Saturday, November 2, 2019

Toss It, File It, Bind It - Avoiding Office Hoarding Disorder

If your office looks like this, you may be a paper hoarder.

We are still working on my office remodeling.  We've removed the old carpet and flooring, painted the ceiling and baseboards, and today will likely paint the walls.  When that is done, the messy job of gluing down the engineered hardwood flooring.

Once completed, I'll reassemble the desks and put everything back - and then on to the master bedroom.  Hopefully, this will be enough "house polishing" for the next 12-18 months, but I suspect a new roof and hot water heater will appear on the horizon in 2020 or 2021.  And there is always the prospect of cutting down more trees - pine bark beetles are spreading like mad, and my neighbor has spent thousands having a half-dozen large pines removed.   Home ownership - what's not to like?

Mark doesn't want me to reassemble his desk - talking instead about making a "sitting room" portion in the office.   I explained to him that I don't want him teetering around with a laptop in some chair.   Even through we are both retired, there are times you need a desk and a place to work - and think.   For me, it is the daily balancing of the books and entering of charges.

And, by the way, this is important, as people will try to cheat you.   We had dinner in Jacksonville at a nice Greek restaurant.  The bill was $30 (we split an entree) and I left a $6 cash tip and charged the rest to my credit card.   The $30 shows up as a hold, but three days later, it shows $42 charged to the card - a $12 tip!  I call the restaurant, and "Ari" claims the credit card machine was acting up.  But as Booley said to Miss Daisy, "[Credit Card Machines] do not act up!  They are acted upon!"   No doubt the manager thought he could pocket $12 this way - I wonder how many other people have been cheated this way as well.   Why don't we move to POS terminals with PIN numbers like the rest of the planet?  I hate it when people walk off with my credit card and return many, many minutes later.  But I digress.

Anyway, one problem Mark has is that he lets junk accumulate on his desk.  And his theory is, no desk, no junk.   Horizontal surfaces do act as junk collectors in any house, and it is important to go though these on occasion and toss things out - and sometimes you have to be brutal.   With papers, there is this fear that "something important" may be lost if it is thrown out, so it sits in the "in" basket on your desk, until that basket is overflowing with crap that "you'll get to some day."

How do you avoid this?   My theory is to toss it, file it, or bind it.   What do I mean by this?

Toss It:  First, get in the habit of tossing real crap - advertising circulars and junk mail and whatnot.   The moment you pick up the mail sort through it and throw away.   Don't save the mail to sort through later - odds are, it is all junk these days, anyway.   And be brutal.  Sure, it would be neat to read the circular from the European River Cruise people - but unless you are planning on going on a cruise in the next six months, toss it.   Similarly, coupon sheets and circulars should be tossed.  You aren't going to Arby's any time soon, so just forgetaboutit.    Either put the coupon in your wallet, or trash.   And you know how I feel about coupons - they are no bargain, just an inducement to spend.  Junk it.

It is tempting to think that something you tossed may later turn out to be important - this indeed is the cry of the hoarder.  "Someone might need this broken light bulb later on!  And I'll be the hero for having it!"   Or maybe you hang on to that credit card receipt, so you'll have an alibi, if you are ever accused of murder.  Hey, that could happen, right?  But junk is junk.  And when it comes to documents, copies can be obtained later on, from other sources - often online, but we'll get to that later.

File it:   I used to keep separate files for all my bills, back in the day before paperless billing.   I carefully logged my phone bills, power bills, and whatnot by year and even month.   Why?   Once I reviewed the bill and paid it there would never be a time to revisit the issue.   My fears that the power company or the telephone company would claim I hadn't paid the bill were never realized.   Moreover, we're not talking about large sums of money, here.

My fears of being audited - and not being able to prove that my phone bill of September 1995 was indeed real, were never realized.  And my cancelled check, payable to the phone company, was also a record of this (of course, we no longer have cancelled checks).

The answer wasn't necessarily to toss these things, but to stop filing them so meticulously.   Instead of rows of filing cabinets with hanging folders, I just took an old photocopy box, wrote the year on the end of it, and then just tossed things I felt I might need down the road - receipts, bills, and whatnot. At the end of the year (or two years, in some instances), I tape up the box, and then put it in the attic. In the rare instance I needed something (which happened less than once a year) I dug through the box and found what I needed.   After about seven years or so (as far back as the IRS will audit) I throw the box in the bonfire and burn it up.   It is a simple system, easy to use, and it works.

Bind it:  There are some documents you need to keep, such as service records for your vehicles, instructions for appliances and whatnot.   Maybe an annual statement for your investments, life insurance, and the like.   I use big three-ring binders for this sort of stuff.  If it is something you want to keep and will later use, it pays to bind it.

For example, I opened a drawer in our kitchen one day and found a stack of magazines, and torn-out pages, stuffed in there with Mark's Grandmother's recipe card file (a treasure-trove of good down-east cooking!).   I realized that Mark was saving recipes from Living in the South  magazine, as well as from Impossible Home.   I took a spare binder and a number of sheet protectors (they are very cheap, ordered online) and organized the recipes by content (appetizers, soups, main courses, desserts) and then made a nice cover sheet for the binder, saying "Mark's Recipe Book" and put it all back in the drawer.  Not only it is this easier to use than pawing through a stack of torn magazine pages, it preserves the pages for future use.  I didn't tell him I did it, until he found it one day - it was a nice surprise.

I keep separate binders for each vehicle, with all the paperwork from the sale, accessories, instruction sheets, oil change receipts and whatnot.  When you own a machine that costs tens of thousands of dollars, you should have the documentation in order.  Yet so many people stuff their oil receipts into a wad in the glovebox and then throw them out periodically.  When you sell the car, having all those receipts in order will make it easier to sell and get you a better price.

Back when statements from investment accounts came out monthly, I put them in these binders.  But since then, statements are paperless.  I usually print out an annual statement from each investment account and put it in the binder.  This way, I can chart the progress of that account over time.  Usually, I do this at the end of the year - that stiflingly boring time between Christmas and New Years.  I suppose also, if the computers ever did hiccup, I would have some way of proving what my balance was.   These binders will also come in handy when I pass on, so the next-of-kin can figure out what I have and where it is.  You'd be surprised how many people don't have their investment documents organized - their entire wealth, basically, tossed into a drawer somewhere.

Scan It:  This wasn't part of the title, but since those early days when I started my practice, the Internet has made it possible to obtain documents electronically.  I tend to download these - particularly annual Statements and save them as .pdf files in a directory in my hard drive, back it up onto Mark's laptop, and then back it up again onto two external hard drives (one of which I keep in the safe).    With "the cloud" you can store things online.  Some things you can store simply by e-mailing yourself a copy of a document.  I learned the hard way to do this with our eyeglass prescriptions - you lose your glasses on a trip, it helps to have a prescription you can download so a 24-hour eyeglass place can make you new ones.  It also helps to keep old pairs of prescription glasses and sunglasses in your vehicle when travelling.  You lose your glasses, you have a backup.  But I digress.

I am finding that today, I get fewer and fewer documents worth saving anymore.  Of course, in part, this is because I am no longer running a business.  But even before I retired, I no longer had physical copies of most of my bills - I relied on online documentation, if I ever should be audited (and like most Americans, never was).   Even my Patent documents were online or on my laptop.  There was little point in "printing out" documents anymore.   Paper documents leave a paper trail, and as I learned the hard way, if a Patent I wrote should ever be litigated, I would have to produce all those paper documents, including drafts and whatnot, which would more than likely hinder, not help, my client.

Poor Donald Trump - if only he learned not to have people "listening in" on phone calls or making transcripts.  You'd think after the Nixon tapes fiasco, people would have learned.   Oh, well, I suppose it is for the best that we know these things.

* * *

Paper hoarding is hoarding, period.  And if you look at a hoarder's house, a lot of what they hoard is paper - newspapers, magazines, and whatnot, that people think are important or they "have to go through" or read at a later date.  I have seen this firsthand, and it is scary.  A friend has a stack of newspapers that their parents were hoarding before they died (and hoarders die younger than normal, most times). Rather than throw them out, they wanted to "go through" them and see why the parents were keeping them.  Must have been some interesting article in there!  Or maybe they hid money in the stack!   It is sad and scary at the same time.

That was several years ago.  Last time I heard, the stack of newspapers was still there and was being added to.

Hoarding is something you have to be proactive about.  As I noted in many postings, mental hygiene is like personal hygiene - you have to work at it. You let yourself get slovenly, you have no one but yourself to blame.  It takes effort and time to throw things out or file them away.  The alternative is to live in a pile of crap, and end up depressed, unhappy, lonely and unhealthy - both mentally and physically.

Just say no to hoarding - of any sort.