My personal guidelines on document files.

Going through and decluttering your filing cabinet can be a nightmare when it has been neglected for a long time. So I have written a set of guidelines below that I use to declutter my files and to avoid paperwork buildup in the first place.

  1. Don’t file anything you don’t need to keep. By “need” I mean absolutely should keep. Don’t allow anxiety to force you to keep documents that aren’t really important. Only keep tax papers for the government prescribed length of time then declutter them.
  2. Switch to as many digital documents (bills, newsletters, school notes etc) as possible so the paper has less chance to invade your home and to build up.
  3. Once a bill is paid, and the next statement comes through that confirms that, declutter the previous statement.
  4. Pay bills by cheque or bank deposit so you have a permanent digital bank record of the transaction. This way you can be secure in decluttering paper statements.
  5. Scan documents you declutter if you feel the need, rather than being worrying that you shouldn’t have parted with them.
  6. Every time you file a paper under it’s specific label check that file to see if there is an older document that could be decluttered.
  7. Use the smallest document/file holder necessary for your needs. This way you are forced to declutter it regularly or there won’t be room to add to it.

I hope you find this list of guidelines useful and that you will end up with a big reduction of paper in your file drawers and ultimately reduce the number of drawers you need.

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About Colleen Madsen

Colleen is the founder of 365 Less Things and lives in Newcastle, Australia.


  1. I totally agree with these excellent tips, Colleen. It is easy to create a paper beast – if you do not have a simple system in place and use that system – that will later take too much time to tame. When it comes to decluttering paper, you can usually find something that has outlived its usefulness.

    It is also very easy to create digital clutter, by having the same bad habits that got you into trouble with paper clutter. Digital clutter might not impinge on our consciousness in the same way as physical clutter, but it can build up in a similar (or even quicker) manner. Your first tip applies equally well to our digital filing cabinets.

    • It is really easy for me too Nicole because my husband is the main organiser/declutterer of paper in our house. I generally step in when it comes to decluttering the manuals and warranty papers. Like when an item breaks down and is replaced I always remove the old useless manuals etc from the broken item.

      • I do that with the manuals, too. I also keep all the manuals as thin as possible by removing all the non-English pages – every little bit helps. 🙂

        • Idgy of the North

          Great tip, Nicole V. We also look online to see if the manual is available electronically. We then bookmark the e-manual and recycle the paper one.

          • Thanks, Idgy. We do have digital copies for some of the newer products, but most of the manuals are physical copies. I keep them all in one place, with the receipts, warranties, and any bits and bobs that came with them. They take up very little space and are easy to retrieve. They come in useful when we donate or sell the products.

        • That’s a good idea about taking out the non English pages to save room.

  2. Colleen – I took some time tonight and went thru our accordion file and weeded out some warranties and instruction manuals. Felt good to generating a pile of clutter, thanks for the idea!

    Today I gave away our 6 person picnic set to a friend. Large picnic sets are hard to come by and my friend was very happy as her kids are young and enjoy family outings.

    I also have a box of sewing patterns going tomorrow.

    Last week my younger daughter asked for the Play Station 3 and today asked for the PS2 as well so tonight I have been packing that up to send to her tomorrow.

    Oh and two large plastic storage bins were given to work to hold safety gear in the back of vehicles.

    It feels good to be on a bit of a roll.

    • Nice bit of decluttering there Moni. Well done. And I am glad I inspired a little paperwork decluttering.
      And while I have you here. Thank you for all the rhinestones you have sent through. The second batch arrived last week. They are getting well used.
      Also I am looking forward to meeting you in person next year as hubby and I are planning a two month stay in New Zealand. I will insist on coming your way.

      • Colleen that would be fantastic to meet you in person. Its not a big country I’m sure I can make my way to wherever you go.

        I’m glad the rhinestones are being used – pretties need to be seen, not stashed away in a cupboard!

        • Hi Moni, we are intending to hire a motorhome off and on while we are there so we will come to you.

    • Idgy of the North

      Way to go, Moni! You are on fire with your decluttering.

  3. These are excellent guidelines Colleen. As you all know, I am not a happy camper when there is clutter and that includes paper clutter. I try to go through my files, both paper and digital, every couple of months. If I don’t need it I get rid of it. Sure takes less room.

  4. Hi Colleen,

    I will be “in order” this week!!! I save a lot of sentimental or funny things in my file cabinet, or things about nutrition or gardening. I realized recently though that I have less need to save articles about nutrition or gardening because I can find all of that online. So, what I have left to go through for now are the sentimental & funny papers. Most of the business-y type stuff is current & kept in our file cabinet in the living room, which I keep mostly current. I have given myself a couple of jobs for tomorrow, so it will be these files… Thanks for the reminder! 🙂

    • Hi Peggy, with the ability to find almost anything online these days there is little need for paper clutter. I am glad you have come to that realisation and are culling yours. Happy decluttering.

  5. I really am a roll this week.
    Some jewellery going to the Hospice store, a necklace going to my daughter.
    A floating shelf set going to the Hospice store plus a commemorative All Blacks weetbix tin. I almost feel I should hand in my Kiwi status parting with it, but I don’t actually like weetbix. Some rugby fan will swoon with happiness!
    An instruction manual I found last night is being dropped off to the guy who bought a keyboard off us a year or two ago. (he was very pleased to hear from me)

  6. Idgy of the North

    We are just back from holiday. It was shocking opening up our closests/cupboards in our home and seeing all this stuff when we had happily lived out of small carry on sized backpacks for a couple of weeks. I will start with paper and see if there is more that is no longer helpful/useful.

    • Hi Idgy, I do the same thing every time I get home after living out or a backpack. Best to jump in right away and let some go.

  7. Colleen, these are great tips. I cleaned out my files the last couple of years, and it is so nice to have them not take up so much space! I usually keep my taxes and supporting documents for 7 years and then I dispose of all but the return itself. I finally gave up all but a couple of my files clipped from magazines and such that you THINK you will refer to later and never do. I am thinking about recycling those final two without looking inside (because I will think, once again, that I want to keep that info!). I have started shredding the previous month’s bills and bank statements when I get the new one. That avoids that end of year shredding at once! I’m sure I do need to have a look at my service manuals again, though. Thanks for the reminder!

    • Well done you Brenda! However I am going to ask why do you keep the tax return forms when you don’t need to. Also you could always file them digitally on your computer rather than keep the papers.

      • Colleen, everything I have ever read says to keep the actual return forever. However, I have been wondering what could possibly be wrong with only keeping the last 7 years? I think the only way you would ever need them is if you were somehow accused of fraud and had to prove otherwise. then I’m don’t think there’s any limit to how far the IRS can go back. I’m not totally sure about the rules, though. And I don’t do digital, so I keep a hard copy.

        Side note! After I moved all my things to my husband’s extra office room to have yard sales thru Oct, the location has been SOLD!!!! He has to move, and looks like I may not even have all of Sept weekends to sell!! (I’ve had two sales so far, then it got too hot!) I have been frantically going through more household goods because when this is over, I’m hopefully through with yard sales!!! (mainly because I have to haul my stuff elsewhere to be at a good location). Don’t faint, but I have given up lots more of my SHEET collection. Ha-ha. I’m not nearly as full of sheet now as I was!!! 🙂
        But, I still have plenty. The problem is I have some wonderful old, great quality cotton sheets I can’t seem to part with. You just can’t find ’em like that anymore. And I bought some for 25cents each once at a army base. I used them for years and they are still like new. Good quality made for the army, I guess. They are stamped Fort Devin, so I guess it looks like I stole them. At 25 cents, I just about DID!!!

        Anyway, I’m just about through with this part of it. There will be plenty more to deal with later. Everything that leaves makes me feel more free!!!! Thanks again for keeping all of us encouraged and for all the 365 family!

        • Brenda – I’ll wade in on the tax return thing as I’m an office manager. In general most Inland Revenue’s are happy with digital copies. There is some variation on current year, in NZ we’re allowed/encouraged to be fully digital, I believe in Australia they have to keep hard copies until the end of financial year (correct me if I’m wrong Colleen). But historic ie beyond the current financial year, digital is considered safer than paper. Most receipts, till slips etc are printed on thermal paper and fade after a year or so.

          • Moni, thank you for your I put. I’m in the USA. I don’t know if things are different here, do you? A tax lady does our returns digitally, and I have wondered how long they are in her computer files. I suppose I should ask her advice.

            • Errrrr, that was supposed to have been INput! 🙂

              • LOL, Brenda! Your joke about the sheets reminded me of something (unrelated) I read online: “He who buys what he does not need steals from himself.”

                • That is a good one, Nicole!! I am going to commit it to memory! I bought some note cards at the thrift store yesterday that I didn’t need. Yes, I use gobs of them, but don’t like it when I have so many. My paper fetish demon makes me do it. I think this verse of yours may help me!! Thank you!!!

                  • My pleasure, Brenda. I think it’s a Swedish proverb. “My paper fetish demon makes me do it.” – LOL!

            • Brenda & Deb J – the American system of personal tax returns seems noticeably more complicated than ours. I would imagine scanning and printing back out would be acceptable. Deb J, I recall you discussing tax and medical insurance forms once upon a time, could you please add your thoughts?

              • Brenda and Moni, the US says you need to keep your personal tax returns for 3-7 years. It is okay to go digital as long as you can print it out in a legible format if audited. If you go digital there is a need to make sure you have also made digital copies of all your supporting documents like receipts, W-2’s, 1099’s, etc. I always suggest to people that they start with now and discard the paper ones as they pass out of the timeline for keeping them. Thus when you do this years taxes you would store the digitally but have 2-6 years of old paper returns. These would be shredded over the next few years to where eventually you would no longer have paper files. There are various tax apps ot there you can use to keep everything together but I suggest just making PDF’s of everything. You don’t have to get fancy. If someone else does your taxes for you, ask the to email you a copy of what they have done. In most cases they can do this and you can put your copy on an external hard drive or on the cloud. Depending on the tax person they may have software that also digitally stores all your supporting paperwork and can give you a copy of all of it.

                • Brenda & Deb J – when I decided to digitise our records at work – keeping in mind that 7 years of business records is a LOT papers – for me it was at least 3-4 archive boxes per year. There were only 6 months left in the 7th year ie the oldest records, so I left those to just quietly countdown to document destruction time.. I then started converting to PDF in reverse. I wanted it all done and out of the way, as there were two sets of shelves dedicated to housing all these archive boxes and I wanted to get rid of those too. However I went in reverse so that if there came a point where my time was needed elsewhere or I lost interest, the remaining years could also quietly countdown to document destruction time in the background. I would also have the bonus of clearing at least one set of shelves by doing the first few years.

                  Once you begin, it is quite cleansing to get rid of it all. These days the majority of invoices arrive by e-mail and bank statements are accessed and filed via internet banking, so digital filing is part of my every day working life.

                  The other consideration when filing in the cloud – make sure the server company is registered to your country. Technically if you use an overseas service, your tax records are held in another country. Inland Revenues universally expect tax records to be accessible within THEIR country. This shouldn’t be an issue in America, however smaller countries need to keep this in mind when choosing their cloud supplier.

                  • Wow! What a big job Moni. I can’t imagine digitizing that many documents. I hadn’t thought of making sure your cloud service was in your country. Makes sense.

          • I don’t actually know Moni, my hubby does our tax. I do believe it is digital once the return has been lodged but don’t quote me on that.

            • Colleen, I just want to comment on how nice it must be to have a hubby who takes care of some of the paperwork!!!

              • That, vacations and being the bread winner. I live a privileged life these days. And yet he is still a lucky man. After all I am very useful and resourceful as well. 😉

  8. Last night was more about getting the house tidied up than decluttering but I did grab a cardboard box from the super to start a new out box. I put out a pair of polar fleece pjs out and three 8×10 photo frames. I am considering a digital photo frame too but I’ll have to check with hubby on that one first. Via skype, my daughter and I went thru a bag of costume jewellery from her competitive dancing days, she doesn’t want it but she would like it to be passed onto another young dancer, so I’m making enquiries.
    I’ll try and keep up the pace over the weekend, a little bit here, a little bit there.

    • You are on a roll right now Moni. Well done! Maybe there is something to this spring cleaning thing I am feel in the mood to clear more stuff from the nest as well. That and finish unfinished and long awaited projects.

  9. Hi Colleen,

    I got out my last stack of files from the inactive file cabinet to go through (for now… this project will require several passes).. It was an 8″ stack. I went through about 1/2 of it this morning, making a pile for my husband to decide on (he kept nothing!)… pretty tedious work, looking through moving & deed & mortgage & township type stuff… the sentimental stuff is coming up, that should be a bit more interesting 🙂

  10. Colleen, I’d like to thank you and everyone again for this post about paper. I decided to look again into my files where I have saved articles and info. (those kind that you never look at again, as I mentioned before!). I thought I had weeded them out all but a couple. Was I wrong!!!!! I still had 10 file folders! I just went through and eliminated over 3 lbs of paper!!! (for recycle) Most of the files on crafts and ideas now looked to me like something to be created to dust! Ha!! I even eliminated my “Simplicity/Organization” file. :). I have a few things left for another pass through later, but I got rid of 7 out of 10 heavy duty folders. The rest will likely go soon.

    • Brenda – that is a fantastic effort! Well done you! I had a chuckle about the simplicity/organisation folder.

      • Moni, I figured I didn’t need my simplicity file when I have access to you and others here at 365!!!! Much more fun than a stagnant file!! 🙂

    • Well done Brenda. It is like ripping off the bandaid, most of the pain is in thinking about it, once done you never give it another thought.