Clear the Clutter: Limit the File Storage

I’m almost finished filing my papers, and my file box is full now. Stuffed, actually.

This file box has been so handy to me. I bought it ten years ago, at a Wal-Mart, for $2.50. I bought another one just like it, so I had a pair of file boxes, both full of papers organized neatly.

One year later as I looked at it, I realized that my only reason for keeping most of those papers was because I had organized them. I had made labels, and sorted them, alphabetized them, and saved them. Organization made the papers look more important than they actually were. So I tossed the ones that I didn’t need to keep, reduced my files down to one box, and determined that all my files would always be limited to one box, from that day forward.

It’s been that way ever since.

I like this box because it’s lightweight and portable. Have you ever needed to move a full file cabinet? This box works no matter where I live, even in the places where I didn’t have a desk. I like that I can carry it to the living room and go through the papers while watching TV.

My life is more complicated now than it was ten years ago; I have paperwork for four people instead of one, but the papers still fit in the box since most documents can be stored digitally without keeping a paper version.

This file crate has rails so you can slide hanging file folders, and if you have more than one, it’s stackable.

My next step is to do the routine maintenance of pulling the files that no longer apply and putting in a few new files.

My files hold more than documents. Here are some things I store in file folders to reduce clutter around my house:

I file gift cards and member cards in a file folder with plastic sheets that are made to organize business cards. I like being able to flip through the pages easily and find the card I need when I’m planning to go shopping.

To keep coupons from getting lost or scattered all over the house, I have a coupon file, and I just drop them in the box.

Portraits and pictures that are too big to go into a photo box with other loose photos go in a file to keep them safe and uncreased. It’s not acid-free or archival quality of course, so I’ll find a better long-term solution for the important ones, but this way they won’t get lost in the meantime.

Some of the kids’ artwork that we might want to keep goes in a file after we’re finished looking at it, sometimes just to give it a place to be other than the kitchen counter. Later we’ll look through a few pieces and decide what to put in the kids’ portfolios.

We don’t save everything. (Here’s what we do with the artwork we don’t keep.)

I have some travel documents and memorabilia that I haven’t brought myself to look through yet, and when I do, I might make them into a collection.

I have a box for personal memorabilia where I save cards and letters. (Here is how I keep the sentimental things to a manageable level.)

The biggest help for me was when I decided to set limits for my file space. When it gets full, I have to clean out some papers. This week I want you to assess your file storage needs and decide what your personal file limit is. How much do you think you need?

clear the clutter

About Rachel

I write about practical tips that will help you simplify at home. Connect with me on Pinterest and Twitter.


  1. Wow, I would certainly love to reduce my ugly file cabinet to one manageable and portable crate like yours. I am wondering, do you have enough space to keep all your previous years of tax stuff, insurance policies, household appliance manuals, birth and church certificates, bank business, college FAFSA files, and mortgage/deed info in there? Those are the sorts of things I keep in my ugly cabinet. I would hope they could fit, but not sure. The cabinet takes up space in MY closet that I would dearly love to have back!

    • Helene,

      Have you thought of storing the more important (or more annoying to replace upon theft or fire) in a safe deposit box at your bank? Things like birth certificates, social security cards, passports, home deeds, car titles, etc. I find that I worry less about the security of those types of documents and conveniently, they take up less space in my two file boxes.

      However, I too wonder if 7 years worth of tax documents along with everything else could be stored in one single crate.

    • I don’t keep all of the things you listed in paper files.

      I do have some appliance manuals in my files. They take up about two inches. I want to keep the paper versions of those in case we rent our house or sell them. Just yesterday I got rid of two manuals for a vacuum cleaner and a DVD player we don’t have anymore.

      I don’t keep any paperwork for banking info or insurance because I don’t even get papers for those any more. The bank provides everything digitally. For insurance policies, you don’t need to keep records for the old ones, just current ones.

      Of course I keep papers for the important stuff like life insurance and tax records for the last three years, but tax history and old financial aid files were scanned. In fact, I don’t think we even printed a paper version for a tax return lately because we file those online too and scan the supporting documents.

      Having everything digital (with a good backup plan) helps me get rid of a lot, and then I don’t have to decide how important something is, or if I should keep it or not.

      • I regularly throw out the old policies and our financial aid business is very much a current thing as my daughter is a freshman in college. I do not have a scanner, but I guess that would take up space, too.Perhaps it is worth losing some desk space to gain some closet space! A safety deposit box is a good thought except we are always needing to provide photo-copies of birth or baptismal certificates whenever a child needs to receive a sacrament or a student ID, a license of some sort, or even just wants to be on a baseball team! They need to be handy. I think families in different situations and stages of life may have different filing needs. For example, my 17 year old is looking into several colleges and there are many folders, papers, and even booklets he receives that we need to keep track of in order to make a thoughtful decision. A homeschooling family might have more things to keep on file in order to meet state requirements than a traditionally schooled family. I am not giving up hope, however, it seems to me in this day and age, nobody needs to be housing a two drawer cabinet full of physical papers!! I don’t have a big closet and this thing is positively hogging my space (and peace)!

        • I keep permanent items (birth certificates, mortgage docs, life ins. poclicies, pink slips for the cars, etc.)in a separate “archive” file. I recently bought a fireproof box for these items. It can be picked up in an emergency and taken with us.

      • We have a single file box, like you do, but I use it only for stuff we don’t need regularly. It’s our just-in-case. Just in case we get audited. Just in case I need to remember the name of the prescription I took. Etc. I keep gift cards and coupons in a place that’s more accessible.

        My question, which you’ve begun to answer is this: How long do you need to hold onto various documents? Is there a good guide online, or do you have one on your site? I’d rather not scan a document I can recycle after 2 years — esp b/c in our tiny place, the scanner is stored and only comes out about once a year — but on the other hand, I never want to be caught in a lurch of needing something that I no longer have. Do I need to hold on to expired driver’s licenses and passports? Tax returns from the ’90s? Medical paperwork from my kiddo’s baby days?

        • When I converted my paper storage to digital, I focused on scanning the new papers, and I gradually just got rid of the old papers when I didn’t need them anymore.

          There are various guides online about how long to keep papers (here’s mine), but it comes down to personal comfort level. That’s probably why I like to keep things digitally because then I can keep everything for longer than I would if it’s physical paper.

  2. This is fantastic! We have a file box that I absolutely loathe, and I’ve been looking for something simple to replace it.

    I love the clean lines; it’s not fancy, but it’s functional. Thanks for the ideas!
    Jennie´s last post…Making a Goal and Deciding to Do It

  3. We also limit ourselves to one filing cabinet – 2 drawers. But we’re only 2 people and a dog right now, so here’s to hoping we can keep it going when our family grows! Love this series :)

  4. I commend you on your file system but I know that will change as soon as you start picking up clients with tax paper work that requires a ‘hard paper copy’ and you keep the digital. One suggestion there, keep a pocket flash for each client and then you have the particulars of their likes and dislikes without going on a could be hacked web site.
    Try an over the door ‘soft’ file for the pictures that hangs. I got mine at Target but you can make them with 3 pockets deep and wide enough to hold art work of any size.
    Good luck on those files, they do look organized.

  5. I also like the idea but know it wouldn’t work for us. We’re immigrants and as we establish ourselves in our new country, you wouldn’t believe the amount and type of paperwork we’ve had to dig up, so we unfortunately can’t get rid of enough stuff to keep it in one small file box.

    • I’ve heard those documentation requirements are unbelievable.

    • Here you Jaimie. We’re un-immigrants, having moved back to our native country after living for a long time in the US (applying for permanent residency then giving up when it took too long). We kept those important docs (plus our mortgage paperwork, passports, life ins. policy etc) in a small box fire safe and everything else, including old files we keep for x number of years for both business (house rental, entrepreneurial stuff) and personal files fit in 2 boxes, the kind Rachel describes here.

  6. I have two portable file boxes a tad bigger than yours. I know that I don’t want to outgrow my boxes because it’s like you said, they’re easy to move. I know I have papers in there that I’ve been saving, but don’t need to keep. I’m inspired to cut down and maybe fit my files into one box! Thanks Rachel!

  7. This is a great idea! I have four of those crates for home schooling already but my actual file cabinet?! Well, that is a different story.

    You have just shown me how possible it is to reduce all that-thank you, Rachel!
    Michelle´s last post…Bringing the Blog to You!

  8. The one box idea speaks to the notion of purse size too. The bigger the bag, the more I carry.

    • Isn’t that the truth? I was carrying a bigger purse, what I call a “black hole” purse. Downsized to something much smaller and quit carrying and collecting so much crap!
      As far as papers go, so much of what we used to keep, bank statements, utility bills, insurance policies, etc, can now be retrieved online. I don’t even print tax returns anymore.
      I would suggest that you have a secure place or places where you keep logins or passwords should something happen to one of you.
      Bernice @ The Stressed Mom´s last post…You know you say YES too much if

  9. My boyfriend has a large file cabinet. He holds onto a few years worth of documents at a time in case he should have need of proving something to the IRS, to mortgage brokers, or for business purposes as he is self-employed. I try to go through once a year and get rid of one year that way it always stays about the same size, but sometimes it doesn’t happen once a year. This past year we went through the file of manuals and receipts for electronics and appliances. We digitized everything. We found links to where we can view manuals online and we scanned the receipts. There are some great digital organizing programs now. One reason we did this was so that we could get an estimated value of our household goods for insurance purposes. As renters we don’t have homeowners insurance, but we do have renter’s insurance which we haven’t re-estimated in eight years! We’ve acquired quite a few more valuables since we moved in together, so it’s about time.

    The computer program we’re using is called Home Inventory for the Mac computer.

  10. I really need to do this. Our “files” are stuffed in a two drawer file cabinet (with broken guides that won’t hold the folders up) in the garage and I almost never weed through them. But something with something portable I might actually spend an evening working through them ever so often. Thanks for the great tips!
    barbara´s last post…A Wedding (Birthday) Cake for a Five Year Old

  11. Nice! I wish we could get all our files down to one crate.

    One thing I have learned about keeping down the bulk is to loose the manila folder in the hanging folder. Just filing papers into a hanging folder with a more general label. If you need to find something in the hanging folder it just takes a few seconds to search it out & less bulk in the hanging folder.

  12. My files = one little folder with pockets
    DH’s files = 6 desk drawers stuffed with a mish mash of documents and all manner of other things. A couple of paper bags full of old receipts etc. Oh, and two of those folders with pockets that I got him to get organized. He filled them and moved on. ACK! Thank goodness he otherwise a minimalist :)

  13. This was the perfect time to read this post! Over at the Stripper Project, I have weekly challenges for my followers and papers/filing is on my list to start figuring out this next month. Thanks for the tips – I will link back to you for sure when I have a paper/filing challenge.
    Diane from The Stripper Project´s last post…How did a whole week pass me by? (and challenge #4)

  14. I had it on my to do list to buy a file cabinet but you just pursuaded me otherwise! Thank you for the wonderful tips! A newer follower to your blog and loving every single post! Thank you!
    ashley urke ¦ domestic fashionista´s last post…Tea Tin Container Magnets

  15. That’s a great idea! I have one small file box that’s portable (actually it’s about half the size of your crate) but I only put “important” things in it.

    I like the idea of having files for artwork/coupons etc. It’d make my kitchen counter/the front my my fridge a lot more tidy.
    Jessica @ Quirky Bookworm´s last post…In 1492 Columbus Sailed the Ocean Blue… (Book Review)

  16. This is exactly on target. Not about more nifty containers to corral the stuff. About corralling the limited stuff into a limited quantity. I need this reminder. Continually. Thanks for the challenge and the encouragement.

  17. Oh filing … This is something I’m not good at! I hope that one day mine might be better organised & trimmed down a significant amount :) Thanks for getting me thinking about this,x

  18. I just bought a small shredder for this task! We have one file drawer only, like this, but it is getting full. I have pared down somewhat, but now it’s time to get rid of the 1994 tax return. Shredders are actually fun, too.

  19. I’m a binder person. I have a spot on my closet shelf for 3 binders – bills, banking and investments. Tax receipts go in an expandable file that fits right in between them. The kids have wall file holders in the kitchen to hold any important school papers – the problem is keeping them up to date and cleaned out. We try. Sometimes it still gets a little bit away from us. Most extraneous paper gets shredded and recycled.

    • I have binders too! One for each member of the family, and the dogs share one between the 2 of them! When important documents come in, they go in a sleeve in someones binder. Example: teaching license goes in my binder, rabies vaccination goes in the dog binder! General house, car, insurance, and tax stuff goes in 1 drawer of the file cabinet. Electronics and cables/cords take up the other! Works well for us!

  20. This is such perfect timing for me! We do have a 2 drawer file cabinet that holds all the important stuff that my husband is phenomenal at keeping purged and organized, however, this system will be perfect for me in my craft/guest bedroom. I started scrapbooking years ago (ugh, one hobby I wish I could divorce, never should have started it) and although my photos are neatly organized in the photo boxes awaiting scrapbooks, I have tons of awards/certificates on the kids (again, that are anxiously awaiting there new home) and this will be a perfect solution to keep them organized! Oh, thank you! Gosh, I’m still opening my spice cupboard at least once a day to admire the huge purging I did a couple of weeks ago along with buying one nifty little spice rack (close to what you have) at WalMart for $4. Thank you as always for continuing to provide us with your wonderful blog, it has so inspired me!

  21. Very inspiring. We have a 2 drawer filing cabinet. . .and a safe, 2 file boxes of the last 7 years of files, a coupon stash, and a stack of kid artwork. I thought I was doing well at managing our paperwork, but you’ve given me new thoughts.

    Over the years, I’ve needed to dig up more papers than I thought I would, so I err on the side of keeping things. We don’t have a scanner, so maybe that would be a good investment. . . but then I’d have to think about backing up the hard drive – or do you store your info in the cloud?
    Margo´s last post…Cranberry Applesauce for 150

    • I back up with both an external hard drive and the cloud. It’s not just for my documents though, it’s mainly for the photos. It’s so easy, it’s not like the effort of trying to copy files on disks.

  22. I recently downsized to a townhouse and embraced the opportunity to live simply. I subscribe to your blog and love your ideas for clearing the clutter and living a simple life. When I was cleaning and packing our larger home, it really made me think about what we truly need every day. Thanks for sharing your gift for organization and simplification! LOVE it

  23. I need to go through my papers and purge, although it is not a HUGE pile. I do have a 2 drawer file cabinet, but we really only use the top drawer for active filing. The bottom drawer has 2 files for 2 different small lawsuits we we involved in, plus my husband’s genealogy papers he started collecting a few years ago.
    The lawsuit stuff could probably go now. We also have packed away on a high top shelf, several banker’s boxes for our business we ran from 2000-2005. While we still need to keep the more recent years, I can rid myself of the first 2 years at least. While I “could” scan and archive this stuff, I would rather just hang onto the boxes for a few more years. We have never had to dig back through the boxes for anything, so it is doubtful we will have to. Just hanging on to for tax purposes.
    As we move into the future, I should really get another scanner so that we can store more digitally. And I need a shredder to purge the papers that I can!
    Bernice @ The Stressed Mom´s last post…You know you say YES too much if

  24. I love that you don’t have a filing cabinet. We have moved a lot and the filing cabinet is so heavy! I think I am going to switch!
    Johanna @ My Home Tableau´s last post…Learning With Littles

  25. Do you save monthly bill statements in your file box or simply toss after paying them. I am thinking about energy and water bills?

    • I keep them in a file labeled “Bills” for about a year because I like to keep track of our usage.

  26. We have a 4-drawer filing cabinet (2 for home, 2 for business). This is regularly purged, and I’m in the process of digitising as much as I can. I really like your single easy-to-carry filing crate. I think I have filing envy!

  27. I did the same thing in January of this year.. I finally emptied my overstuffed file draw in my desk because I want to down size the desk.. I then went and bought 2 portable file boxes.. I keep one for papers that I must keep like medical records etc that I don’t need to access all the time and then there is the one that holds the file I do use all the time and now after looking at them I realize I could probably get away with just using one.. This was a great post. Thank You :)

  28. I have an old-fashioned roll top desk. It has two drawers of hanging folders. These I use for paid bills, school papers, bank statements, etc. I have two plastic file boxes. One holds all of our past tax returns and the other holds household manuals/instructions sheets. Oh, we also have a fire-proof box that contains birth cert., SS cards, etc.

    An idea I read about that I’m thinking of putting together is a binder containing copies of all our important papers (copies of debit/credit cards, insurance cards, bank account numbers, medical information). The thought was to have all this information in one place where it would be easy to grab and take with you in the event of an emergency.

  29. Did you know you can look up appliance and electronic manuals online? I don’t store them anymore. It great!

  30. I knew you were organized but I am very impressed, only one file box huh? I have way too much stuff even after organizing to fit in to one small box. May be I need to redo it and rethink the process!

    For me, mainly it is old taxes and home repair/renovation documents along with kids wonderful drawings. I usually sort every 6 months or so, to keep it from overflowing the house though :-)

    By the way, congratulations on your new company, I wish you much success.

    Zengirl @ Heart and Mind´s last post…101 Changes: Change 13- Reduce Eating At Fast Food Places

  31. I don’t have a file cabinet at my home and suffer to find important documents time to time. For example, lately I have lost a guarantee paper for my broken washing machine. Hopefully the service company had the records. I should be tidy as you are :)

  32. I love the idea of having one file box and keeping it to that one at all times. I am such a paper collector…. and I find it hard to through away gorgeous magazines photos and interesting articles and things I might want to do something with someday (old calendar or card pictures, scrapping paper bits, just to name a few).

    Mmmm… My Christmas decorating collection has been expanding over the years, and I had thought of downsizing. So I think I’ll snip the file idea and use a similar rule of thumb… just so many containers and that’s the limit (so pare down if you get something new).

    Thanks for the idea and the encouragement that yes, it can be done with grace, ease and elegance!

  33. Inspiring, but this will never happen in our house. I think my husband seems to think it’s best to keep every.single.paper.document. We have talked about going digital, I switched all our bills to paperless but they keep sending us the statements! Ugh! It’s just a monster I need to tackle because it is taking over our house.
    Anastasia @ eco-babyz´s last post…Focus

  34. Rebecca says:

    THANK YOU for this topic and advise. I have gone from 3 “What’s in here boxes?” to 1 “I need to, and now I can, get this completely organized box.” It is amazing what bit of inspiriation and a couple of hours can do. I picked up a white crate similar to your at Target for $3.99. I guess inflation hasn’t effected the storage crate industry too much since you purchased yours 10 years ago for $2.50.

  35. Great ideas!! I really like the idea of filing coupons and gift cards. I am always losing those.

    I just discovered your site and I LOVE it! You make simplifying so relatable.
    Sheri´s last post…Ultimate Minimalist Mini Bag

  36. I went to Walmart this past weekend and bought a milk crate and hanging file folders. I went through 50% of all of my paperwork and removed it out of four different places and put it all in the crate. (We are moving in two weeks) This week I’m going to go through the other 50% and file it away.
    I don’t know why I didn’t do this sooner. The house feels so much cleaner even though I haven’t pack a thing or clean out anything but paperwork!! Thanks for the idea.
    Next weekend is clean out weekend……I’m taking a ton of stuff to Goodwill. And I’m going to start packing to move. Wish me luck:)