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How to Declutter Paper in 7 Steps

When starting a decluttering project, most people struggle with their paperwork. However, with this guide, you can learn how to declutter paper in 7 steps.


Avi Hopkins

October 10, 2020

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When starting a decluttering project, most people get stuck on how to declutter paper. We hang onto so many documents for fear of losing something important. The problem then becomes that we often can’t find what we need when we finally need it! 

Don’t worry, though. There is hope. With this short, simple guide, anyone can learn how to declutter paper.

  1. Opt for paperless bills and bank statements whenever possible

This is the best way to stem the tide of your paper clutter. Nearly all utility providers, credit card companies, and banks have an option to switch to paperless billing. Not only will this eliminate a whole class of paper from your home, but you’ll also be doing a service to the environment. 

(As an added environmentally-friendly step, consider canceling all unused magazine or catalog subscriptions too!)

  1. Sort the clutter

Once you’ve taken measures to reduce the amount of paper coming into your home, gather up everything you’re decluttering and sort it into the following categories: recycle, shred, and save

What items go where depends on the information printed on them.

  1. Recycle items with no important information

You can safely recycle any paper that doesn’t list your personal information. This includes magazines and catalogs, old receipts, old manuals, and old notes or lists. However, keep in mind that items with water damage or those that have turned brown or yellow due to sun exposure cannot be recycled.

Once you finish sorting, this should be your largest category.

  1. Shred documents with personal information

Items that contain important personal information should be shredded before you recycle them. Anything that lists your home address, phone number, social security number, or bank account number warrants shredding.

If you have a large number of documents to shred, consider purchasing a home shredder. You can also see if your local recycling service has a program for shredding. Alternatively, you can shred documents by hand using a pair of multi-cut scissors.

  1. Save important and sentimental items

Ideally, this will be your smallest category once you finish sorting. However, if you find yourself struggling to place items in the previous two groups due to worrying about their importance, here are some general rules for how long you should hold onto specific documents:

1 month for bank, credit card, and utility statements and receipts for small or non-warranty purchases.

1 - 3 years for insurance and mortgage statements, pay stubs, and other income-related documents.

7 years for all tax documents (returns, W-2's, and 1099's), investment records, and medical bills. Even though the IRS can perform audits for any year you've filed, they commonly don't go further back than 6 years.

Forever for birth and death certificates, social security cards, educational records (diplomas or transcripts), medical records, receipts for insurance-related purchases, home and auto titles, marriage and divorce records, adoption records, contracts, and wills.

If an item falls out of the range of its category, it’s safe to shred and recycle.

  1. Digitize what you can

Sometimes there are items with sentimental value that you aren’t willing to give up. Holiday cards, letters, and old photos typically fall into this category. While it’s completely understandable that you’d want to hang onto such things, over time they can become the biggest contributors to your paper clutter. 

Whenever possible, consider digitizing these items in some way by scanning them or taking photos. That way, you’ll have a record of the object and can still enjoy looking at it, but you’ll have regained the space it was taking up. 

  1. Organize what’s left

Once you’ve shredded, recycled, and digitized as much of your paper clutter as possible, it’s time to organize what’s left. This is arguably the most important part of any decluttering project.

Find a home for every single item you’re saving. If you hang onto coupons, place them in an index card case and keep it in a visible location, so you’re always reminded to check it before going shopping. Recipes should be sorted and placed in binders so that they’re easy to look through when you need inspiration. And photos should be in albums or hanging up on walls. 

Your forever documents should be sorted based on the family member to which they apply. Storing these documents in a file folder means that, when the time comes, you can easily transfer them to the person who needs them.

Following these 7 steps is the quickest path towards learning how to declutter paper. 

Decluttering paper is a daunting task, so don’t worry if it takes a while to get through these steps. Luckily, the good thing about learning how to declutter paper is that once you’ve done it, you’ll likely never fall out of the practice!

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