Personal Finance 

How Do You Organize Your Financial Documents?

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In some aspects of my life, I’m pretty organized. In other aspects of my life, I’m pretty unorganized. And, in still other aspects of my life, I’m pretty unorganized for a little while until I get my act together and put my unorganized mess into a pretty organized system. When it comes to financial documents, I’m in that third category because I don’t have a very good filing system. Right now I take anything I can’t easily get to online, as in within a minute or two, into a handled plastic box full of hanging file folders and I didn’t put much thought into how I named the tabs. In fact, here are some of the names: Work 401k, Celica, Website 2005 Receipts, Website 2006 Receipts, and Utilities.

But wait, there’s more! In addition to that box, I have a few three-hole binders and a couple file folders that contain some other financial documents. The three-hold binders are filled with things that are logically connected. One binder contains all the documents related to my home purchase two years ago, another contains statements for my Roth IRA, and yet a third contains the statements to my SEP-IRA and Rollover IRA.

But wait, there’s more! I put all the papers in a huge pile on top of the plastic box until it gets to be about an inch high. That’s about the time I start feeling uncomfortable all those papers are sitting around and not organized into their little cubbyholes. So I start sorting through the documents and putting them where they should be, shredding the ones I want to get rid of (and hadn’t shredded already).

So you see what I mean? I’m organized… but not really. I don’t have a good system and I’d like your help. I find that most of you have your stuff together and I was hoping you’d share your approach with me. If you aren’t comfortable leaving it in comments, you can email me directly too.

What I plan on doing is highlighting a few of the responses and writing more about them because I really need a better filing system than what I have now. Even my explanation seemed ragged… Thanks!

{ 9 comments, please add your thoughts now! }

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9 Responses to “How Do You Organize Your Financial Documents?”

  1. alf says:

    With the exception of receipts, I’ve gone paperless. All my statements (credit card, utilities, investments) are available online as PDF files. Heck, Vanguard penalizes you if you don’t go paperless. If the site keeps them available for several years, I don’t even save the PDFs. Otherwise I save the files on my pc, in a folder that is backed up off-site with all my other valuable files.

  2. Rob Carlson says:

    I organize all paper files by the month they are dated or arrived. Almost every financial issue I run into that I need access to the files is date-related anyhow, so I just find the folder of the month in question and retrieve the statement. At the end of the 12 months I scan those documents in and order them in folders on my computer by lender/etc.

  3. dmann says:

    I use Quicken to keep track of purchases but there is always the paper trail.

    I hate paper so I bought a Canon scanner that creates PDFs. I collect a pile of papers during the month and then spend about a half hour doing a marathon scanning session. I save the documents to an external hard drive that I can lock up. Every few months I burn a DVD copy of the files for my safe deposit box.

    After I am done scanning, all paper gets shredded (unless its an official document like a title or certificate).

    Most of my online bills allow me to download PDFs so I periodically log on and download these and save them along side the scans that I have made.

    The organization of the saved files is up to you. I have a folder for each year, and then subfolders for type of bill.

    After all of this there is one hole in my organization. I still stuff cash register receipts into an envelope and discard them after a couple of years. Most are for day to day purchases that I only need for the 30 day return window. They’re just not worth trying to scan an organize right now.

  4. jnwcmr says:

    I think I have a pretty good organizing system. It has three parts:
    Secure File, Active File, and Archive File.

    The “Secure File” is a safety deposit box, and/or a fireproof safe in the home.
    It contains Trust documents, wills, birth certificates, etc. Everything in the safety deposit box, or the safe should be in plastic freezer bags. In the event of a fire, the safe should protect the contents, but it’s not waterproof. When the fire dept. comes, they will squirt water everywhere. Same at the safety deposit box.

    The “Active File” is a file cabinet with hanging folders and manilla-type folders. The hanging folders have a generic label, like “Bank”. There would be a manilla folder for individual accounts. It also contains insurance documents, car maintenance records, bank/brokerage statements, current year taxes, credit card info, home inventory, employment benefits info, and manuals for household products.

    The “Archive File” (in my case) is a tub I got at my local “Office Galaxy” type store. It can also handle hanging folders. It contains periodic statements cycled out of the Active file (I keep them for 5 years). The tax forms are retained permanently.

    Hope this helps. I’ll be interested to read other comments.

  5. iarenoob says:

    I just started to use to keep track of my purchases. Those same receipts I am using an accordion and have my receipts organized by day. Statements I keep on my computer but make sure you have a well planned out backup plan! Any other important documents I will scan to my computer and file away.

  6. Chris says:

    I have a large 5 drawer deep filing cabinet and have it divided by drawer, section, and subsection. For example I have a drawer “Statements” and in that drawer it is divided up by category such as “Utilities” which then contains individual folders for “Electric”, “Water”, “Gas” etc. Another drawer is for major purchase receipts/warranty info/important manuals and another for Tax stuff with pay stubs and tax summaries and all the paperwork divided by year, etc.

  7. Lord says:

    I am not that well organized either. The overall approach is one drawer for permanent records and another for several years of semi-permanent records organized by categories, each year the oldest year is dumped, without review, and becomes the file for the new one. Subannual records are collected for annual summary before being dumped.

  8. skylog says:

    i have also gone paperless. most of my statements are available for pdf download and for those that are not, i use my scanner. i take all of these files and utilize a program called scan soft paperport (i use version 11 pro) to organize and review all my data. my main folder system is:

    bank accounts
    credit accounts
    credit reports
    investment accounts
    loan accounts
    pay stubs
    tax returns
    utility accounts

    each of those is broken down into each account, and then each account has a year folder. it took me a while to figure out how i was going to get all of my stuff together, but this works rather well.

    oh, i do suffer a slight ocd problem, or so i have been told. head over to lifehacker for quite a few more ideas.

  9. Bellen says:

    Whatever type of organization you use be sure it is in a form that you can ‘grab & go’ in case of an emergency. Having to evacuate for a hurricane , in our case 4 in 6 weeks, we found using a portable file case worked best.

    Remember that in case of a fire, flood, hurricane, tornado (just had several houses destroyed in the next town) you will not have electricity!! This means your computer will not work, nor will the banks be open to retreive from your safety deposit box!!

    About 5 weeks before Hurricane Charley in 2004 we had just organized our financial stuff (include investments, insurance, account numbers and copies of all credit cards, birth certificates, titles to vehicles & home, SS numbers, retirement papers & account numbers, marriage certificate,important phone numbers and contacts) in our Suzi Orman Protection Portfolio. We also includes backup discs, and a few really important photos of deceased parents, grandparents.

    We were probably the best prepared, in terms of important papers, in our area. Definitely within our gated community. Being without electricity for 8 weeks, having banks destroyed so you could not access safety deposit boxes, having your home destroyed so all your paperwork was scattered to the 4 corners or so water logged and then molded it was useless, we learned a lesson we will never forget and we have become quite ‘preachy’ about it.

    It took neighbors literally weeks to recontruct all necessary paperwork to access insurance, retirement and financial accounts. Remember, there are those people out there that upon finding account numbers will try to use them – sometimes successfully. Having your account numbers provides security for you – you can cancel, put holds on, change passwords to protect yourself. We found our neighbors CHECKBOOK laying in their sideyard-and they were 50 miles away and did not come back for 3 weeks.

    It really doesn’t matter what type of organization you use – just use it. Keep it up to date weekly. You just never know what might happen. Don’t let an emergency situation make you say ‘I wish I had’.

    Sorry this is so long – but it really is extremely important.

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