You'd throw out some of those stacks of paper and bulging files you never look at. But you know what would happen:
"We're so afraid that as soon as we get rid of something, a man in a black suit will appear at the front door demanding to see what we just shredded," said home management expert Deniece Schofield. "So we keep everything just in case."
Everything. Utility bills from 1973. Receipts from the grocery store for food we consumed months ago. Instruction manuals for appliances we no longer own. Six copies of the Christmas Eve service bulletin from 2002. Credit card receipts.
The first step toward eliminating paper clutter is to determine what you really need to keep. "Eighty percent of what we file, we never look at again. So be very selective before you file anything away," said Schofield, who will give her organizing seminars in the Tampa Bay area the week of Jan. 17. (See the box on Page X for details.)
Schofield likes the list available at www.ftbfcu.org (type "records" into the site search box). You'll find a breakdown of which records to keep, where to keep them and how long.
Ask this question: "How hard would it be to replace this information if I got rid of it?" There's no need to hang onto years' worth of utility bills. The power company can provide usage and payment histories if you ever need them. Don't clutter up your computer or your files with material you seldom look at. Put it on a disc. Don't save 10 photocopies of a newspaper article. Keep the original and copy it as needed.
How about those piles of magazines you hang on to because there's an article you plan to read, or information you intend to use, or a recipe you want to try? You end up with a stack of magazines you never look at. You have a couple of choices:
+ Tear out the relevant article and file it. If it's an article comparing and contrasting types of kitchen countertops, put it in your "Kitchen Remodeling" file.
+ Write down the relevant points in a planner. Schofield intends to buy a pedometer soon, so she created a page in her planning notebook for information about how to buy one, what to look for, how much to pay. Instead of saving an entire article on pedometers, she jotted down its three or four key points on that page.
+ Clip recipes and file in a hanging file by category: beverages, cakes, chicken. Once Schofield has tried a recipe and decided it's a keeper, she transfers it to her permanent recipe file. Or turn to an online source such as www.allrecipes.com and clip no more.
+ Keep reference files on general topics _ hobbies, interests, home repair, whatever you clip information about _ and weed those when they get unwieldy.
As for the rest of the printed material that threatens to engulf our homes, Schofield offers these suggestions:
+ Give yourself a limit. If you've been saving every greeting card you ever received, set aside a box for them and tell yourself, "I can devote this much space to storing greeting cards." When it's full, prioritize, pick out the treasures and throw away the rest. Same with magazines: Establish a box or shelf, and when it's full, you get rid of some if you want to save others.
+ Save only what you need. Catalogs are fun to read, so keep them in the car or the bathroom but dump them periodically. If you're a serious catalog shopper, tear out the pages with the items you plan to buy, along with the order form and contact information, and throw away the rest.
+ Create a loose-leaf notebook with tabbed dividers for the kitchen. This _ not the refrigerator door _ becomes the home for school calendars, sports schedules, takeout menus, business cards, car pool phone lists and babysitter information.
+ Keep things where you'll use them. Rain checks, claim checks and fast-food coupons belong in the car. (Timely tip, speaking of coupons: If you get a hefty one with an expiration date _ $10 off at the office supply store _ note that date in your monthly planner so you use the coupon in time.)
+ Create a household goods file. Schofield likes those expandable files lettered from A to Z. This is the place for all the warranties, wiring diagrams and instruction booklets that get lost or scattered all over the house. Staple the receipt to the booklet so you have proof of purchase and file the booklet by the first letter of the item: B for barbecue grill, V for vacuum. When you need a model number or a toll-free consumer help line or the serial number for the filters, you'll know where to find it.
Schofield thinks everyone needs some sort of shredder to destroy sensitive items or those with personal information that could be used to steal your identity. But read the fine print carefully, she cautions. Some inexpensive shredders can be used for only a few minutes, then must cool down, which can turn a simple shredding project into a daylong ordeal.