Wednesday, August 27, 2008

How we handle Paper

Erin wrote:

Our biggest problem area is paper-- mail, bills, cards, owners manuals, newspapers, interesting magazine articles, letters, shopping lists, coupons, receipts we think we might need but really never will... all this paper seems to take over our kitchen and family room and drive me crazy. Any tips for controlling the paper frenzy?

My father in law has a saying "you take your mail, and you deal with it" -- what that meant to the young adults who had come back to the nest after college was that if you mail was not off the counter by the next morning it would be thrown away! I am not a "paper person" by nature, but I really took this advice to heart, and I think that my husband and I have found a great way of dealing with our paper, so perhaps it will work for others.

We have a drawer of our living room desk devoted to mail. It used to be a basket, so if you don't have a drawer, no worries. When I get the mail, the trash goes straight in the trash, the bills, invitations and other things go into the drawer, often unopened. I also throw in doctors receipts that my husband will need to submit at work, papers from household maintenance, anything that is going to need to get filed or dealt with.

Every (almost) Sunday night after the kids are in bed we sit down and sort through the drawer. We pay the bills, or put them back to pay the next week. We balance our check book, we look over our calendar and make any plans for the coming week or month. My husband puts the things that he needs to take to the office right into his bag. If it is not too late, I might RSVP for parties right then, too, or else I make myself a little Monday morning "to do" list.

We have a large file box (plastic, from Staples), we have moved so often that a file cabinet did not make sense for us, but we may switch over to that in the future. At the end of each Sunday meeting, there are usually two or three things that need to get filed. You can google for a list of what papers and receipts really need to get saved and which can get thrown out or shredded.

If we do our filing right then, it only takes a few minutes because the pile is always small. The bills tend to come in heavier some weeks of the month than others, but even on a busy week the process only takes about a half an hour.

Now -- once this system is going it really is easy, but this may not seem helpful if you have a dining table full of mail and more mail coming in every day. Here is what I would do -- make two baskets. One will be your ongoing Sunday (or some other time) meeting basket, and new mail will go in there. Into the other basket, sweep all that nagging paper that is cluttering up your surfaces. For the next few weeks, when you sit down to meeting, do the new basket first, then plan to spend half an hour sorting through old stuff. Do NOT stay up all night working on it, just do some and stop. When two of you are working, this goes really fast, I do secretarial stuff like address envelopes, open letters, etc, while my husband pays the bills online, so it all goes really quickly. If you have a super ton of paper that needs to get dealt with, you might want to tackle that basket a few extra nights a week until you get caught up, but don't sit down to it until your other evening chores are finished, dishes, etc. Put down your knitting or other hobbies for a few days until you get it all under control, but really, it will go fast. Have a trash can right at your feet, and if there is stuff that you cannot decide about on your own, move it to the Sunday basket to discuss with your husband.

Our file box has a lot of categories, but since we bought our own house I have decided to also keep a home maintenance notebook that is separate from the file box. I keep this in another drawer of the secretary, and for now I am just tossing things that need to go into the notebook in the drawer. One quiet evening I will sit down with my whole puncher and catch up those files so that will also switch to something that just has to be maintained.

I also have a notebook for recipes that I keep on the shelf with my cookbooks, if I pull something out of a magazine, print it out or get it from a friend it goes into that notebook.

With this baby (#5), I have used one all season diaper bag the whole time and I have kept the baby's immunization and growth record right in a pocket of that bag, and this way I don't have to remember it when I go to the doctor. Mrs. Kennedy (the mother of John F.) kept a note card file for each of her children's health records, which I don't do but think is a great idea, it would be an easy thing to jot down "stomach flu" or "well visit" or "head lice" and the date, and hopefully you never need the record but if you have a child who turns out to be chronically ill, it would help, for example, a certain number of ear infections per year and you are supposed to get tubes, but in the midst of the nasty ear infected winter can you remember if your child had six or three last year, or who had what? I have a terrible memory, so a paper trail would really help.

Well, I hope that some of those are things that can help you conquer the paper trail. If Sunday night is not good for you, or if you pay the bills alone, I still think it is great to have a regular time to do it so that it will really get done.

One last thing. I can't say that we always do this, but I try hard to remember to offer some prayers during this Sunday meeting, prayers for the activities we have coming in our week, prayers for generous hearts and good stewardship of what we have, prayers of thanksgiving that we are able to pay our bills, even on the weeks when things seem really tight or tense. This helps us to have perspective. Oh, and if your husband doesn't want to do this with you, you can tell him that looking at the bills each month has been a reality check for me, and they say the one who pays the bills spends less, so if you do it together you will have better stewardship of your money -- I go around turning off lights now like I am my own grandpa, and I love to watch the electric bill go down!


Sophie said...

Your system sounds a lot like mine, although I do something a little different, that I thought I'd mention if it would help someone else...
A basket/drawer would be such a catch all for me that it would get piled with too much, so I use a large 3 ring binder. Each divider is a pocket. I have a section for bills to pay, to file, upcoming events in the next 6 months, and reference like my schedule for reading at Mass, zoo programs, baseball schedules. Everything gets a pocket or a page protector, every month or so I make sure to do a cleanout. We also have a separate larger expandable file for any owners manual, a separate binder for recipes and holiday ideas.
I highly suggest "A Mother's Rule of Life" for wading through this stuff.

And, thanks, Mary Alice for a reminder to pray. I tend to forget that even paying the bills is an opportunity for real prayer!

Kat said...

I love the idea of having a regular weekly "meeting" time for husband and wife, and I think that it serves a two-fold purpose: 1) You make sure that you get bills paid and papers filed in the correct places, and 2) You know that you only have to deal with these "household business" matter once a week, rather than doing a little bit here and there but always having it hang over your head!

With ET being back to work and being gone from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. every day (I know, I know, this doesn't sound so bad to some of you moms, but for me it makes for a long day since baby Maria wakes up when dad hops in the shower at 5:15 a.m.!), I'm realizing that I need to build more structures like these into my week to keep my sanity! I love getting suggestions like these from you ladies.

Courtney said...

Great ideas Mary Alice. Thanks for the inspiration.

I recently got/read the book "The Catholic Answers Guide to Family Finances" by Phil Lenahan and beyond the useful financial advice he provides, he also has a page that breaks down different file categories. For instance, he recommends breaking file groups into two main areas: Current and Long Term. For example, current files would include open items (such as bills to pay, bank statements that need to be tended to), tithing/almsgiving (including church envelopes/correspondace), and taxes (pay stubs, W-2 forms). The list continues on, but I don't want to take up too much space or time for anyone. Basically, I am a very disorganized person by nature and just needed some overall structure to my file cabinet in order to not become so overwhelmed and I personally found his list helpful.

Juris Mater said...

MaryAlice, I learn so much from you. One thing I need to improve is my ability to put non-urgent house projects on hold--like deal with mail and important emails once or twice a week as they come in. I feel like I'm always scurrying around tackling little projects as they come in when I could be putting them aside temporarily, taking care of them all at once later, and spending more time being with my kids on a daily basis. It's a tough balance to strike--I can't parent well in a house that lacks order, but I have to put some house things aside so I can actually get to the parenting! This paper system is a great place to start. Do any other neurotics out there know what I mean about this?

Mary Alice said...

JM, my husband is semi-neurotic like that, so every night he has to just 'check' the mail, just in case there is anything that is truly urgent. There never has been that I have seen, we do open personal mail like birthday cards and invitations right away, but I still throw them in the drawer so that thank you notes and RSVPs can get taken care of at meeting.

Also, the drawer is a mess, but it is fast, which is realistic for me, and then it gets cleaned out every Sunday night, a weeks worth of mail (junk removed) is really usually not that much for us. Oh, and I do have a file folder in there, anything that is not being dealt with that week goes in the folder, so I can look there for things like zoo membership cards without having to sort through the whole weeks mail, but I glance through that folder each sunday to make sure that there is nothing in it that now needs to be taken care of.

I just got the "pre-enrollment" forms from my hospital, I will throw those in the drawer and deal with them on Sunday.

Clutter makes life with kids not functional, you can't have them misplacing or playing with your business mail, so a drawer that closes or a basket out of reach helps, and I like that I don't see it!

Right Said Red said...

Thanks for the great tips MA. We each have a folder for weekly mail. Mr. Red is great about going through his folder every weekend...but I'm not as good. I tend to keep mail and things to be dealt with out on my desk. This creates clutter, but if I put it in the folder I forget all about it! I think I need to get a weekly routine together and have a regular time to clean out my folder.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Mary Alice--this is very helpful on a variety of levels.

Could I suggest another organizational topic to cover--clothes! As we prepare to move, I'm going crazy going through all of these clothes and it's so hard to know what to hold on to and what to get rid of when I've got children cycling through sizes and maternity, nursing, and "regular" clothes for myself. Any thoughts on how many clothes you keep, what you do with the presently non-fitting ones, etc., would be much appreciated!

Mary Alice said...

I am going to do the seasonal clothes switch this weekend, so I will fill you in on my clothes system next week -- stay tuned!

Also, I wanted to highlight Kat's point about scheduled time for your marriage -- it does feel a bit forced at first, but no matter what the jobs or number of kids we all get so busy that it is helpful to have these times in place. Ironically, we have it for bill paying but we don't have it for a date night -- we have a netflix subscription, but sometimes the movie sits around for 3 weeks before we get to watching it. Last night we were going to try to finish a movie but as DH was still working at 10 pm I just gave up and went to bed -- if we knew that we were going to spend that time together on Thursday nights for sure then we could both make plans that would make it more likely to actually happen, and we wouldn't feel abandoned when it didn't happen on the other nights!