How to Set Up a Working Papers Center

July 25, 2011

I’m going to share some ideas about organizing your “working papers” (those papers that help you function on a day to day business).  What I’m going to suggest is a bit “old school,” but if you can understand the different kinds of paper actions, then you can personalize it to your specific taste.  I will be talking about files and checkbooks, but you could file on your computer and do online banking.  (I will share a few “new school” ideas along the way, but it’s more important that you understand the different kinds of paper actions.)

Money comes in and money goes out.  It’s a simple equation, but you have to keep track of it and decide what to do with all the bits of paper.


desk or other work area
“IN” box (a drop off place for all mail and paperwork)
garbage can (and/or bin for recycling paper)
sticky notes
file or organizer (for working papers and short term storage)
checkbook & register
envelopes & stamps
storage boxes (for those papers that you have to keep long term, like tax records)

Gather all the mail from around the house.  You’re especially looking for the items and papers on this list – CHECKLIST OF HOUSEHOLD PAPERS (anything on the CHECKLIST OF IMPORTANT PAPERS needs to organized and FILED).  Put all the day-to-day household papers in your IN box.  From now on anything to do with household paperwork gets directed there.  When the mail comes in, discard the junk mail (trash or recycle bin) and drop the rest in your IN box until you have your home office work day.

Now grab your IN box and your sticky notes.  Pick up the first paper and ask yourself what it is.  Give it a general label.  Write that on the sticky note, attach it to you paper and set the paper on your work area.  Pick up the next paper and do the same, working through and sorting the pile in your IN box.  I’ve suggested some common labels, but feel free to create other categories or use different labels than I have suggested here.  The point is that you are sorting paper so that you have in one place what you need to do a particular job.

Suggested Categories:

BANKING – bank statement, ATM slips, deposit & withdrawal slips, canceled checks, paycheck stubs
BILLS TO PAY – anything that’s asking for payment, check to make sure it’s legitimate before paying
RECEIPTS – good to have on hand for awhile in case you need to return something or prove purchase
PROJECT or ACTIVITY – like school stuff for your kids or insurance papers for you current dental work
READING MATERIAL – magazines, newsletters, etc.
TAX PAPERWORK – for papers that have to do with tax records.  Hold onto these until you file your taxes and then store supporting paperwork with a copy of your tax return in a storage box (most folks recommend keeping 7 years worth of tax info).

Some of the paper piles can be moved to another area of your house.  You could put your reading material in a basket by the sofa.  The coupons can be tucked in an organizer in your purse.  Much of the rest needs to be put in an organizer of some kind in your office area.   I would recommend trays or files. Take your sorted papers and put them in your organizer by the categories that you have created.

Rubbermaid Regeneration Plastic Letter Tray 6 Pack (aff link)


 Pendaflex Portable File Storage Box (aff link)



(Practical thought: Use what you have around the house to set up your system (cardboard boxes work just fine), then when you have a system you like, buy the pretty baskets and fancy files.)


OK, you’ve gathered all your paper bits and have sorted them by category putting them in some kind of labeled organizer.  Let’s look at the main actions you will need to take.


When you purchase something there is usually a piece of paper involved.  You might have a copy of a check or a receipt from a credit or debit card purchase.  You may also have an ATM or withdrawal slip.  Create a spot in your purse to collect these “money out” papers so that you have a record of your purchases.  If the money comes directly out of your checking account (check or debit card purchase), you may want to enter the amount in your check register (that little booklet that comes with your checks) and try to keep your records as up to date as possible.   Move your receipts and bits of paper to your IN box every few days.  Sort into folders on office days.

You may also have “money in” paperwork, like paycheck stubs or deposit slips from the bank.  Same policy.  Gather them and get them into your IN box, then sort.  Enter deposit information into your register.

Once a month, the bank will send you a bank statement, a record of “money in” and “money out” in your account (some of you may do online banking and have access to bank statements there).  Gather your “banking” and “receipts” files and your checkbook register and compare to the bank statement.

How to Balance Your Checkbook (a little help for those of you who are new to this)


If you’ve been collecting mail in your IN box and sorting into your categories, the bills should be together in your “bills to pay” tray or file.  It’s helpful to mark due dates on your calendar (as the bills come in) and then set a time (or two) during the month to address the bills (be sure to figure in the time it takes to mail a payment so that your payments are on time, same for any banking bill pay system). Also check any credit card statements against your purchase slips.

I would encourage you to keep all your paper bits for a few months to make sure that everyone is happy.  If there’s a bank error, you have the papers handy.  If you need to return something, you have the receipt.  You could create a “hold” file or you could just go through files periodically and shred anything that is more than three months old (I shred anything that has account information or could be used to make an account). Anything that needs to be held onto long term should be filed in your IMPORTANT PAPER FILE.

You may also want to skim through all folders once a month to make sure that you’re not forgetting something.

As you are organizing and processing your papers, create some REFERENCE PAGES (here is an overview of information that you might need).  For example, it’s a good idea to have a list of all your bills with account information easily available.  You will want to keep any passwords handy, but not in the same place as your account information (perhaps a small book tucked in an out of the way place in your bedroom, or other kid safe area).  I would NOT recommend storing passwords at your desk unless you are talking about storing them on your computer (RoboForm is a good program for storing passwords safely).

If your husband already has a working paper center.  Ask him to explain how he has organized the papers and create a sheet of paper that explains it in terms that you understand.  Tuck it in your HOUSEHOLD BINDER or some place where you will be able to find it easily.


I have an “IN” box for all papers coming into my home office. I sort papers every couple of days into working files (manila folders).  On “office days” I will work through the folders.  I scan all papers in NeatReceipts and then file or shred the originals, a back up copy is stored on my computer and in Dropbox online.  I use online banking and keep a “register” on my computer.  I use Quickbooks because I do bookkeeping for a few ministries.  (Quicken would work just fine for most households.)  I balance my accounts monthly and check the numbers online at least once a week just to make sure that there aren’t any surprises.  My husband uses our bank’s Bill Pay service for all the bills (except one that only accepts checks, we live in a very small town).

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Anne February 24, 2012 at 1:29 pm

This is fantastic! Thank you for this article. I am 54 and although I’ve always worked in admin/accounts for big firms, I’ve never been able to look after our own paperwork. It’s a shambles. This past 12 months, I’ve had to move to the city (we live in a very small town 4 hours away) to care for our 3 yo daughter who has leukaemia. My husband, who runs his own business but won’t open any mail unless it’s addressed to his business, would come and visit us and periodically bring bags of unopened mail to me. Now that I’m home again I have a HUGE mess on my hands and your method makes more sense to me than I’ve ever tried before. Thank you!!


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