Ask Unclutterer: Messy mail

Reader Sandra submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:

Could you please do an article on how to keep mail organized? I considered myself pretty much clear of clutter, except for my mail. It’s driving me crazy. Even thought I toss everyday the junk, some how I have not been able to follow a good system to get rid off my mail clutter on my desk (these are payed bills, insurance stuff, etc). Now it’s taking over my son’s desk. Please help. Love your blog!

Sandra, I love your question!

I want to start by saying that I have every system imaginable in place to handle mail — and there are still times when it all falls apart and I find mail on my dining room table. It’s the constant incoming stream that makes it such a difficult issue for the home. I hope that the following advice, however, keeps these breakdowns in your system less severe and less frequent.

First, start by reducing the amount of mail that comes into your home. Sign up for services like Precycle (formerly GreenDimes and Mailstopper), which stop junk mail before it ever arrives at your door. Try to get as many utility and monthly bills as possible switched to automatic electronic payment. If mail doesn’t come in, it can’t pile up on any desk.

Second, create and use a mail processing station near the door where you get your mail. It should include a trash can, shredder, recycling bin, and pen/pencil. Each day when you come inside with the mail, immediately shred any items that include personal information that might be tempting to identity thieves (a few seconds of shredding can prevent weeks/months/years of fighting legal battles). Toss into the recycling bin any junk mail and mail you only needed to read once (announcements, etc.). And throw into the trash anything that can’t be recycled.

On the items that still remain, write actions on back of envelopes (Pay by 2/10, Complete and return by 2/05, File in Tax Forms folder) and disposal dates on the fronts of catalogs and magazines (Read before 3/1/2010). Nothing should come into your home that doesn’t have a specific to-do note appearing on it somewhere.

Third, since you live with other people, you will also want to have mailboxes of some kind for the other people in your home. These can be cubbies, pockets, baskets, or even file folders. If the mail isn’t for you, you need a place to store their correspondence so they can easily find it and process it themselves.

Fourth, once you’ve put away all of your other items and set things so that they’re ready for the next time you leave (keys on a hook, coat hung in closet, lunch bag out of briefcase), pick up your mail and head straight to your office. Immediately schedule to-do items on your calendar. Store magazines and catalogs in a place where you will read them before their disposal date. File documents that need to be filed, and take care of any action items that can be completed in less than two minutes. Treat your mail the same way you handle your other work.

This routine might take you five minutes from start to finish, but handling your mail in this way will keep you from turning your son’s desk into a mess. Remember that everything in your home needs a place to live — and that includes each piece of your mail.

Thank you, Sandra, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column.

Do you have a question relating to organizing, cleaning, home and office projects, productivity, or any problems you think the Unclutterer team could help you solve? To submit your questions to Ask Unclutterer, go to our contact page and type your question in the content field. Please list the subject of your e-mail as “Ask Unclutterer.” If you feel comfortable sharing images of the spaces that trouble you, let us know about them. The more information we have about your specific issue, the better.

33 Comments for “Ask Unclutterer: Messy mail”

  1. posted by Tim Danner on

    I had trouble with this too. What changed things for me was finally shelling out for a Fujitsu ScanSnap S300. That thing is just so fun to use that I can deal with the paper immediately. It’s a little pricey, but so worth it.

  2. posted by Ris on

    Reducing the amount of mail that comes in has greatly helped me kick the clutter habit. Other than that, the shredder is a fantastic idea. I got one at Target for about $30 and it has already paid for itself in cost per use.

  3. posted by J on

    Wouldn’t it be nice if the true junk mail ads were never ever produced – they are a waste of life in terms of the energy spent making them, energy spent printing and distributing – only to have them end up in the recycle bin before I even walk up the stairs to my apartment.

  4. posted by chacha1 on

    Reducing the amount of incoming mail is absolutely key. I have so little mail clutter now, after signing up with Catalog Choice and going to online billpay! Most of the mail reduction services are FREE, so there’s no reason not to use them.

    I’d add that it’s worth shelling out for a crosscut shredder. They are more expensive, but they reduce your sensitive papers to confetti, not strips that can be taped back together by a dedicated crook.

    A good filing system is also key, and to really maintain it you need both the proper tools and the willingness to do an annual purge. Most of your utility bills don’t need to be kept at all – the company has the records if you ever need a copy; you can scan and shred, or just shred ’em. A lot of other records can be discarded after you finish your tax return. Liz Pulliam Weston did a great piece on this a while back on MSN Money.

    I’ve found the best tool for me is a single-wide secretary desk. It has two lockable file drawers at the bottom; one I use for current accounts, and the other for long-term records like insurance policies and old tax returns. Then there is a drop-front cabinet with cubbies and a writing surface. Above that are four drawers, each big enough to hold a ream of paper, but I use them for stationery, office supplies, etc. I got the unit from a high-end home furnishings place – Gump’s, I think – and it works really well for me, providing a ton of storage and function in a footprint of about 18×12. PEEP!

  5. posted by SB on

    Our mail comes in the front door, and shredders are really ugly. And large.

    Suggested fixes?

  6. posted by Dean on

    I make it a point to try and touch each piece of mail only once. That way it doesn’t lie around, taking up space and psychic clutter, waiting for me to do something with it.

  7. posted by Klyla on

    I’d like to keep getting the local grocery store flyers but no other junk mail. If I sign up for one of those “stop junk mail” services will I still get my grocery ads? Anyone know?

  8. posted by Karolina on

    One thing I do is that I only take mail out of the mailbox on days when I know I’ll have a few minutes after getting home to deal with it. If I won’t have time to deal with it, I just leave it in the mailbox.

  9. posted by Handy Man, Crafty Woman on

    OH the mail, and papers in general. Such a giant pain to deal with. I stopped most catalogs and junk, and have online billing, so that helps. for the rest, I put it into an “in” box on my desk. every day, I file between 3-5 pieces of paper in the file drawer in my desk. Some people might not like to “touch” papers every day. But I find that if I do a little every day, it keeps it from piling up and turning into a mountain that I then put off filing, so it gets even BIGGER…

  10. posted by Just Breathe on

    For those considering placing a shredder in an accessible area, please note:

    Pets have had their tongues shredded and bled to death.

    Children have always found inventive ways to injure themselves with shredders.

    Happy Uncluttering!

  11. posted by charmed2482 on

    they make paper shredder scissors that can replace a paper shredder. it probably take a lot more time to shred things, but they could easily be locked up or put away so pets or kids can’t get to them. i saw some at Bed Bath and Beyond a few weeks ago.

  12. posted by Marie on

    My shredding goes out with the litter. I figure if a thief is determined enough to sift through cat doo and tape confetti back together, more power to him.

  13. posted by opadit on

    I have a few rules for dealing with mail.

    (1) Deal with it daily. (Now that the economy is in the toilet, I get a lot less mail every day anyway.)

    (2) Toss junk mail immediately. Put catalogs in the bathroom or livingroom for reading material, but have a designated space for them and toss them frequently.

    (3) Process other mail immediately. That is, I take bills out of their envelopes, toss the inserts, and place the paperwork and return envelope in a designated drawer, right on top of my checkbook. I set them so that I can see the due date of the bill that is next due. This is a drawer that I use a few times daily, so I see the bills frequently and can’t forget them.

    (3)(a) Every week or so, pay the bills: write the checks, mail out the checks, record the check number on the paper that I keep, and file that paper immediately. I don’t keep an “inbox” of papers to be filed. I found that I would ignore the inbox for literally a year at a time, and I’d therefore lose tax deduction paperwork. Yuck. So instead, I file all my bill paperwork as one of the steps of the “pay the bills” task.

    (3)(b) Every January, go through the bill paperwork files and purge them. Generally, everything from 2 years ago gets tossed. Everything from the past 12 months gets stapled together and placed back in the file for tossing next January. There are exceptions, but this way my files aren’t crammed with, say, gas bills from 2002 and electric bills from 1997.

    I don’t do any online payments or automatic payments. They don’t work well for me. I wouldn’t tell anyone not to use them, though! But for anybody else who’s like me and doesn’t want to use them, maybe my paper-only system or something similar would work for them.

  14. posted by kbfenner on

    My mother, who is naturally very orderly, would love it if she could just deal with all the mail out the mailbox–perhaps a little drawer with stamps, checkbook, etc.

    Many people bring their mail in the front door. We do. I take it right away into the kitchen where the recycling bin and large trash can are and sort it there, and then take what’s left back to the staircase to go upstairs to the office the next trip. Upstairs I have a to-be-read magazine stack and a place for incoming bills and other important matters, which are dealt with at least weekly.

    Reducing catalog clutter is great, but so many organizations insist on sending us their newsletter/magazine. Do people actually read all this stuff?

  15. posted by Jen on

    I’m also someone who doesn’t do well with automatic bill pay, but I’ve figured out what works for me. Note, this has more to do with paying bills than reducing mail, but I’ve changed all my bills to paperless and I luckily don’t get much junk mail (knock on wood!).

    I have an ING savings account and on the 25th of every month I have my monthly budget amount automatically deposited into my checking account. This is to cover all my bills as well as food and entertainment money. It takes the money about 2 days to show up in my checking account. Then I pay ALL of my bills on the 1st, regardless of when they are due. I know this is bad from a financial standpoint (the thinking being that you can get as much interest as possible and pay the bills on the day they are due), but interest rates are so low that it is worth it to me to forgo the interest (pennies) and not risk paying a bill late (with a $35 late fee).

    After paying the bills all the money left in my checking account should last through the month for food and fun stuff.

    I just save PDF copies of my payments and then when I get the email copy of my bill I save it into the same folder. Then I have copies of my bills and payment receipts electronically in case I need to see them again for some reason. Totally cut down on papers at my house!

  16. posted by joss on

    I agree with J. And we tried to use the “opt-out” telephone number at the bottom of pre-screened credit card offers, but it’s a really awful voice system that can’t understand most of what you say and there’s no way to enter information with the phone’s keypad (I guess the offer to opt out was a bit insincere). I’m interested in PreCycle, but since it’s per name and per address (“Your membership covers a single household name and address.”), we’ll have to wait until we’re not moving once a year I think.

  17. posted by Pat Kilmain on

    I do have automatic bill pay on my utilities, and they send me a bill anyway! One more *#E#*)( thing to dispose of! I can get my bank statement and credit card statements electronically, but the utility people aren’t there yet.

    My husband has a problem getting a shredder, since we live in a rural area, and burn our paper trash. Using the shredding under the kitty litter might appeal to him though…. πŸ™‚

  18. posted by Tammy on

    As soon as mail comes in I sort it – most goes into recycling – but anything with a due date or payment I open, check the date, and write the date and the amount due on the front of the envelope. On my desk – in a little 3-section desk organizer – I have a monthly planner. I write on that calendar what the bill is, how much, and when it’s due (or where I need to be) and stick the mail into the planner in the appropriate month. I consult this calendar fairly often and on payday all the bills are in one place, pre-sorted, and ready to go. Haven’t made a late payment anywhere in YEARS. Any mail that’s for my daughter I put on ‘her’ shelf beside my desk so she can grab it when she’s home from college, and any mail that needs to be filed and kept, like insurance, I immediately file appropriately.

    For me the ‘planner calendar’ method works great for mail sorting and bill paying. πŸ™‚

  19. posted by Jeri Dansky on

    @Just Breathe: I have a shredder intended to deal with the child/pet issues. See Fellowes’ SafeSense:

    (The shredder I have is this one, which you can get for MUCH less than the price shown on this web site:

    @SB: There are some not-ugly shredders. See – but I don’t have any experience with them, to know how well they work.

  20. posted by Julie on

    I don’t know if this would work for many people but I simply choose not to check the mail every day. We have a locking mailbox and I only check the mail 1-2x a week. Originally this happened because I had a PO Box and couldn’t physically get to the mail each day. I discovered that just because mail comes everyday doesn’t mean I need to immediately check it. It is much easier to deal with the mail when you have a free moment to actually open/sort/recycle/file the mail. I know this wouldn’t work for everyone, especially those with non-secure mailboxes as well as those who may actually get something important each day but it works great for me.

  21. posted by SB on

    I saw those slimline shredders at Amazon a few months ago. The reviews were, shall we say, cutting. Pretty but useless seemed to be the consensus.

  22. posted by Mohan Arun L on

    I clicked through from Friendfeed thinking by using the term ‘mail’ you meant email! But the article talks about paper/snail mail. I have never had a problem managing snail mail. I keep a diary with important things like bank accounts, credit card accounts, insurance, mortgage account, paypals, online email, etc. where I write down all passwords and other important updates as they happen with date noted against each, sorta like my own bank account’s blog. Like Received paper statement of monthly transactions on 3-11-05. etc. It quickly lets me view at a glance if there is anything important that I need to watch out for. For paper based things, paper based management is the best, I dont cross-manage stuff, like trying to scan the paper utility statements, bills, transaction summaries etc. and load them into computing devices. Paper is always remains as paper. The diary is there so in the event something happens to me, family members can go through the diary and know the passwords to do any urgent transactions with banks, etc.

  23. posted by Richard | on

    Precycle sounds like a god send. I had a great idea once. Wouldn’t a fantastic invention ala Dragons Den be a device that attaches to the inside of your letterbox. It scans letters somehow as they come through your door and them emails you them. Or it could even just scan a barcode from the company which emails you and lets you now a letter has arrived. There has to be a market for that.

  24. posted by Louise on

    We live on the road in our RV, and only get our mail about once every 6 weeks. Before we left, I switched 95% of our bills to an on-line bill paying service called Paytrust. We’ve been using it for about 8 years now with no problems, and it really reduces the physical mail.

    I wrote it up in depth here:

  25. posted by Karen on

    My New Year’s Resolution was not to bring any junk mail into the house. I sit in the car and sort it, and then dump the junk in the recycling bin before I come in. It’s significantly decreased the amount of recycling I have to take out of the house and put in the bin!

    As for pets and shredders, my cat doesn’t like the noise the shredder makes, so he’s never bothered to investigate it.

  26. posted by Lou on

    I have a very attractive old wooden bread box, the kind with a roll-up opening. IF life is too hectic or I am ill, mail not needing immediate attention goes in here. It’s out of sight, mess-wise, but I know what’s in there – mail that needs eventually to be dealt with: EOBs from the insurance company, quarterly bills, reports from IRAs charities I’ll respond to, those annoying blank checks from the credit card company. Very little of my mail demands immediate attention, since I have implemented the steps Erin recommends (declining catalogs, shredding at the door and automating where possible). IF stuff sits in the breadbox for a week or two, it’s just not a disaster. And there’s no clutter.

  27. posted by Lauren Halagarda on

    I second @chacha1 on using simply tear off the back page w/ codes and it takes 2 minutes to enter your preference to be removed.

    I also recommend visiting to opt out of credit card offers. You can always find them online if you need them and this will cut down considerably on junk.

    Finally, one of the best ways to cut down on junk mail is to prevent it in the first place. Stop entering random raffles, contests, drawings, etc. and when you make catalog purchases, express your preference not to be added to the company mailing list.

    Lots of little habits repeated regularly will help you keep your mail under control! πŸ˜‰

  28. posted by anonymous homeowner on

    Not going carefully through every piece of junk mail I receive cost me several thousand dollars when my homeowners association sued me. As far as they — and the law — were concerned, I was ignoring their notices (even though I was paying my regular dues every month). But what happened to this woman was far worse:

    Winona Blevins, an elderly widow who lived in a planned community in Houston called Champions, was astonished when a constable came to her door one morning and told her he had a court order to evict her.

    It turned out that the homeowners association had sold the house out from under her β€” because she owed $876 in dues. Blevins says she didn’t even know her home had been sold: “I had no inkling. Absolutely no idea. None.”

    Blevins had paid cash for her home and had lived there for 15 years. But the homeowners association says she ignored notices they sent telling her she was behind with her dues. But apparently many of the notices had been wrongly addressed to her long deceased husband, who had never even lived in the house.

    Blevins says mail did come to her house addressed to her husband, but she threw it away thinking it was junk mail. She says no one from the community association ever called her or came to her home to tell her there was a problem. Instead, the board turned the matter over to their attorneys, who tacked on thousands of dollars in legal fees and recommended foreclosing on the home to collect.

    The association sold Blevins’ home at public auction without her knowledge, then had constables evict her with no notice. “They took everything. They said I could take one change of clothing, one. And they took everything else. Everything,” she remembers.

  29. posted by TV James on

    We use a post office box for most mail. My wife’s weekly entertainment magazine comes to the house, but little else does. Junk mailers send far less to post offices, and in many cases, I can quickly, while still in the post office, rip my name and address off of junk mail and toss the rest right there in the trash without leaving the post office. (Is a shame they don’t offer recycling.)

    Since I check the post office box on the way to work, when I get to work, or at lunch, I go through the rest of the mail. I have two folders in my laptop bag, a red one and a green one. Urgent stuff goes in red, the rest in green. All of the red ones I then enter into Remember the Milk with their due dates (title starts with “Red: “) so that I know when I need to have handled them by.

  30. posted by TV James on

    Oh, and since burning is still allowed where we live, instead of a shredder we now have a “burn bin” by the fireplace where all of the personally identifiable bits of mail go to be used as firestarters.

  31. posted by Jay on

    We have a P.O. box. Having a P.O. box has taught me that I do not need to look at mail every day. Once a week is sufficient.

  32. posted by Toni on

    A great read πŸ™‚ I twittered a link to this article. I posted a blog entry a little while back similar to this article.

  33. posted by CD Recycling « Mylifesamess's Blog on

    […] I was going to set up my shredder so as to have a nice little disposal center as suggested on so that I can quickly deal with mail and paperwork when I get home each day.Β  Then, I realized my […]

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