To Be Filed: Reference Paper

This is an article that I come back to time and again when in need to refresh my office and purge paper. When this was originally posted in 2007, it helped me enormously. Enjoy this streamlined version and kick of 2010 with a better handle on your bills and files.

Editor’s Note: This is an article that I come back to time and again when in need to refresh my office and purge paper. When this was originally posted in 2007, it helped me enormously. Enjoy this streamlined version and kick of 2010 with a better handle on your bills and files.

-Erin Oltmanns, Managing Editor

So what is reference paper? Reference paper deals with the old, old piles that probably contain important information. We think. Reference paper is the stuff that takes up drawers and drawers of filing cabinets if we don’t know how long to keep certain items or exactly which items to keep. Reference paper is the kind of paper that drives us to buy new filing cabinets when the old ones fill up and makes us wonder exactly how many filing cabinets we need and whether we need a dedicated storage unit.

In all seriousness, reference paper is paper that contains important information ranging from warranties to bank statements. This is paper that we only refer to on occasion but that we would be in real trouble without. It’s vital to have a workable, accessible filing system for this kind of paper because the stakes of losing reference documents is high. You know this particularly if you’ve ever misplaced your passport and spent hours looking for it the night before an overseas vacation.

Here’s the good news: you can create a workable reference filing system WITHOUT ten filing cabinets or a storage unit. The key to creating this system hinges on two factors: the system itself and knowing the guidelines that govern paper retention.

The System

Let’s begin with the system itself. The truth of the matter is that there is important paper that finds its way into our lives amid the tide of junk mail. We have tax-related information, utility bills, receipts, warranties, instruction manuals, and insurance and bank statements to name a few. In order to track this information, we need somewhere to put it. Enter the reference filing system. There are many ways to construct a reference filing system. Let’s review some pros and cons.

We begin with the garden variety filing system. This system requires creating file folders for each type of item that enters your space: your credit card bills have their own folders, bills for each utility company have their own folders, warranties and instruction manuals have their own folders, etc. If you are currently using this type of system, you know that it’s relatively easy to construct and customize. Two points for the garden variety filing system!

If you are currently using this type of filing system you also know that it’s very, very easy to overstuff the file folders or keep creating new file folders because there are no built-in retention guidelines. This type of filing system is much better than nothing, but it can create overwhelming paper volume with little to no effort.

Record Retention Guidelines

If you currently use this type of system and it works for you, great! There’s no sense changing what works. If you find, as many people who have this type of system do, that you frequently have to purge your files but have questions about record retention guidelines, I offer the following link. This site provides guidelines to help you determine which items you no longer need.

If you use the garden variety reference filing system and it just isn’t working for you for whatever reason (usually it has to do with not knowing paper retention guidelines), I offer the following information on what I think is the SMARTEST reference filing system ever developed. No one is paying me to sing the praises of this filing system. But I use the system myself, and I know other organizers who use it as well. This system is uniquely designed to simultaneously aid with document filing and signal record retention guidelines. The filing system is called FreedomFiler®.


FreedomFiler is a self-purging filing system. That doesn’t mean that the file folders automatically eject paper that has been sitting for too long. (Darn.) The system is self-purging because the color-coded labels (there are over 800 pre-printed labels as well as blank, customizable labels) indicate the length of time a document should be kept. For instance, items you keep permanently are coded with red labels. These types of items are things like investment, home improvement, and warranty documents—documents you want to keep either for as long as you live or as long as you own the asset. Orange labels indicate documents that can be removed and replaced. These kinds of documents are things like insurance statements and credit card policies. Orange indicates that each time you receive a new statement or policy information, the old documents can be removed and discarded.

General Reference Filing System Helps

I leave you with a few tips to help you maintain a good system regardless of the type of system you choose:

  • If you are a business owner, you must keep business documents forever. If you are a homeowner, there are many documents that must also be kept, if not forever, at least for a very long time. Make sure that inactive documents are placed in either manila envelopes or white catalog envelopes, clearly labeled and archived in either banker’s boxes or plastic file tubs depending on your storage area. This will free up as much of your more active reference file areas as possible.
  • If you are positively buried in paper, consider hiring a professional organizer to teach you a system for dealing with your paper. As an organizer, I find that most people can very effectively maintain a system once it’s established, but creating that system amidst an avalanche of paper is not a common skill set. Be aware that paper takes a LONG TIME to process. The same three-inch stack of ten socks holds roughly 300 sheets of paper, so expect the process to go somewhat slowly. I can almost guarantee that you will be so overjoyed with the results that you will feel your resources were well-spent.
  • If you have boxes and boxes of old archived paper, find a local paper shredding company and take the paper to be shredded. The cost for shredding a banker’s box worth of paper is fairly nominal (around $12–15 per box, sometimes less if you have more than one box), and it will save you time as well as wear on your own paper shredder. Industrial shredders shred EVERYTHING: the box, staples and paper clips. And most shredding companies will let you watch the process so you can be sure that even the most sensitive information is turned to dust.
  • If you have a filing system set up but just hate dealing with paper altogether, hire a professional organizer (or even the ultra-responsible kid next door) to help you file. While I recommend an organizer to set up an actual system and train you on how to use it, once that system is in place, you can support your community by hiring a middle school or high school student whom you trust to maintain it. This arrangement can also be a great way to introduce a young person to a life skill and will save you of money on an hourly rate.
  • If you don’t already have your vital documents collected, commit to doing so. See the “Resources and Recommended Reading” section below for a product that will guide you through the process.
  • Finally, make maintaining your paper a priority. When you take time to maintain, you spend much less time dealing with build-up. And even better than that, you have a sense of being in control of your paper, which, quite frankly, is unbelievably liberating!


To Be Filed

Welcome to part three of our paper series! In September, we focused on what to do with children’s paper. Last month we talked about what to do with active paper. This month our focus shifts to reference paper.

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