How to organize your life documents: Student tips for keeping track of important paperwork

By using your creative side, you can come up with an organizing plan that fits your needs. (Credit: Amy Gahran)

By using your creative side, you can come up with an organizing plan that fits your needs. (Credit: Amy Gahran)

Now that you’re in college you may have noticed that you have to learn how to organize your life. It’s not enough to master math, English, and the skills required in your major. The paperwork in your life is beginning to pile up. You need some kind of system to track it or else you’ll be dealing with chaos. Need information for that FAFSA financial aid form? How about preparing your tax return? Here are a few tips and tricks to help you tame your own paper tiger.

Paper management

If you learn how to master the art of organizing the paper in your life then it is just a short step to doing the same in a digital environment. Having a system and sticking to it is the key to success. What kinds of paperwork should you be saving and organizing?

The list includes:

  • Your tax returns
  • W-2s
  • Anything related to your financial aid
  • Bank statements
  • Credit card bills
  • Insurance policies
  • Receipts for purchases such as computers and books bought/rented
  • Loan documents
  • Car title

That’s just the start. If you own property there is plenty more paperwork associated with buying, insuring, financing and improving the property. Have kids? Their health records, school records and any financial information must be tracked too.

Getting started

Where do you start? Cynthia Ewer, author of “Complete Idiot’s Guide to Getting Organized,” offered a few tips in her post to her blog Organized Home titled, “Paper Chase: The ABCs of Household Paper Management.”

Ewer’s ABC system includes:

Action file: for short-term issues like bills and anything else that requires a response. Keep your action file handy as you’ll be using it regularly.

Basic file: Holds medical records, credit card statements, rent receipts and bank statements. Use a filing cabinet to hold these items and you’ll always know where to find them when you need them.

Classic files: Hold long-term items that you only need to refer to occasionally such as copies of tax returns, insurance policies, homeowner’s records, medical records, legal documents.

Ewer added, “Note: original documents such as insurance policies, legal documents, or tax records should be stored in secure facilities such as safe deposit boxes.”

Have a system

When it comes to paper you’ll want to use file folders for storing. Get some expandable folders and some regular file folders. Be sure to purchase labels for the folders so that you can identify what goes into each one. You might even want to use colors for coding what a particular file is for.

Other tips for effective paper management come from the folks at In an article titled, “The Art of Filing,” they offered practical ideas to help you save time while saving your paperwork.

MindTool tips include:

  • You don’t have to save every little thing. Learn what’s important and save those items.
  • Be consistent, create a system and use it regularly.
  • Store by date: Make sure that every paper has a date on it and arrange papers in date order when placing them in your file folders.

Most of all, for any system to work it must be convenient for you to use it. So feel free to customize and come up with your own filing system.

How long do you save it?

Now that you’ve got your important papers neatly tucked away in file folders inside a file cabinet, how long do you have to keep this stuff? Professional organizer Andrea Dekker explained this and other filing challenges in her January 12, 2011 post for her blog at titled, “Organize Your Paperwork.”

Typical timelines include:

  • Bank and credit card statements: keep them for a month or until you balance your bank statement. If you need them later you can get them through online banking.
  • Warranties and receipts for purchases: Keep copies until the warranty expires. Keep receipts as long as you own the item.
  • Insurance and medical statements: Routine bills can be tossed at the end of the year but insurance policies should be kept as long as you have the policy.
  • Tax documentation: Save your tax returns and all related documents such as W-2s for seven years.
  • Personal documents: Items such as birth certificates, marriage licenses, passports, etc. should be kept forever

Dekker also recommends that you invest in a good paper shredder. When you toss anything that has your Social Security number, bank account number, credit card account number, insurance policies, etc. you should shred before tossing. Check with your campus’ financial aid department, they may have one you can use for free.

How do you deal with the paperwork in your life? Tell us about it in the comments below.

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