Making a molehill of that mountain of desk clutter


Is your desk buckling under that pile of bills, bank statements, coupons and catalogs? Does adding a Crayola-macaroni masterpiece, mail-in rebate, a card from an old friend or even a few grocery receipts trigger an avalanche?

"The first thing you need to do is set up four baskets: 'To Do,' 'To Pay,' 'To File' and 'To Read,' " says Stephanie Culp, a professional organizer and author of the book, "Conquering the Paper Pile-up."

"The fifth basket should be the trash," she says.

While most mail should be tossed, don't throw it away without opening it, advises Dale Jarrett, editor of the Get Organized! News, a monthly newsletter published near Orlando.

Once she threw away a letter that looked like junk mail, then had second thoughts. Ms. Jarrett fished it from the garbage and discovered a $500 check.

Devote an hour or two each week to your paperwork. Before you begin, plan your attack and have files, boxes, scissors, a stapler and a calculator ready. Be relentless in sorting and selecting what you really need.

"A lot of people say, 'I might need it some day.' But I like to say, 'You might not need it some day,' " Ms. Culp says.

Here are some tips to conquer your chaotic clutter:

* Bills and financial records: List bills, outstanding balances and the date payments are due to avoid late fees. Keep documents related to your income, taxes or tax deductions for at least three years, but it's best to keep them five to seven years, says Barry Coopersmith, a Florida accountant. It's critical to have receipts to document your deductions in case the federal government challenges your returns.

* Coupons: Use a highlighter to mark expiration dates or use different colors to highlight months. Then, file coupons by category -- cereal, cleaning supplies, etc. -- in a recipe box or wallet organizer. Weed out expired coupons each month.

* Photos: On the back of each photo, write the date and the people pictured. File photos into boxes according to subject, such as "Trip to Yellowstone" or "Photos of Sean." Write names and dates on negative envelopes and file those in a container or large envelope.

* School papers: Save some of your children's artwork, essays or spelling tests in a box. At the end of the academic year, sort through the box and keep only the work that shows creativity or progress.

* Magazines: Toss old issues. If there is an article you haven't read, cut it out and staple it, then throw away the magazine. And don't subscribe to a new magazine unless you drop an old subscription.

"If you have trouble parting with things, put them away in a box," Ms. Jarrett says. "Six months later, go through it and see if you missed anything. If you didn't, then throw it away."

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