THE SCARY BAG STORIES: Paper Poltergeist

Want to Get Organized?

Our co-founder Ann Lightfoot knows that the buildup of mail can get so overwhelming there is a temptation to stuff it into a bag and tuck it out of sight. The prospect of inevitably dealing with the stuff in that bag – sorting it and throwing it out—makes chills run down your spine. We call this “The Scary Bag,” and whether the bag sits for weeks, months (or heaven forbid, all year) it will eventually have to be handled.

None of us are perfect at keeping our lives organized. Even the neatest of the neat-freaks (we’re looking at you, Kate) can’t be freaky all the time. Life is busy with early morning meetings, gym sessions, kids to be parented, pets to be walked, friends, parties, errands, and the general maintenance of keeping yourself looking and feeling fabulous.

If only there were 36 hours in every day, we could handle the daily stuff of life no problem. But it’s not always so easy, and sometimes the stacks of mail, receipts, and general paper detritus sneaks up on you like a murderer in the dark.

Do not be afraid, friends. We are here to ghost-bust that Scary Bag into a puddle of harmless ectoplasm – or, more accurately, a neat, perfectly organized pile.


Photo by Martin Poole/Photodisc / Getty Images

Photo by Martin Poole/Photodisc / Getty Images

The way to conquer the scary bag is to establish an ironclad, so-easy-you-forget-you’re-doing-it routine. But in order to do that, you have to face your demons. Take out your current scary bag or stack of mail, and make room to sort into two stacks: Junk and Non-Junk.

Junk is fairly obvious – all catalogues and unsolicited advertisements go in here.

Non-Junk is for bank statements, bills, letters, and invitations.

Ann’s mom, Judy, throws coffee grounds on her old bills before throwing them out, but perhaps this isn’t secure enough for you. If you are concerned about your personal information going in the trash, we recommend purchasing a small shredder.


Photo by Big Cheese Photo/Big Cheese Photo / Getty Images

Photo by Big Cheese Photo/Big Cheese Photo / Getty Images

Now, this is the hard, part, but it will be over soon.

  • Take your Junk pile and make a running list (perhaps in the Notes section of your phone) of the companies that are sending you paper promotional materials. You will keep this list running as you get new mail. Once the list is made, put all of the paper in the recycling or shred anything you are worried about. More on the list later!
  • Next, open everything in the Non-Junk pile and put all the filler and envelopes into a recycling bag. You have now reduced the scary by more than half!


  •  Then sort this pile into File and To-Do. File is for statements and pieces that you don’t necessarily need to follow up on, but you’d like to keep. To-Do is bills and invitations – things that you need to take action on in the near future.


  • Onto the File pile! Put everything you want to keep into it’s proper file: bank statements (one file for each bank or credit card company), one for each utility bill you want to keep, insurance statements, doctors bills, etc. We love this miniature, wheeled filing system because you can drag it over to the couch and do it in front of the TV, because stacks are less scary in front of an episode of Grey’s Anatomy.
  • A small filing cabinet will also prevent you from hanging onto too much paper. At the end of the year, clear out the cabinet and put relevant documents aside in a folder marked with the year. After you do this, make sure to throw out the tax folder from 7 years prior! You only need to hang onto 7 years worth of tax information for the IRS.
  • To do Pile: Open your bills and pay them one at ta time. RSVP to all standing invitations and put the information in your calendar. When you deal with the Junk and file piles first, you can see your bills are fewer than expected. By the way, we have no official opinion on paper versus electronic bills. While I find it helpful to do all my bills online, co-founder Kate Pawlowski finds that proper mail maintenance allows her to keep some bills on paper and not get overwhelmed. Whatever works for your brain.
  • Receipts:  We haven’t forgot about receipts! Toss ALL receipts unless you need to submit them to your accountant for tax purposes. These should be very few – large purchases, jewelry, donation receipts, and work done to your home – file these. Don’t hang onto receipts for groceries, clothing you’ve already worn, movie stubs, etc. – they are of no use to you.


  • Lastly: Clear the wastepaper basket right away so that doesn’t begin to pile up, too. Don’t forget to recycle all that paper!


Still from Done & Done NYC's segment on NBC's Open House!

Still from Done & Done NYC’s segment on NBC’s Open House!


Once you’re done with your purge, it’s time to establish a realistic routine. Kate and Ann say that the goal is to be able to sort all your paper in the time that it takes for your coffee to brew in the morning. As soon as you start percolating, spend the next five minutes adding names to your junk list and tossing all junk mail, opening your bills (throwing away all filler and envelopes), putting the To-Do and File piles aside for later, and tossing receipts. If you do this every morning, it will take you no time at all. Check out this great mail table with a tray for mail, files, and a waste paper basket and shredder below!

Select one hour every week where you pay bills and RSVP to events. Remember that unsubscribe list? Call each company and ask to be taken off the mailing list. Don’t try to do this online, as many companies make it intentionally confusing to manage your subscription so that you will give up and keep receiving the materials. It’s quicker to call and speak to someone in person.

Photo by Besjunior/iStock / Getty Images

Photo by Besjunior/iStock / Getty Images


I don’t know if anyone has told you lately, but you are amazing. Life is hard, you are surviving – AND keeping your neighborhood safe from a scary, roving paper pile. Give yourself a pat on the back and go take a nap. You deserve it.