May 10, 2017 · 9 minute read

By: Colleen Valles

We have recently moved to a smaller apartment — not tiny, alas, but much smaller. We’ve downsized by about a third, from 975 square feet to 660.

Most of the downsizing wasn’t too difficult, and we’ve managed to find a home for just about everything we kept. Except for paper.

Ugh, paper. It has been the bane of my existence for my entire adult life. And I’ve been an adult for quite some time now.

As I may have mentioned before, I’m a piler. I pile all kinds of stuff, but mostly paper. Piles of paper accumulate everywhere, especially on my kitchen counter. Considering my kitchen counter is minuscule, this pretty much takes up all the space I have to cook, work and eat.

pile on counter
The small-but-imposing pile taking up valuable counter space

The piles also stress me out. They’re not just piles of paper, they’re piles of unmade decisions, tasks left undone, opportunities and experiences unrealized. Heavy stuff for something so lightweight.

In my previous homes, I’ve been able to ignore the piles. They still stressed me out, but they didn’t get in the way of me actually doing things like preparing food. But this new place is smaller, and it got so bad that I couldn’t ignore them any longer. action box It got pretty tough to ignore this ugly box full of important papers

So I did what any good blogger would do. I turned to Pinterest.

I combed through “home command centers”, and “organizing paper clutter” and found lots of large, complicated projects that would take up a lot of space in my very small house and a lot of space in my just-the-right-size brain.

Many of the solutions had to do with filing, but that’s not my problem. My files are pretty well organized based on what has worked for me for years as well as the implementation of some KonMari principles, namely the one where she tells you to get rid of most of your papers.

No, the problem is what to do with all the incoming paper that doesn’t belong in my files. I have files for things like paycheck stubs, car maintenance receipts, and health information. But I don’t for things like a flier that I have to take with me in a week to a fundraiser for my daughter’s school, or church donation envelopes, or magazines I want to read but not necessarily keep. I needed a place for the homeless papers that tend to wind up in a messy, teetering pile.

It couldn’t be too big for our small apartment, and it had to be easy enough for me to flip through daily so I wouldn’t forget what was in there.

Finally, after getting lost down the rabbit hole that is organizing solutions on Pinterest, I found it: a solution so elegant, so deceptively simple, yet so customizable that it meets all of my needs without a ton of effort or cost.

Yes, friends, I’m talking about the humble 3-ring binder. Get ready for an epic geek out (with photos!) as I sing the praises of my new binder system.

Who knew binders were so awesome? I didn’t, but apparently a lot of people did. I can’t take credit for this ingenious idea – the home management binder seems to have been pretty popular for a few years now.

organizing papers
This is the action box all emptied out and in the process of being organized into a binder.

What is a home management binder?

A home management binder is a place where you keep whatever you need to run your home. You can keep emergency numbers and instructions for the babysitter in there; you can keep financial and budget info there; you can meal plan in it; you can keep to-do lists, shopping lists, gift idea lists, home improvement project lists, any kind of list in there.

It’s a one-stop shop for important information and reminders, the central nervous system of the home. Think of it as a bulletin board, calendar, mail inbox and outbox, Rolodex, financial planner and life planner all in one, and that takes up way less space.

What’s not in my binder

Most of the home management binders I found include a calendar and emergency contact information. Lots include financials and meal planning and to-do lists.

I skipped all those. I have a calendar on the fridge that I use for quick reference when I’m at home, and I have my work calendar online and another Moleskine pocket calendar that I carry everywhere with me, along with my notebook for ideas, lists, doodles and more. So no calendar.

I keep all my contacts in my phone and have committed some to memory. Emergency contacts might be a good idea; I’ll consider that, but for now, they’re not in there.

Financial and budgeting information is strictly online through Google Sheets and my You Need a Budget app.

Meal planning? Yeah, still working on that. Usually what I do is write ideas for meals or a reminder to eat something before it goes bad on the white board on the refrigerator.

For my to-do list, I keep a notebook that has my calendar and space for other notes and ideas. It comes with me everywhere, so I can add to it and use it while I’m at work or out running errands.

What is in my binder

Since I didn’t have a binder laying around, I got a nice one that fit our color scheme in our new house (light blue/turquoise and white) as well as some tabbed dividers and clear plastic business card sheet protectors. I had approximately eleventy zillion page protectors, so instead of buying a 3-hole punch, I’m using those.

the awesome binder
See my pretty binder? It matches our decor AND it’s a bastion of organization. Win-win.

My first tab is active now. This is basically all the stuff I need to deal with. There are my daughter’s school photos that need to be framed, a baby book I have to fill out for my son, and a game board for a game that my grocery store is running.

Next is the shop tab. This is where I keep coupons, gift cards and store cards, as well as the extra library card. I also have a zippered pouch for cards that are to be recycled. When I get enough, I’ll mail them all to a company that will recycle them.

behind the shop tab The “shop” section includes a place for coupons and cards.

The shop tab is followed by to file. I have sheet protectors for my daughter’s and son’s items followed by extra protectors to hold other items that need to be filed, according to what file they’ll go in. So when it’s time, all I need to do is dump the contents into the appropriate file.

to file tab
Papers have a stopover in this section on their way to the filing drawer.

The next tab is projects. So far, this just has a list of projects I need to do, like organize my photos, consolidate information from various notebooks into my commonplace book, etc. Mostly, the items for my projects are bulky and are stored in a separate project box, waiting for me to deal with them.

projects to do
This is it for my project section in this binder. Items for these projects are in the previous action box.

After projects is my blogging tab. This so far just has one sheet of paper from a class in it. I think I’m going to start a whole separate binder for blogging. Binders, man. They’re my new favorite.

on blogging class paper
This section will be replaced with something else because I’m going to make a whole binder for blogging.

One of the most important tabs is the menu tab. This is where take-out menus live.

very helpful menu section
The menu section is where I turn when it’s too late to start cooking or there’s nothing in the house that will make a cohesive meal.

Next is the reference section. This is where I keep things like rules for library books (due date, how many you can take at a time, etc.) I also have a handbook for mass with all the proper responses. This section has the potential to grow exponentially, and will probably need some culling now and then.

reference section
The reference area is for all the random information you need to have at your fingertips.

Waiting for is my last tab, and this is where I keep the reminders for the things that are out of my hands for now. For instance, my violin is on consignment at a music store, and this is where I keep the paperwork for that. (BTW, anyone need a violin? Heh.)

items i'm waiting for
If someone owes me something, like information, this is where the reminder to myself goes.

See how many tabs that is? Can you imagine now how big my piles got?

No more! I have been using this little binder for about two weeks now, and it has revolutionized my piling habits. I’m in the binder every day, using whichever specific section I need, and then every couple days or so, I flip through to get rid of things that no longer need to be in there. I actually enjoy flipping through because organization, yo.

Seriously. A life-changing binder. Will wonders never cease?

I showed you mine, now you show me yours. How do you deal with incoming paper clutter?


Colleen Valles
I'm Colleen, a writer, mother, knitter, pet mama and tiny house enthusiast who truly believes that everybody should slow down and simplify to make room for the things that are most important in their lives. I'm on a journey to do just that, to be able to spend more time with family and friends, riding my bike and working in the garden. Sign up to get awesome content right in your inbox, or follow me on social media.