How to: Set Up a Filing System

How to Set up a Filing System - A Side of Fabulous Blog

Last week I showed you a couple of options on how to organize paperwork if you’re a “piler.” However, what if your piles are still random and chaotic and not ready for the final system yet?

This week’s post is to the rescue!

I’m going to give you the simplest way I know on setting up a filing system.

Warning: it’s gonna become a hot mess for a bit...or an even bigger hot mess if you’re already in a mess...but keep going because it’ll work out fabulously in the end.

The Filing System.

My preferred way to set up files is to use regular files for each category, then group like categories into a single hanging file. (Or more hanging files if the regular files are numerous and/or fat.)


  • Health insurance, life insurance, home insurance, and car insurance would each have a single file. Then the four files would go into a hanging file labeled “Insurance.”
  • Chase, Citibank, Capital1, and Discover would each go into their own file, and then all go into a hanging file labeled "Credit Cards."

This system can be tweaked to fit most needs and works well for bill paying as well as general information.


Pro tip: it’s best to keep general information separate from the bills, as bills have due dates and you don’t want those to be overlooked.


Steps to Create the System.   

As I warned earlier, this method can get a little messy and overwhelming, but it is overall easiest to do.

Perfectly acceptable to use some floor for a while...and pray that a stiff breeze doesn't blow through before you're finished! 

Perfectly acceptable to use some floor for a while...and pray that a stiff breeze doesn't blow through before you're finished! 

Find a big open space to occupy.

This can be a big table or even the floor. Personally, I like to use the floor since it's 1) temporary and 2) ensures that it is only temporary since you'll (most likely) really want to get all that stuff off the floor! And honestly, there's no need to drag in other tables or shift things around too much since temporary. 

Sort all of your papers like with like.

Try your best to keep the stacks neat and separate from each other. Paperwork likes to slide, and mixed up piles throws a monkey-wrench into the system. (Nothing too serious, more just a pain in the ass and additional tedious work that can be prevented by taking the extra second to keep your stacks straight.)

Move through each stack one by one, and discard anything that is no longer needed.

Trash, recycle, shred, or burn as necessary.

Now your papers are ready for filing!

Each stack will become it’s own file.

Grab your manilla (or prettier) files and get to file creation.


Pro tip: Label the files whatever you like vs. what you think it “should” be labeled. What is the first thing that will come to mind when you want to look for something? That is what your label should be.


sort individual files into broader categories. Making hanging files for these categories. 

Put the individual file folders into their corresponding hanging file.

Hang the files in your file cabinet and voila! Done!

 Additional tips:

  • Order for the files: Some people like to line things up in alphabetical order. I prefer to go in order of importance with most used towards the front and least used towards the back. Choose what is easiest for you to remember and maintain.
  • “Single cut” file folders are the most aesthetically pleasing. And when placing the labels in the hanging files, place them all in the same spot. Having all the labels in a single row is 1) much easier on the eyes and brain and 2) looks a lot cleaner and neater.  (Unless you're super-dedicated to maintaining the perfect tri-level spacing. I'm not, so #allthebrowniesbrowniepointsandhighfives to you if do!)
  • Color-coding each category can be helpful for speedy retrieval, as well as seeing exactly when something is out of place. To do this, assign each category it's own color, then use regular files, hanging files, and labels in that color. (FYI, totally not necessary. This is purely extra brownie points, extra pretty level work here.) 
  • Don’t like traditional files? Use 3-ring binders instead. (You can also go with the clipboard or magazine file options offered in last week’s post.)

Are your files set up this way or a different way? If it’s different and works for you, share your file set-up with us in the comments!

Melinda Massie - A Side of Fabulous

Continue reading: