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Tips for organizing your snail mail

Towers of envelopes and catalogs can be a thing of the past. Real Simple’s Elizabeth Mayhew shares easy and practical advice.
/ Source: TODAY

Is your desk or countertop filled with an ever-growing pile of mail? Sometimes it seems like there are so many bills, brochures and catalogs that the pile will never disappear. But managing the mess may be easier than you think. Elizabeth Mayhew of Real Simple magazine was invited on "Today" to share her tips.

Establish a system for organizing mail
We’re inundated with so much mail on a daily basis, the most important thing is to establish a system that works for you.

  • Designate an in-box for the mail you have to attend to — it can be a basket, a storage box or even a drawer. It should be big enough to hold a week’s worth of papers, but no more, so you can’t let things pile up.
  • Get into the habit of dealing with your mail as soon as you walk in the house — throw away junk mail before you even take off your coat, put catalogs and magazines in a separate basket so you can go through them when you have time, and put the mail you have to deal with in your in-box.
  • Keep a large wastebasket near your in-box. Getting rid of the bulk makes the paper you have to deal with less intimidating.
  • Pick a regular time to sort through your in-box. Whether it’s one hour a week or a couple minutes a day, pick a schedule that fits your lifestyle, and stick to it.

Hapao Harvest Baskets ($38 each or $58 set of two); Hapao Waste Bin, $48; Verso Desk, $295; Palmer Chair, $80; Metal Task Lamp $74 (all products from Hold Everything,

Bill Payer Cabinet (Ballard Designs, $198)This piece is very functional. It’s small enough to push into a closet for more room, but attractive enough to stand on its own. It has a removable caddy for your checkbook, stamps and other mail accessories so you can bring them from room to room.

Invitations and correspondence:

  • Decide quickly if you’re going to attend the event, and make a mark on the invitation once you’ve RSVP’d.
  • Put the invitation in a visible place, like on your fridge or a memo board.
  • Also, put the date in your calendar right away.
  • Once you’ve attended the party, get rid of the invitation. After the event, it’s just clutter.

Ribbon Memo Board ( $36)
Handmade, comes in a variety of styles and designs

Magazines and catalogs
Don’t let magazines and catalogs sit on your coffee table untouched for months at a time. Keep them contained in a designated basket or box.

Pick a basket that’s big enough to hold an entire month’s reading but small enough to force you to purge at the end of the month.

Hold Everything Hapao Harvest Baskets ($48)If you want to keep certain recipes or articles, you don’t have to keep the whole magazine. Tear it out, and store it in a binder or expandable folder, divided into sections based on the things you like to save.

M.O. Signature Binder (, $15 plus tabs and dividers)If you’re inundated with catalogs you don’t look at, or if you prefer to shop online, call the company and ask to be taken off their mailing list.


  • Portable filing systems are convenient since you can take them from room-to-room. Bill-paying feels like less of a chore if you do it during TV commercials or other small chunks of free time.
  • Keep everything you need to pay your bills — your checkbook, stamps, a pen — in the back of your organizer, so you don’t have to look for these things when you’re ready to go.
  • Choose a labeling system that works for you. You can label 1-to-31 to designate what bills to pay on each day of the month. Or choose a weekly system.

Globe-Weis ColorWave Expanding 1-31 File (Staples, $20)

  • Once you’ve paid the bills, move them to a file cabinet or storage box.
  • Many banks today let you set up bill-paying systems online, and offer payment options that are automatically deducted from your checking account. You should still review the paper statements that come in the mail, but you’ll free yourself up from writing checks.

Important documents
There are some important documents we should keep forever, and other things you can throw out at the end of the year.  Some general guidelines:  Each tax season, go through your tax file and toss what’s no longer needed.  Keep your tax returns indefinitely (or at least seven years), but you can discard supporting documents, like phone bills, after six years. 

  • Keep information on all your assets indefinitely, even if you’ve sold them off.
  • At the end of the year, once you’ve received your annual summary, you can toss your monthly bank and credit card statements.
  • For storing important documents, a file cabinet is ideal, but not everyone has room for one, so a file box that can slide under your desk or on a shelf, works great.
  • Write out a list of statements you receive once a month, annually, or biannually, and filing categories will automatically suggest themselves.
  • The key is to find a system that makes sense for you and will trigger your memory when you’re looking for something.
  • Organize files by broad subjects — like medical — and then create subcategories — like Oxford Health Insurance, Dental Insurance, etc.

Office Depot Large Mobile File Box ($17.50)This plastic, letter-size file box keeps dust and moisture away, making it a great pick for the basement or garage. It even has a top compartment that holds pens, paperclips, etc.

Hold Everything Book-Cloth Collection File Box ($64)This attractive box looks great sitting out in the open on a shelf or under a desk.


  • Consider buying a paper shredder.  It will let you dispose of documents containing personal information and account numbers without having to worry about identity theft.
  • You should shred papers with your social security number, pre-approved credit-card applications, bank statements, and anything else with personal information.

InnoDesk Hand-Held Shredder (Office Max, $15)Store a small, handheld shredder near the mail to destroy credit-card offers and “checks.”

Fellowes PS-62C Paper Shredder (Office Max, $120)This heavy-duty model fits under a desk.

Stopping junk mail
The Credit Reporting Industry Pre-Screening Opt-Out hotline (888-567-8688) removes your contact information from the lists for preapproved-credit-card solicitations of four major credit bureaus.  (The hotline is recommended on the Federal Trade Commission’s Web site and has been cited by Consumer Reports.)

  • Sign up with the Direct Marketing Association’s Mail Preference Service and in about three months you’ll see a decrease in direct-mail marketing.  Register by mail (Mail Preference Service, Direct Marketing Associations, P.O. Box 643, Carmel, NY 15012) or online ().
  • Whenever possible, withhold your contact information if it’s asked for, and always request that your information not be sold to other companies.  Contact your bank and credit-card companies and make sure that your name is removed from any shared mailing lists.