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At Your Fingertips | Spring 2007 Out Here Magazine

Create a filing system to match your work style; what works for someone else doesn’t necessarily work for you.

Create a home filing system to save time, aggravation

By Andrea Estrada
Photography by Christopher Barth

It's Sunday afternoon and your water heater has sprung a leak. You're sure it's still under warranty, but darned if you know where the paperwork is to prove your claim.

Or you need to drop your cat at the boarding kennel on the way out of town, but must provide proof of a current rabies vaccination. Where's the certificate from your veterinarian?

If you had an efficient home filing system, each of these records would be easy to find and easy to access.

Sound daunting? It isn't. All you really need are folders, labels, and a place to keep them — traditional file cabinet, a portable file box, binders. Whatever you prefer.

How you categorize, arrange, and name the files also depends on your particular needs.

Everyone can benefit from a properly maintained set of files, says Ariane Benefit, a professional organizer and owner of Neat Living.

"But take a look at your lifestyle and your working style and use your habits to the best advantage," she says. "Don't try to implement a filing system that doesn't match your work style. What works for someone else won't necessarily work for you."

Begin by examining your administrative life, then figuring the best way to categorize it. If you have a lot of medical expenses, devote a few folders to that alone. Household items should have a folder, as should financial matters, important documents, and even the family pet.

"Have separate sections for household, career, medical, financial, and other categories," Benefit says. "That way, you don't have to access the whole filing system just to get one item.

Certainly a "Pending" folder — a place to hold items that will require action in the near future — should be part of your system. Affix colorful sticky notes to bills and other items that require special attention to remind you to handle them, Benefit suggests.

"That way, when you take the paper out again you won't have to review it to remind yourself what you're supposed to do with it," she says.

A "Pending" folder could contain items such as medical claims you have submitted to your insurance company but have yet to be paid; confirmations for online purchases you are waiting to receive; rebate offers you have submitted for reimbursement; anything for which you are awaiting a reply.

When you receive the payment, signature, shipment, etc., move the papers to the appropriate folder.

Keep your filing system concise by choosing labels that are general rather than specific. Instead of using company names such as ABC Mortgage, label the folder "Mortgage" and toss into it anything associated with your mortgage. You won't have to write out new labels if your mortgage changes hands.

If you use hanging folders, don't bother with manila folders, Benefit suggests. They add bulk to the system, she says, and aren't really necessary.

"I spend a lot less time filing and it takes less than 20 seconds to add a new file," she says. "Plus, I save money on folders."

Andrea Estrada is a writer in Santa Barbara, CA.