Declutter Your Files

If you regularly have difficulty finding important papers, it may be time to declutter your files. 

Maybe you don’t even have a filing system to declutter, just a lot of accumulated paper that’s hard to keep track of. 

Whether you are cleaning out your files or establishing a filing system, the information that follows will help you to create a system that works for you. 

Purge & Sort

Purging is the foundation of the decluttering process.  No matter what you are organizing, success lies with effective purging. 

This fact is as true for paper as anything else.  In order to declutter your files, you’ve got to purge them.  That means touching every single piece of paper, examining it and determining if it should be kept, shredded or recycled.  If you don’t have files, then the place to start is with purging your piles of paper. 

How do you decide what is safe to discard?  H & R Block offers a helpful infographic on this topic.

If you are creating files for reference material, you’ll need to be especially critical in determining what to keep.   Only save that which you are certain you will refer back to.  If you’re not sure, consider scanning documents onto your computer and saving them electronically to conserve space in your file drawers. 

Keep it Simple

A simple, straight forward filing system is best in the quest to declutter your files.  You will need the following:

  • Filing Cabinet (the number of drawers will depend on your needs)
  • File Folders, 1/3 cut tab
  • File Folder Labels, 1/3 cut
  • Expandable Hanging Folders

To assemble your filing system, use hanging files to group related subcategory file folders alphabetically within the appropriate category.  Read on for clarification.

Start with General Categories

The best method to declutter your files is the one that makes the most sense to you.  The key is to file things in such a way that finding them is quick and easy. 

I have tried many different methods for organizing files.  The system that has worked best for me involves general categories subdivided into more specific categories.  With this method, I am able to find or file any paper in about 30 seconds.  No more searching through tons of files for the right one.  I always know right where to go. 

General categories might include:

  • Academic
  • Financial
  • Insurance
  • Legal
  • Lifestyle
  • Medical
  • Professional
  • Vital Records

Create Subcategories

Within each general category there will be subcategories.  The subcategories are where you get specific.  They are what makes finding things simple once you have achieved your goal to declutter your files. 

Here are some sample subcategories for which you might have use:


  • One for each member of the family
  • One for each college, university or trade school attended


  • Banking
  • Donations
  • Investment
  • Income Tax
  • Bills/Utilities 


  • Auto
  • Homeowners
  • Medical
  • Life


  • Copy of wills (originals should be kept with executor)
  • Adoption papers
  • Citizenship papers
  • Divorce papers


  • Rewards Programs
  • Memberships
  • Local Attractions
  • Maps
  • Menus


  • One for each member of the family
  • One each for any specialty care received by members of your family (cardiologist, oncologist, etc.). This is especially important if you move frequently.


  • Finance
  • Client files
  • Marketing
  • Contracts           

Vital Records

  • Auto ownership & maintenance records           
  • Birth, death and marriage certificates*
  • Social Security
  • Selective Services
  • Religious Records

 *= These files are best kept in a safe or safety deposit box.

Establish Naming Conventions

A naming convention is simply a standardized method for naming something, in this case files. The use of naming conventions within your filing system is crucial to the long term success of your efforts to declutter your files. 

By using the same system for labeling all your files, you make it easier (both for yourself and for others) to find what you are looking for. 

Here is an example of the naming convention I use for my files:

  • Banking  --- " Name of bank " --- Type of Account (i.e. Banking - City Bank - Checking)

Such a file folder would be placed in alphabetical order within the Financial category. 

By starting each file label off with the name of the subcategory (banking) you ensure that all related files are grouped together.  If you have accounts in more than one bank, for instance, this can be very handy. 

Instead of searching for HSBC, Bank of America, Chase, etc. under different letters of the alphabet, all your banking files are in one location. 

Within a subcategory, organize alphabetically.  In the case of the banking example, Bank of America files would precede HSBC files and so forth.  If you have multiple accounts with the same bank, organize them alphabetically as well (checking before savings, and so forth).    

Declutter Your Files with Systematic Naming Conventions

Separate Current Files from Archived Files

Even though your goal is to declutter your files, it will be necessary to hang on to some files simply for reference purposes.  For instance, income tax information should be saved for several years but not indefinitely. 

Income tax information for the current year (or previous year if you haven't yet filed your taxes) should be kept with current files.  On the other hand, income tax information from previous years can be archived so that it doesn’t clog up your current files. 

The fewer files you have to deal with, the easier it is to find things.  Keep current files in a separate hanging file from archived files. 

Separate current (active) files from archive (inactive) files to make your filing system more efficient.

Scattered or Justified?

As an organizer, I have been advised by multiple sources (usually other organizers) to justify file folder tabs, or line them up so that they are all facing in the same direction. 

The argument supporting this method is two-fold:

  1. It’s supposedly easier on your eyes if they don’t have to scan back and forth.
  2. Files can be removed or added without destroying the organization within the file drawer. 

It’s for the latter reason that I decided to try it with my own files.  This method was not well received at my house.  My husband despised it, and I eventually ended up redoing the whole thing so that the tabs were once again scattered. 

To be honest, I wasn't a big fan of the justified tab method myself.  Rather than finding it easier to read the tabs on the justified file folders, we found it frustrating.  With the tabs scattered, we could generally locate a folder at a glance.  Because the folders are organized alphabetically, we knew approximately where that would place a particular file within the drawer, and we could go right to it with ease.   With the tabs justified, we had to thumb through the whole lot of them in order to separate the individual files so we could see their labels. 

In the end, it doesn't matter which method you choose for arranging your file folders.  I just thought it would be useful to point out the pros and cons of both methods so that you could make an informed decision.

Scattered file folder tabs

Justified file folder tabs

Taking the time to declutter your files by establishing a simple filing system like the one described here will save you tons of time in the long run.  A good filing system makes finding what you are looking for quick and easy.  Ideally, you should be able to find or file any piece of paper in less than a minute.  That’s efficient! 


Happy filing!


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