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February 12, 2013

How to organize paperwork before tax day

The most common complaint I hear from people is that they are buried in paper. When they describe their struggle to tame the paper in their home, it is often with a look of desperation on their face and the sound of defeat in their voice. Add the rapidly approaching April 15 tax deadline and sheer panic sets in. Even if you can survive for most of the year without having your papers in order, this is one time when locating a specific document and keeping track of all those tax forms really matters. Here are some practical tips for getting a grip on all that paper, for tax time and throughout the year.

— Put incoming papers in a designated spot

It takes about the same amount of time to put something in the right place as it does to put it in the wrong place. The key is to create the "right" space and make sure everyone in your family knows where it is. Put incoming papers like bills, receipts and schoolwork in a designated inbox each day and regularly transfer the contents of your inbox to labeled bins with the following categories: "To File," "To Pay" and "Needs Action." Throw away or recycle all unwanted mail and school papers before they pile up, and don't get frustrated if you are unsure whether to keep a document. For guidance on how long to keep specific documents, financial planner Ric Edelman has a good list on the Web sitewww.nextavenue.org.

— Make sure you have the proper tools

You need permanent filing space, either drawers in a desk or a filing cabinet. It is difficult to get by with a combination of portable boxes, magazine boxes and desktop files unless you are really organized; they can be hard to keep track of. If possible, find a space on the main floor of your house for your papers. Having to tote papers to the basement or the second floor requires time and is one of the main reasons paper piles up.

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