting, you’ll not only enjoy a clean environment, but I’m betting that you’ll feel lighter + more inspired to work!
Here’s to the death of clutter, painless tax preparation, and a clean mind!
P.S. Remember to get receipts for your charitable donations (US / Canada) when possible…they’ll come in handy when tax time rolls around again.