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How to organize important papers

Let's face it, people often have different ideas as to what constitutes organization. Some think that organizing important papers means stacking them in piles on the dining room table. Others stow them in a cardboard box. But there are better methods to keeping files, bills and more in check.

Having a paper trail can be messy and impractical. Searching for forms or bills wastes time and may result in missed deadlines or payments. There are ways to cull the clutter. Here are a few time-saving organizational tips.

* Designate a basket or a drawer to serve as a collection point for mail. When it comes time to sort through it, you only have to go to one place.

* Choose a place where you will store items to file away. A file cabinet is a logical source, but it can be a drawer or a box in the closet, as long as it is organized for easy access.

* Files can be separated in different ways. Folders can be used to break down files into specifics, such as a folder for utility bills and one for insurance papers. The folders also can be organized by date. Try separating paid bills into bi-monthly folders. This way you only have to search in one folder to find a specific piece of paperwork.

* Do not keep unnecessary papers. They should be shredded and put in the recycling bin promptly to cut down on the amount of clutter.

* Consider using a digital method to organize files and paperwork. Use a scanner to copy paperwork and then store the scanned file on your computer. Use a flatbed scanner or a speciality easy-feed scanner. The latter type of scanner might even come with programs to organize receipts, bills and whatever else you would like to store. Organize the folders on the computer so that you can easily find the item you need.

* Think about scanning children's schoolwork as well. Students are often sent home with multiple papers and assignments each day. Locate the "keepers" and create a digital scrapbook. Any documents that are being stored on a computer should be backed up to an external drive or CD.

* Cut down on clutter at home by opting out of junk mail. Also, opt to have paperless statements for bills. This way you only need to access your e-mail or a bill-paying program when the time comes to pay monthly bills.

* Routinely go through your files and see which items no longer have to be stored. Most bill stubs can be thrown out after a year. Financial paperwork and receipts should be saved for several years in the event of an audit.

* Separate files into what can be stored at home and what is best stored somewhere in a safer location, like a safety deposit box. Car titles, credit card policies and numbers, pay stubs, home improvement receipts, medical records, insurance policies, tax records, and bill stubs can all be stored at home. However, birth certificates, military service records, house deed and title, a list of valuables for insurance purposes, and passports might be better off and safer if they are stored in a safe deposit box.

Getting papers organized can take a little work. But once the system is established, it only requires routine maintenance to keep everything in order.