How to Declutter and Organize Papers with the KonMari Method

This is the fourth post in my KonMari Method blog series. Be sure to read the introduction and about the first two decluttering categories, clothing and books, before moving on to today’s topic of papers!

It’s time to tackle paper clutter! This is the third decluttering category of the KonMari Method. I had been dreading this category from the start, but it ended up being easier than I thought! In today’s blog post, I’ll walk you through Marie Kondo’s method for decluttering paper, and I’ll also show you how I decluttered and organized my own stash of papers!

Let’s review the order for decluttering items with the KonMari Method:

  1. Clothing
  2. Books
  3. Papers
  4. Komono (miscellanious)
  5. Sentimental items

If you are following along with this series, then hopefully you will have already finished decluttering your clothing and your books, and are now ready to move on to papers!

When Marie Kondo talks about papers, she is referring to bland and boring documents like receipts, user manuals, tax forms, flyers, bills, newspapers, work memos, and the like.

Now let’s be frank: papers like these do not likely spark joy for anyone. This category will be the first that we declutter which is NOT dependent on our feeling a positive emotional response. No need to hold up each individual paper to see if a thrill of joy will rush through your veins. Trust me, it will never come.

On the flip side, when it comes to scary, important-looking documents, it’s easy to let your fear or anxiety take over during this category. Maybe you avoid dealing with unpleasant papers like credit card bills or jury duty summonses, and are afraid of the consequences. Or maybe you are anxiously holding on to all kinds of old documents because you think you might need them someday. Either way, the longer you delay in dealing with your paper clutter, the worse the problem will become.

I’m definitely a worrier so I tend to err on the side of caution and keep more than I need, but the KonMari method really helps me to keep my paper-hoarding to a minimum. Hopefully, the methods below will help you take control of your paper clutter, too!

If you are a stationery lover like me, then don’t worry! This is not the time to sort through your precious stash of decorative paper products or sentimental cards and letters. Save those for later.

How to Declutter Papers

Like with clothes and books, the first step is to gather all of your papers into one spot. Seeing a giant stack of bank statements, contracts, receipts, notices, medical records and more can be a really intimidating sight, but that is precisely why it’s important to take this category head on and get it over with!

At the end of the day, there are only three types of papers you should have in your house at any given time:

  1. Infrequently used papers that need to be kept (warranties, insurance policies, contracts, etc.)
  2. Papers you reference frequently (lecture notes, a recipe, etc.)
  3. Papers that need immediate attention (bills, notices, forms to turn in, etc.)

According to Marie, anything that doesn’t fall into these categories can be tossed! In fact, if she had it her way she’d toss out ALL papers, but unfortunately there are some things we have to hold on to for records or legal purposes.

These necessary papers aside, you’d be surprised by how much you DON’T need to keep.

  • Papers like bank statements and pay stubs can be tossed once you’ve checked that there are no irregularities in your account.
  • User manuals for electronics are almost never read, and you can usually find a copy online, so no need to keep these either.
  • Event flyers can be tossed after you’ve written the details down in your planner.
  • You can toss receipts for items you’ve already logged in your budget and have no intention of returning.
  • Even greeting cards can be tossed once you’ve read them (unless they spark joy)!

It might be tempting to keep some of these papers out of the fear that you might need them someday, but try your best to let logic guide you while discarding your paper clutter. It doesn’t make sense to live with paper clutter in preparation for imaginary disasters that will never come, so let these papers go.

If you want to keep certain papers for your peace of mind, give yourself a reasonable limit. For example, Americans are advised to keep between 3 and 7 years of tax return records. I like to keep 5, and I discard my oldest return each year.

Similarly, I used to keep a year’s worth of utility bills, “just in case.” (For what scenario, I didn’t know, but living as an expat can make you paranoid about these kinds of things.) Now I don’t keep any at all once they are paid. If you want to hold on to bills to check for discrepancies, then just keep last month’s bill until the new bill arrives. This is a much more reasonable approach in my opinion.

How to Organize Papers

Once you are done discarding all of your unnecessary papers, it’s time to organize what’s left. As I said, there are only three types of papers you’ll keep by the end of this process: “infrequently used,” “frequently used,” and “needs attention.”

For your infrequently-used important documents like contracts, warranties, birth certificates, etc, you can keep all of these in a clear, single-pocket file folder. Using a large, unweildy accordion file like the one pictured above is actually not as convenient as you would imagine. They take up lots of space and having too many compartments will make it hard to find what you’re looking for.

I use a 5-pocket folder for my important documents. Keep reading to find out how and why I use this filing method instead!

For your frequently-used documents, Marie recommends using a file folder with pocket pages (sheet protectors) so that you can easily flip through your papers and find what you need to reference at a glance. I tend to keep notes and recipes written down in my bullet journal, but if you are the type to save magazine clippings, printouts from the web, or handouts from meetings, then using a file folder may be a good option for you.

For those documents that need attention like bills, notices, invitations, forms to turn in, etc, keep them all in one easy-to-access place and deal with them in a timely manner to avoid nasty consequences like having to pay late fees or missing out on opportunities. We keep our “needs attention” papers clipped to a clipboard on our desk so that my husband can easily find them. It’s a simple storage solution that has been working well for both of us.

My Progress

As an American expat living in South Korea, I have quite a lot of documents that I need to keep track of. Things like bank contracts, phone contracts, work contracts, warranties, tax filings (for two countries!), certificates and records from my home country, documents related to maintaining my visa, healthcare documents related to my pregnancy, and more, unfortunately.

The documents that most people keep in their “infrequently used” category tend to come in handy surprisingly often for expats living abroad. Because of my circumstances, I found it necessary to use a more tailored approach to storing my documents in order to keep track of everything. Needless to say, none of these documents spark joy, but it’s vital that I keep these documents organized and easy to access.

I use a plastic magazine basket to keep all of my documents stored vertically as Marie Kondo recommends, which makes it really easy to access all of my documents at a moment’s notice.

In the basket, I have:

  • A 5-pocket vertical accordion file for all of my important papers, which I subdivide into these five categories: banking, contracts, taxes, warranties, and health
  • A plastic document case where I keep my transcripts, certificates, and teaching contracts
  • A few empty single-pocket file folders for when I need to carry documents to immigration or other official places

I really like my system and it works for my particular lifestyle. But I’m a bit of a worry-wart, so I tend to keep more documents than are probably necessary. (Living on a visa can do that to a person.) I noticed that my files were starting to bulk up so it was time for me to pare down again. I really tried to push myself to let go of as much as possible, and I think I did a pretty good job!

After sorting through all of my documents, I ended up with these two large piles of paper clutter.

In the pile on the right are all of the documents and old notes that I was sure I could throw away, so I did!

The pile on the left were documents that I was pretty sure I didn’t need, but I needed my husband to look through them and double check since my Korean isn’t advanced enough to understand all the complicated language of Korean documents. Except for a couple of papers on top of this stack, everything else was cleared for the recycling bin!

Now, my files are much lighter and more streamlined after decluttering with the KonMari Method.

I know that sorting through papers can be overwhelming and even scary, but trust me, you will feel so much better once all of your documents are properly dealt with and organized! If you have any thoughts or questions about decluttering paper, let me know in the comments!

Next week, I’ll be sharing tips and tricks for decluttering and organizing komono, or miscellaneous items. It’s a massive but fun category, so stay tuned!

Thanks for reading!

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