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Blog: Paper Doll, Tackling The Stacks And Piles
Get Organized Month: Paper Control 101

Happy New Year, Paper Doll readers!

Aside from health-related goals, top resolutions each year include getting organized, getting finances in order, eliminating debt ...and a variety of desires that, at least in part, come down to dealing with our incoming and stagnant paper. Today, we're going to revisit some of the basics of paper management:

1.  Know what papers you have. Some people (like Paper Doll) would no sooner skip opening the daily mail than answering a dinner invitation from George Clooney. Others check the mailbox only when it's so full that the postal carrier starts leaving cranky notes. And most people fall in the middle of the spectrum, opening what looks like it might be important or urgent and letting the rest land "wherever" near whatever shiny distraction interrupted their paper-management process. (So that's how cable bills end up on top of the microwave and insurance statements sneak into the laundry basket!)

The truth is, if you're going to take control of your paper (and, by extension, your finances and life), you'll have to open the mail, look at the notes your kids brought home from school, review the memos from your HR department...all on the day they arrive. The longer you go without doing something (laundry, visiting the dentist, balancing your checkbook), the bigger the problem tends to loom in your mind, making the time you spend procrastinating far exceed the time needed to complete the task. The trick is to face the paper every day, when it's still bite-sized and actionable, before it piles up like mountains of dishes in the sink, seemingly insurmountable.

As motivational guru Zig Ziglar wisely said:

People often say that motivation doesn't last. Well, neither does bathing.. that's why we recommend it daily.

2.  Toss or shred what you don't need.

There are always times you'll need to consult a detailed retention schedule (like my ebook, "Do I Have To Keep This Piece of Paper?") to know whether or for how long you need to retain a document. But as you dig out from under your backlog, or even as you face today's pile, some papers are obviously ready to be tossed:  recipes you know you'll really never make, coupons that have expired or are for items you don't need or wouldn't have considered buying in the absence of a discount, flyers for events that have already happened, etc.

As for shredding, remember that anything that bears your Social Security number, bank account or credit card number, or any identifying account numbers should be shredded, preferably in a cross-cut shredder, before being discarded. However, it's not necessary to shred envelopes or magazine covers that merely have your name, address, or even landline phone number (assuming your number is not unlisted), because these are generally a matter of public record.

3.  Stop the flow of paper you don't need or want.

  • Get off the major junk mail (sorry, direct marketing) lists.
Contact the Direct Marketing Association. Either apply online and pay $1 for processing (via a secure credit card purchase) or print a form from their site and mail it to:

Mail Preference Service
Direct Marketing Association 

P.O. Box 643 

Carmel, NY 10512

With more consumers buying online and fewer retailers going to the expense of printing catalogs, you'd think your catalog mailings might decrease, but readers are reporting that they just keep coming. To be removed from just a few catalog mailing lists, call each company's toll-free number and request removal, but if you're receiving dozens of catalogs you don't want or need, contact Abacus via email (), phone (1-888-780-3869) or postal mail:

P.O. Box 1478
Broomfield, OH  80038 

Provide your full name (with your middle initial), current address (and prior address, if you've moved within the last six months) and a statement that you wish to opt out of receiving mail from their database members.

Catalog Choice is another consumer option for identifying the catalogs you don't wish to receive. Their database does not include all possible catalogs, there have been reports of occasional retailer noncompliance, and they're a bit cozy with online merchants, but the service is free and easy to use.
  • Stop the credit card offers!
Do you receive a cluster of credit card applications (though perhaps fewer per week than before the recession)? The Fair Credit Reporting Act (which we discussed at length in the recent series, Who Knows Your Secrets?) allows consumer credit reporting companies like Equifax, Trans-Union and Experian to share your name on lists used by prospective lenders and insurers. Opt out of being "shared" like a bag of popcorn and you'll also reduce the chance of identity thieves gaining anything of worth if they go shopping in your mailbox or trash bin.

Call 1-888-5-OPTOUT or visit OptOutPreScreen.com to mark those credit card offers Return To Sender!

The OptOutPreScreen only applies to credit bureaus, not to all the info credit card companies share with their own "affiliates" and "partners". Lenders annually send you little tri-fold "privacy notices", which they hope you'll ignore, allowing you to opt out of having your data shared.

Click on the individual credit card issuer name below to read the privacy policy currently in effect, and if you want to opt out of having your mailbox filled with stuff you don't want, don't need to be tempted by or don't think is doing the planet much good, use the address provided in the privacy statement, or click or call to assert your rights:

American Express
Phone:  Call the Customer Service phone number on the reverse of your specific American Express-branded card, or 1-800-THE-CARD.

Bank of America
Online:  https://www6.bankofamerica.com/privacy/Preferences.do
Phone:  1-888-282-2884

Capital One
Phone:  1-888-817-2970

Online:  https://chaseonline.chase.com/public/privacy/privacyfilter.aspx
Phone:  1-888-868-8618

Phone:  1-888-214-0017

Phone:  1-800-225-5202

First USA
Online:  https://online.cardmemberservices.com/public/privacy/privacyfilter.aspx
Phone:  1-800-869-9638

Wells Fargo
Online:  Select "Change Privacy Preferences" under the Account Services tab, if you are a logged-in account holder.
Phone:  1-888-528-8460

4.  Consider technological alternatives to getting or keeping paper in the first place.
  • Scanning
Scanning papers to archive them for reference can be a great option. Discussing the relative merits of Neat Desk/Neat Receipts and Fujitu's Scan Snap has kept NAPO's professional organizing community buzzing during the holiday season. Bloggers seeking to go paperless are happily reporting on scanning before tossing. Hurray!

Except...scanning without planning creates the potential for a huge organizational problem. Scanned recipes, receipts and bank statements definitely take up less physical space than paper, but scanning isn't a perfect solution. Why save digitally if you you're no more likely to access something than if you had the papers in your filing cabinet?  Scanning tempts people into thinking they can (and should) keep everything!

The oft-quoted statistic is that 80% of what is filed is never touched again. Well, it stands to reason that the statistic holds true for scanned items as well. If you're holding onto a reference item that you've never consulted in six months (or years), isn't it reasonable to consider that you'll do just fine without it? Isn't it even more reasonable to reflect that any generic advice not specific to you (like how to kill aphids, bake better sugar cookie recipes or do a perfect ab crunch) will be easier to find via a search engine without filling up your hard drive?

If you're certain that what you're scanning will be essential to find again, and that the OCR tagging and keywords are more likely to pinpoint the reference items you're seeking than your own personal filing inclinations, then scan away. But when it comes to personal documentation (academic transcripts, legal documents, tax records), be cautious.

In late 2008, a number of professional organizers (including Paper Doll) were in attendance on an IRS teleclass regarding recordkeeping, and we were disappointed to find that the IRS has vague policies regarding the acceptance of scanned documents. A particular "subsection 11.01" of the tax code was referenced, stating that keeping electronic records does not release one from the requirements to keep paper records, and IRS Publication 552 on Recordkeeping for Individuals states:

If you use a computerized system, you must be able to produce legible records of the information needed to determine your correct tax liability. In addition to your computerized records, you must keep proof of payment, receipts and other documents to prove the amounts shown on your tax return.

  • Paperless Statements, Online Billpay and Automated Drafts
Handling your money matters online can be a great way to gain control of your finances. You don't need to pay postage, keep track of the return envelopes associated with your bills or give yourself as much lead time to make sure paper checks arrive on time. However, going high tech still requires as much diligence as paying paper bills. You must check your email frequently (preferably daily) and you maintain a system wherein you know when your bills are due, make sure you set up your payments to arrive by their due dates, and monitor your balances to make sure you don't end up in an overdraft situation (especially if autodraft bill amounts vary widely, like utility bills during a protracted cold snap).

Not all online bill-pay systems are equal. What you don't want to do is have to visit the web site for one lender/vendor/utility, log in with a password for that site, and set up one payment...and then have to move on to the next site for the next account. Instead, opt for online bill-pay service associated with your bank--provided that your bank provides online bill-pay service for free and a system that is both easy to use and guaranteed to cover fees if they fail to deliver payment as specified.

5. Develop a system for dealing with paper as it arrives. If going by your gut instincts worked, you'd already be organized, right? Having a system and always doing it the same way may not bring a lot of entertainment or novelty to your paper management, but is that really where you're seeking your diversions?

We've talked about some of these things before, and will discuss them in detail in future posts, but the bare basics of paper management are:

--Gather incoming papers in one place, whether it's mail, restaurant menu flyers, notices sent home from school or phone messages semi-scribbled by a family member.

--Develop a daily ritual for handling your paper, whether it's right after you've gotten the kids off to school or as a way to wind down after dinner. Pick a time when you have a reasonable amount of mental energy, and set an alarm on the computer or cell phone to remind you until it becomes a habit. Ten minutes should suffice to know what can be tossed vs. what needs to be handled ASAP, and to schedule the tasks. Then, once a week, handle the filing, paying of bills and more in-depth reading.

--Have the essential tools for processing your paper. Paper Doll recommends an in-tray to gather for incoming paper, a tickler file (for handling action papers), a file cabinet or file crate (for storing reference papers), and a mobile bill-paying station (a basket or tray with a calculator, stamps, envelopes, return address labels and a check register) if you still pay any of your bills "old school".

posted on: 1/5/2010 10:30:00 AM by Julie Bestry
category: Paper

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Paper Doll, Tackling The Stacks And Piles

by Julie Bestry

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Julie Bestry, President of Best Results Organizing in Chattanooga, TN, is a Certified Professional Organizer®, speaker and author. Julie helps overwhelmed individuals and businesses save time and money, reduce stress and increase productivity through new organizational skills and systems.

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