Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The importance of a good file cabinet

I have a good friend who told me she had trouble dealing with her papers. She said that she considers herself a paper hoarder, hanging onto papers for far too long. She said she also tends to bury them somewhere until they no longer are valid. She saves receipts in a box and doesn’t know what to do with them. Because she doesn’t know what to do with her papers, she boxes them up and stacks those boxes in growing piles.

I went over to visit her and help her with organization and while there, I noticed that she didn’t have a file cabinet. All of a sudden, the problem came into focus. She had a paper problem because there was no good place to put the papers that she needed!

Everyone is going to have important papers they have to save and reference from time to time, and a file cabinet is the most efficient way to do that.

How to choose a file cabinet in the right size

When I was a college student, I kept my important papers in a plastic accordion file. I really didn’t have many important papers to keep. I had some bills, bank statements, check stubs, resumes, rental agreements, my car title, and novelty items (like directions for how to play a diatonic harmonica and an application from the Treeclimbers Association). I have this tendency to give things pretentious names, so I labeled my accordian file, “FilE 4 tHe puRsuiT & cAptUre (not to mention AbDuctTiOn) of TriViA & otHeR niTpiCkY dEtAilS.”

When I got married, my husband had his important papers and we merged them together, though not completely at first. They no longer fit in my accordion file, so we got two mobile file boxes. His papers went into blue hanging files, and mine went into red hanging files. In time, we outgrew those two mobile boxes and this was when we bought our first metal file cabinet with two drawers. We kept the file boxes, and they held all the papers associated with our computers as well as instruction manuals for all the technology we owned.

I tell this story not to bore you but to show you that our file containers grew as our needs grew. The amount of important papers in one’s life grows and changes with our circumstances.

My friend decided to take my advice and she bought herself a filing cabinet. (I have yet to see what it looks like.) Although she was a novice to the experience of creating files and filing, she went at it full tilt and called me to tell me about her progress in this and her other organizing efforts. She was using a label maker to label her files and going through her boxes. I commended her aesthetic approach, but let her know that she should never allow herself to feel unable to create files if her label maker ever breaks down. Large, neatly written labels are just as functional as beautiful ones printed by a $100 labeling machine. The important thing is to have labels, period.

For any of you who have never used a file cabinet and who may be wondering in what circumstances it can be useful, I will share times when have a file has been handy.

Example #1: I file my paid bills. Every year or so, I go through my file, and file a spreadsheet with dollar amounts and usage amounts for the year. This helps me keep an eye on the amounts in our budget. If unexpectedly high bills come in, I can refer to my files and compare it to the past to see what the problem is. Every year I purge my files of the previous year’s bills.

Example #2: I keep my resume and job search materials in a file folder. When I have to go looking for a job, I use that information often. When I get a new job, I add information to my file on where my job is, who my supervisor is and how they can be reached, what my wage is, and what my duties are. During the course of each job, I try to add to my file accounts of special projects I completed and skills I used and acquired, and any quantifiable data about my achievements. (For instance, when I worked as a writing tutor for ASU, I was able to gather data from ASU’s computers that over the course of three years, I had tutored over 400 students on their writing!) When leaving a job, I try to get a letter of recommendation from my supervisor, and I add that letter to my file. Information from my file helps me craft my resumes, cover letters, and even my thank you letters.

Example #3: We make charitable contributions to our church throughout the year and also contribute to a few other charities. Any time we get a receipt for those, they go in a file folder. Around the beginning of the year, all our W-2s and 1099s and interest statements are filed in the same folder. When tax time arrives, I pull out that folder and start adding up how much our charitable deductions will be. The file steadily accumulates all the paperwork that we need to do our taxes. Why use a shoebox for receipts when a file folder will take up so much less space?

How to organize your files

Hanging files usually come with several sheets of cardstock labels that one can tear out as needed. The labels are usually printed on one side with letters of the alphabet or months of year, just in case that happens to be your filing scheme. However, these pre-printed labels are more misleading than useful to the filing novice, who may make the unwarranted assumption that everyone must file their papers in alphabetical order or by the months of the year. * The reality is, you would be best served by ignoring the alphabet and the months and making your own categories that make sense to you. If you go by the alphabet, you’ll get confused about whether to file your car’s title under A (for “auto”) or C (for “car”) or T (for “transportation” or "title") and then it will be even harder to find it when you want it again. Instead, just make a label for “car” and put everything relating to your car in there. For another example, you wouldn’t want to file all your bills by month because if you wanted to look at pattern of charges on a single utility, you would have to open twelve folders instead of just one to get to what you needed, and then you’d have to put them back in twelve folders instead of just one, which means there are twelve chances of mis-filing something in the wrong folder! Having to open only one folder is much more efficient than opening twelve folders.

File subdivisions

Hanging folders should be for only the most general of categories. Then, manila folders can be used within that folder to get better organization.

Car (hanging file)

  • Title
  • Insurance policy (manila folder)
  • Repair records (manila folder)

You can file bills for car payments there too, but I personally think it is easier to put all regular bills in their own manila folder in a larger hanging folder marked “Bills.” If all bills are together, it is easier to file them after paying them because they will all go to the same hanging folder.

Bills (hanging file)

  • Electrical (manila folder)
  • City/water (manila folder)
  • Phone (manila folder)
  • Credit card (manila folder)
  • Car payment (manila folder)
  • Car insurance payment (manila folder)
  • TV (manila folder)

Yes, the Bills hanging file can become large over the year, but that makes it fun to purge it every twelve months.

Finally, put the hanging folders in an order such that the files that you access most often are easiest to get to. For instance, the folder you put tax deductible receipts in should be more accessible because you’ll likely add to it throughout the year, but the folder that holds your past year tax returns can be in a much less accessible spot (i.e., the back) because you only open it once a year.

For more detailed information about filing, you can read Sally Allen's article "Organize Your Filing Systems: A Four-Step Formula That Really Works."

Happy filing!

* If you wonder why folder manufacturers provide alphabet labels and month labels, my best guess is that they are for businesses who have to keep a folder for each of their clients. Alphabetizing would make sense in that context. Or, if they may want to collect all their receipts and invoices from a single month together, having labels with the months already on them would make sense. But for us, they are useless.


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