Home & Garden: Organizing the Attic Home & Garden
Week Nine: Organizing Paper

This has been, without question, the hardest part so far of this 11-week project to clean up my attic. It's also been the most time-consuming and the most tedious. I remember one night, having spent nearly three hours sorting bills, birth certificates and newspaper clippings when I was both sleepy and sweaty, I turned around and found another 14 boxes that I still needed to empty out.

Everyone has too much paper and I am no exception. Caitlin Shear, a professional organizer who's been helping me, and I managed to corral 20 boxes of paper at the beginning of this attic cleanup, when we were gathering similar items together, a process known as "zoning." All this paper sat for weeks while she and I plowed our way through the clutter of holiday decorations, books and baby clothes, among other topics. As difficult as it was to organize all that other stuff, I knew paper was going to be worse. I dreaded having to tackle such a huge mess.

"This is the same reason why I plant perennials in my garden," Caitlin said, "because I don't ever want to do this again."

What exactly does paper include? It's different for everyone but my stash includes financial and tax documents for my husband Bob and me; family records, including wills, baptism certificates, and marriage licenses; keepsakes from my childhood, including my report cards from both elementary school and college; the deed and other documents related to my house here in Upper Northwest, D.C.

Caitlin and I spent close to seven hours working on paper and I spent another eight hours on my own reading all the paper. It's amazing to think about how much I threw out. When we were done, there were eight trash bags and five boxes filled with paper to be shredded. She says you can throw out anything related to a defunct bank or credit card account. But any current accounts as well as any old tax documents are best disposed of with a home shredder for protection against identity theft.

For the first eight weeks of this organizing project, I was happy to have Caitlin get me started, but I made most of the decisions about what to keep and what to toss. But when it came to sorting paper, I followed Caitlin's advice very closely. I felt so overwhelmed by the volume that needed sorting that I craved specific directions to keep me going.

Here are some of Caitlin's tips:

Safe Deposit Box: There are some documents that should not be stored anywhere other than a safe deposit box. These include car titles, deeds to your house, Social Security cards, copy of insurances policies, marriage licenses and birth certificates, wills and death certificates. Caitlin also likes to see passports kept in a safe deposit box as well as a copy of the passports. In her own safe deposit box, she stores a copy of the front and back of her credit cards and jewelry that is uninsured. My safe deposit box currently contains less than one-third of Caitlin's recommended documents.

Monthly bill receipts and bank statements: Caitlin recommends keeping these for just two years. But instead of just piling them in a basket they way I've been doing, she recommends storing them in a product called the Freedom Filer, which can be found at www.freedomfiler.com. Caitlin says the filing system only holds two years worth of bills and statements, so it forces you to throw out a year's worth of paper in order to make room for the new year.

Tax records should be kept for seven years. Have a file with the actual return as well as the related receipts and paperwork. Every year, when you add your most recent return, throw out the oldest return so they don't pile up.

Investment portfolios: Caitlin says anyone with a stock portfolio should call their investment house and ask how long they should save statements in case they sell a stock. She also recommends that we save the end-of-year statements on our retirement accounts and our children's college funds for tax purposes but says we can throw out the monthly statements because they are available online.

Newspaper clippings: My husband and I are both journalists, and were reporters for years so there are a lot of newspaper clippings laying around the attic. I kept copies of many stories I wrote at the beginning of my career, when I worked for small newspapers that would be very hard, if not impossible, to find online. In contrast, I saved almost nothing from The Washington Post, where I've worked for the last nine years, because I could find whatever stories I want online.

Pretty much everything else: Throw out. In my case, that meant ATM receipts from 10 years ago and a lease agreement for the apartment I lived in when I first moved to D.C. nine years ago. One of my favorites for the discard pile: job rejection letters. I must have had more than 40 from newspapers all over the nation covering a five-year span. Why in the world did I keep these?

I did hold on to lots of paper, some of it memorabilia, including a box for my wedding. I also found the original architect's plans to my parent's house in New Jersey. I still own it so it was fun to look back at not just the plans, but the original bills for the mason, electrician and other contractors who worked on the house in 1976. In the end, I bought six large plastic tubs and put my organized piles of family documents and financial records in each one.

This was an arduous, unpleasant task, but now that it's done, I feel great. It's the first time I've felt that the project is coming to an end and my attic will be organized when I'm finished.

Next WeekOrganizing the husband's stuff
Last WeekOrganizing Photographs


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About the Series

Got an attic abandoned to clutter and chaos? For the next 11 weeks, join Home staffer Liz Seymour and professional organizer Caitlin Shear sort through, toss out, tidy up and reclaim the space -- one step at a time.

About Liz

Liz Seymour, deputy editor of The Washington Post Home section, grew up in a four-room apartment in Brooklyn with two very organized parents and almost no closet space. Now she lives in a center-hall Colonial in D.C.'s American University Park neighborhood with her husband, Bob, children Margaret and Charlie, and one appallingly overstuffed attic.

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PHOTOS: Organizing - James M. Thresher; COPY BY: Liz Seymour - The Washington Post; WEB EDITOR: Janet Bennett Kelly - washingtonpost.com

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