How we handle Paper

Erin wrote:

Our biggest problem area is paper– mail, bills, cards, owners manuals, newspapers, interesting magazine articles, letters, shopping lists, coupons, receipts we think we might need but really never will… all this paper seems to take over our kitchen and family room and drive me crazy. Any tips for controlling the paper frenzy?

My father in law has a saying “you take your mail, and you deal with it” — what that meant to the young adults who had come back to the nest after college was that if you mail was not off the counter by the next morning it would be thrown away! I am not a “paper person” by nature, but I really took this advice to heart, and I think that my husband and I have found a great way of dealing with our paper, so perhaps it will work for others.

We have a drawer of our living room desk devoted to mail. It used to be a basket, so if you don’t have a drawer, no worries. When I get the mail, the trash goes straight in the trash, the bills, invitations and other things go into the drawer, often unopened. I also throw in doctors receipts that my husband will need to submit at work, papers from household maintenance, anything that is going to need to get filed or dealt with.

Every (almost) Sunday night after the kids are in bed we sit down and sort through the drawer. We pay the bills, or put them back to pay the next week. We balance our check book, we look over our calendar and make any plans for the coming week or month. My husband puts the things that he needs to take to the office right into his bag. If it is not too late, I might RSVP for parties right then, too, or else I make myself a little Monday morning “to do” list.

We have a large file box (plastic, from Staples), we have moved so often that a file cabinet did not make sense for us, but we may switch over to that in the future. At the end of each Sunday meeting, there are usually two or three things that need to get filed. You can google for a list of what papers and receipts really need to get saved and which can get thrown out or shredded.

If we do our filing right then, it only takes a few minutes because the pile is always small. The bills tend to come in heavier some weeks of the month than others, but even on a busy week the process only takes about a half an hour.

Now — once this system is going it really is easy, but this may not seem helpful if you have a dining table full of mail and more mail coming in every day. Here is what I would do — make two baskets. One will be your ongoing Sunday (or some other time) meeting basket, and new mail will go in there. Into the other basket, sweep all that nagging paper that is cluttering up your surfaces. For the next few weeks, when you sit down to meeting, do the new basket first, then plan to spend half an hour sorting through old stuff. Do NOT stay up all night working on it, just do some and stop. When two of you are working, this goes really fast, I do secretarial stuff like address envelopes, open letters, etc, while my husband pays the bills online, so it all goes really quickly. If you have a super ton of paper that needs to get dealt with, you might want to tackle that basket a few extra nights a week until you get caught up, but don’t sit down to it until your other evening chores are finished, dishes, etc. Put down your knitting or other hobbies for a few days until you get it all under control, but really, it will go fast. Have a trash can right at your feet, and if there is stuff that you cannot decide about on your own, move it to the Sunday basket to discuss with your husband.

Our file box has a lot of categories, but since we bought our own house I have decided to also keep a home maintenance notebook that is separate from the file box. I keep this in another drawer of the secretary, and for now I am just tossing things that need to go into the notebook in the drawer. One quiet evening I will sit down with my whole puncher and catch up those files so that will also switch to something that just has to be maintained.

I also have a notebook for recipes that I keep on the shelf with my cookbooks, if I pull something out of a magazine, print it out or get it from a friend it goes into that notebook.

With this baby (#5), I have used one all season diaper bag the whole time and I have kept the baby’s immunization and growth record right in a pocket of that bag, and this way I don’t have to remember it when I go to the doctor. Mrs. Kennedy (the mother of John F.) kept a note card file for each of her children’s health records, which I don’t do but think is a great idea, it would be an easy thing to jot down “stomach flu” or “well visit” or “head lice” and the date, and hopefully you never need the record but if you have a child who turns out to be chronically ill, it would help, for example, a certain number of ear infections per year and you are supposed to get tubes, but in the midst of the nasty ear infected winter can you remember if your child had six or three last year, or who had what? I have a terrible memory, so a paper trail would really help.

Well, I hope that some of those are things that can help you conquer the paper trail. If Sunday night is not good for you, or if you pay the bills alone, I still think it is great to have a regular time to do it so that it will really get done.

One last thing. I can’t say that we always do this, but I try hard to remember to offer some prayers during this Sunday meeting, prayers for the activities we have coming in our week, prayers for generous hearts and good stewardship of what we have, prayers of thanksgiving that we are able to pay our bills, even on the weeks when things seem really tight or tense. This helps us to have perspective. Oh, and if your husband doesn’t want to do this with you, you can tell him that looking at the bills each month has been a reality check for me, and they say the one who pays the bills spends less, so if you do it together you will have better stewardship of your money — I go around turning off lights now like I am my own grandpa, and I love to watch the electric bill go down!


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