G1929

File It Easy, Find It Fast:
Setup Suggestions for Home Filing Systems

This guide, one of a three-part series, shows how to use an Active and Inactive filing system.


Kathy Prochaska-Cue, Extension Family Economist
Nancy G. Frecks, Associate Extension Educator
Leanne M. Manning, Extension Educator
Sandra D. Preston, Extension Educator


Even with computers, we still need a filing system for those hard copy papers which find their way into our homes. A well-organized filing system is a big help when you need to find something.

Filing Setup Suggestions

Buy the proper equipment for the job. This may mean a two- or four-drawer filing cabinet or you may only need a metal box or accordion folder for your papers. What works best depends on your personal preference, your working style, how much money you want to spend, and the amount of paper you have to file. A paper shredder is an important piece of equipment for any filing system.

Color code when possible. Use different colors of file folders. For example, green folders might be for household papers, red folders for business papers, and yellow folders for warranties and guarantees. Or if you use the following filing system, you might put all Active files in orange folders, Reference material in blue folders, Inactive files in green folders, and Immediate Action files in red folders. Colored labels can be used if neutral colored folders are used. Just be consistent so the system stays intact.

Select a specific place for your filing system. It can be in a home office or a corner of the bedroom or kitchen. If your entire system is small, consider storing it under a bed.
Figure 1. Active files can keep important papers easy to find.
Figure 1. Active files can keep important papers easy to find.

A Filing System

The home filing system is actually two systems in one: Active and Inactive. Active files are those referred to and used often (Figure 1). Inactive files are for those papers and records which are no longer active but which need to be kept permanently for tax or other purposes.

Active Filing System

Because the Active files are used often, keep them close to the area of the home where mail and bills are processed. The Active files may be kept in a desk or cabinet drawer, one drawer in a filing cabinet, a desktop organizer, accordion filing envelope, or even a plastic or heavy cardboard box. To keep Active files usable, go through them once a year, removing any papers no longer active. Toss useless papers — shredding if they contain personal identity data — and store those you need to keep in the Inactive files located in a clean, dry place. Special papers of lasting value such as mortgages, deeds, and a current household inventory should be kept in a safe place, either a fire-proof safe at home, or even better, a safe deposit box at a financial institution.

Active File Folders

The Active file system has two parts: the Fast Action Files kept at the front of the system, and the remaining Active files, filed alphabetically. Subfiles are also suggested for some of the categories. Use them if it makes the system easier, but remember — keep the system as simple as possible. The simpler the system, the more likely papers will actually be filed.

The following titles in bold letters are suggested Fast Action file folders in the Active file system. Possible subfiles are indicated. A description of what might be in each folder is also included.

The following alphabetical system is for the rest of the Active file system. Subfiles are included for some of the categories. As you read over the suggested categories, cross out any that don’t apply to you and add any others that make sense for your situation.

Inactive Files

The Inactive file system is stored in an accessible, dry, out-of-the-way place in the home. Be sure containers you use for record storage are dirt-, moisture-, bug-, and rodent-proof, in addition to being fire-resistant, if not fire-proof. Since many of the Inactive file papers are kept for tax purposes, an accountant, attorney, business consultant, or other tax specialist can give specific advice about which records need to be kept and for how long for a specific situation.

The following titles in bold letters are suggested for the folders in an Inactive file system. Examples of papers that might be kept in each are defined under the section, Active File Folders. These are only suggestions. Cross out the ones that don’t apply and add any that should be in your Inactive file system.

Inactive File Folders

People who retrieve information according to a time frame instead of a topic or subject may find it easier to organize an Inactive file system by year. Others will prefer to just replicate the file category suggestions used for the Active file system.

A well-organized filing system will be a workable system that will save time, effort and money in the future.

This publication has been peer reviewed.


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Index: Financial Management
Budgets and Record Keeping
Issued January 2009

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