It’s almost tax time, but your desk is a nightmare zone and your financial papers are scattered everywhere. You have no idea how to pull together all your necessary documents, so you put it off—and delay your tax return!—for weeks, if not months.
Here’s a 5-point plan for you to change all that. And it should only take you 10 minutes a week.
1. Knowledge is power
Knowing what you need is the most important step to having an organized financial filing system. You want to keep everything just in case of an audit, but you can’t keep everything—or you’ll be buried in paper and end up a hoarder. Here’s a better system:
- Keep for 1 year: pay stubs, paid bills, bank records, investment statements. Once you get your W2, you can ditch the pay stubs (after you cross-check them to make sure everything is accurate). And unless you need your bills or bank statements for business purposes, you can shred those once a year.
- Keep for 3 years: tax returns, charitable gift receipts, mutual fund reports, and other supporting documentation. The only exceptions are initial purchase documents of stocks or mutual funds and house records for as long as you live there or own the property.
- Keep for 7 years: any documents related to a loss claim for worthless securities or a bad debt deduction. And if you rely on cash tips or don’t report up to 25% of your gross income, hang on to your records for at least 6 years.
2. Make 3 folders
You’ve thrown out what you don’t need, now it’s time to organize what you have to keep. Take three empty folders and label them: “NOW,” “10 MIN A WEEK,” and “FILE.” Leave these prominently on your desk and sort things the minute they arrive in the mail.
- NOW folder: bills to pay, insurance stuff, license renewals, registrations, etc. Once a week, you’ll go through it (hopefully in about 10 minutes or less) and move things into the other folders, or to the shredder.
- 10 MIN A WEEK folder: subscription renewals, paperwork you can’t complete on your own, etc. These are actionable (but not quite as time sensitive) items. You’ll sort this stuff once a week. Just don’t let things pile up too much from week to week!
- FILE folder: Everything you need for the future. This one can get pretty big, especially as the other two shrink. But you can easily move things from this folder into other financial folders in your once-a-week organizing burst.
3. Sort tax documents into three sub-folders
Organize these by year and then divide everything between Income (paystubs, records of honoraria, bonuses, and payments for freelance work), Expenses/Deductions (receipts, statements, paid bills, etc. with sections for business, charitable giving, medical expenses, childcare, etc.—sorting your receipts now will make things much easier to parse come tax time), and Investments (records of contributions to retirement accounts, dividend income, capital gains, losses, etc., distribution records, and annual statements—even if you don’t need this stuff for this year’s return, you might need it in the future).
4. Go alphabetical
Rather than sift through multiple bills under “Utilities,” try sorting by company name. It will make finding those documents much easier when you need them fast.
5. Keep it real
We all have dreams of keeping all of our paperwork out of sight and out of mind, but if you have a place where you naturally dump your mail and where papers tend to pile up, put your organization system there.
Most of all, make a schedule and stick to it. If you follow all of the above, you can make a serious organizational difference in just 10 minutes a week.
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