How to find your dining room table under that pile of mail

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japanese junk mail Β© by eblaser, used under Creative Commons license.
I was wondering if y’all have any suggestions for filing/storing things like mail/bills/tax information/etc.

Right now, I tend to just throw it on top of (what used to be) a dining room table, but it has gotten to the point where it is just too much. Halp?


This is a huge question, and I’m going to focus on exactly one part of it: dealing with the mail. I realize this is just one part of your question, but it’s the part I have my own obsessive system to share with you.

First: getting to zero.

Schedule 30 minutes. Sort through every piece of mail, recycle the junkmail, and then open every single envelope. (Use a sharp letter opener! Always makes it more fun for me, somehow.) Recycle the outer envelopes. Then…

Go paperless

On your bills, use a red pen to circle the websites for each company. Go to those websites and sign up for paperless billing. It will seriously take you half an hour, TOTAL, and will save you SO MUCH PAPER coming to your house. These companies don’t want to send you these papers — it costs them money they could be saving by just sending you an email. They all want you to go paperless, and you want to go paperless.

Ok. Now you’re down to zero, and you’ve ensured that less new mail is going to be showing up. That only took half an hour, amiright? NOW, let’s get down to some incoming organizational hotness:

Have a recycling bin next to your mailbox

For the stuff you can’t stop (coupon mailers, direct mail, alumni publications you can’t escape), have a recycling bin as close to your mailbox as humanly possible. We have ours directly underneath the postbox that sits outside our door. Junk mail doesn’t even get into our house — I stand there and sort the mail as it comes out of the box. If it’s junk, it’s not coming in my front door. (Pro tip: don’t recycle financial stuff that could get swiped from the bin and lead to identity theft.)

Deal with it immediately

A couple days a week, we will have legitimate mail arrive — a royalty report from my long-suffering lit agent! Dre’s yoga journal! A card from a friend. (NOT ENOUGH! I miss snail mail. Remind me to tell y’all about how I grew up obsessed with pen-pals and had a hand-drawn spreadsheet to help me keep track of who I’d written and when.) When I walk in the door from my recycling binge with this fresh, legitimate mail, I try to treat it like fruit: perishable.
My goal is to walk in the door and make that piece of mail my first order of business. Usually it’s something like this:

  • BILL: pull out my checkbook and write the check. Stamp it and put it in my bag to mail. All before I take off my coat.
  • PERSONAL: hang it up on the sentimental laundry line where I can enjoy it and be visually reminded (pleasently!) to respond
  • SOMEONE ELSE’S: prop it on Dre’s laptop keyboard for him to deal with, which leads me to my next tip…

Have a non-pile place for later-mail and/or other people’s mail

For material you can’t deal with right away, or that needs to be dealt with by someone else — store the mail vertically. Pinned to somethinging, hanging from something, propped on something. Do not let the mail go horizontal, because then it becomes a Pile Of Shit, and no one wants to go through that. Seriously: I am impeccably organized, and even *I* hate a fucking a Pile Of Shit. (The worst are mixed-media Piles Of Shit, where you’ve got a shirt, a fork, one cell charging cord and some bills all in one stack. DID YOU HEAR MY HEAD JUST COLLAPSE!? Order-implosion and now I cease existing because I imploded from the freaking out.)

The goal is to keep the mail QUICK and ACTIONABLE. Circle the shit that needs your attention and tape it in front of your face. On the inside of your front door, on the edge of your computer monitor covering the bottom left corner. I find computers are a great place for putting mail that needs attending to, and if your mail was on top of your laptop instead of your dining room table, you couldn’t have sent in that question without sorting through it. SEE?!

Stick that mail between the keys of your computer. Tape it to the middle of your tv screen. Stick it in your fridge, on the carton of your choice. Put it somewhere vertical, somewhere visible, and somewhere that you like to go when you’re killing time that you could be spending getting stupid piddly mail shit out of your way so that you can fully enjoy your day without that shit hanging over you — OR your dining room table.

So, are you feeling me here?

  1. set aside 30 minutes to sort backlog
  2. switch bills, statements, etc. to paperless
  3. recycle outside
  4. have vertical, non-piled ways to store mail

This is the method that works for me, but my brain certainly isn’t everyone’s brain — I’d love to hear how y’all manage the flow of paper into your homes.

(PS: Don’t get me started on USPS and their direct marketing-based failed strategies. I have unpopular opinions.)

Comments on How to find your dining room table under that pile of mail

  1. I have a filing cabinet in the bedroom and a stacked inbox/outbox on my desk.

    New mail? In the inbox. Mail that needs to be filed? In the outbox. In between those two steps, I open and do the dance of recycling or otherwise dealing with the mail I need to see, but don’t need to file.

    The outbox gets emptied MAYBE once a month. Most of my bills are paperless, as are my bank statements, so almost all the mail I want to keep is infrequent bills (medical, insurance, etc.) or paystubs from work.

  2. Our paper recycling is currently at the opposite end of the house from the mailbox. That’s gotta change, because mail currently ends up lingering on the dining table right between the two. Great suggestion!

  3. My grandparents have always had a wooden old school mail organizer and also deal with their junk mail as soon as it comes in the door. Then my grandpa has a couple of days a week in which he deals with bills and stuff.. and guess what Ariel! The mail is vertical in the organizer! lulz πŸ™‚ I think it more or less would become a vertical pile of shit if you let it get out of hand though

  4. I love the tone of this article. JUNK MAIL BE BANISHED! RAAAAAAR!

    We have a shredder directly next to our mail slot in our front room. Hidden behind a small storage ottoman. The credit card offers and stuff that doesn’t safely go strait to recycling whole gets dropped into its hungry jaws. Then we have a magnetic his and her bin on our fridge (target, $5) for bills to deal with. The rest goes directly out thru the kitchen to recycling, unless it’s magazines. They go into the storage ottoman for when we’re relaxing.


    Materials- Old shutter, hot glue, fabric cut to old shutter size.

    1. glue fabric to shutter on bottom
    2. go up half the size of a vertical piece of mail and glue there too (about four slats on mine)
    3. repeat step two (also gluing on the sides.
    4. Label each grouping of four slats with applicable things. Mine are Me/Husband (for personal and school stuff) House for household things.
    5. put recycling bin underneath
    6. put the goddamn mail away when it comes. If it doesn’t fit in one of those places it fits in the trash πŸ™‚

  6. We also deal with mail RIGHTNOW before anything else – junk mail goes in the shredder to be used as bedding for the ducks,bills that need to be paid get taken out of their outer envelope and slid into the “pay now” slot in the desk (which my husband then *actually* pays now – this would not work if it were my job to pay the bills) and personal mail goes into the “aw shucks” box or into my purse to be responded to at work during my lunch break. I hate a messy purse, so nothing lingers in there for long.

  7. I like the “Right Now” Policy as well since I tend to just let things sit… have your files set up ahead of time as well so you can drop your tax/401(k)/pay stubs in the folder.

  8. Our system is similar in that we have the recycling bin right next to the door and all junk plus envelopes go straight in. Stuff that needs to be filed goes into a little pile on top of the filing cabinet and then every week or two I take the 30 seconds needed to actually put the papers into the correct files.

    Bills usually can’t be paid RIGHT NOW because we have to strategically schedule when we’ll pay them so we don’t run out of money. They go on the fridge (all vertical like) in the meantime.

  9. The vertical system really works! I’ve actually set up a bunch of clothes pins on the blinds in my bedroom (they’re kinda cruddy lookign blinds anyways and they take up a lot of wall space) – and use it to hang up Christmas cards, mail and pictures that I want to remember and look at. It makes me smile every time I look at it- so much more interesting than just the plain old blinds that were there before.

  10. There are ways to make (most) junk mailers leave you alone (USA only, sorry):

    First, use the Direct Marketing Association and Catalog Choice websites to opt out of all the crap they send. This will greatly reduce the amount of junk you receive.

    Junk mailers that do not use the above services require a little more work – you will have to call or write to them. Some companies will get snotty with you and refuse to do it. Use the magic words “violation of pandering laws” and most of them will cooperate.

    Second, stop giving out your address. Store discount cards, warranty cards, magazine subscriptions, sweepstakes entries, etc. are all used to gather marketing information. It’s MUCH easier to keep your information out of a computer in the first place than it is to successfully demand its removal. (If you don’t want to go without these things, write “do not share my information” on the form and use a different middle initial for each one. If your address is leaked, check the middle initial and you’ll know who did it.)

    If you still receive junk mail more than 90 days after asking a company to stop mailing you, fill out USPS Form 1500 (available on the US Postal Service website; not all post offices have it on hand). Form 1500 exists to protect postal customers from pandering (i.e. sexual) advertisements, but since the postal service doesn’t determine what counts as a pandering advertisement, you can even get those wasteful grocery circulars banned from your mailbox. I’ve used this very successfully with a few especially evil companies – and since you get a legal order of protection against them, they have to pay a fine if they bother you again.

    If a customer service representative is rude or refuses to help you, writing to corporate headquarters can get results. Four people at Sprint cussed me out and hung up on me. I wrote to Sprint, and received a letter apologizing for the junk mail AND their employees’ extremely unprofessional behavior. Sprint hasn’t bothered me since.

    If a junk mailer sends you a prepaid envelope, you can stuff it with other junk and send it back (I’ve heard of people mailing a brick this way) – they’ll have to pay for it. I would only do this as a last resort, since the previous steps eliminated 90% of my junk mail.

    I prefer to donate to charities anonymously (using cash, a cashier’s check, or a money order) because so many of them share mailing lists. Yes, I know most charities never have enough money, but I can’t support them all.

    BTW, seriously consider having your credit frozen if you can (you can have it un-frozen and re-frozen just long enough to apply for an apartment, etc.). You will never see another unsolicited credit card offer, and identity thieves will not target you.

    I personally do not receive mail at my own address, since I have had problems with a psychotic letter carrier who scared the hell out of me. If you receive mail at a PO box, mail drop, business address, etc., you really don’t need to check the mailbox at your residence address. Just let it fill up with junk mail, and when it gets too full, the post office is legally required to take it out, hold it for 30 days, then return to sender. Especially effective if, like me, you have found yourself buried under piles of mail belonging to previous tenants who haven’t updated their contact information.

    • I’d like to second Catalog Choice- I have a stack of catalogs that I go through once a month or so and punch into Catalog Choice. They don’t handle everything, but they definitely make a dent in the amount of crap that shows up in my mailbox.

    • Having working in the sorting office of a mailing company (not in the US) I have to say sending junk back in the envelopes can be the quickest way to get taken off the list. That place had a policy that you had to ask three times before you were deleted, which was evil, but if you sent a parcelworth of scrap paper you got deleted straight away. Don’t be offensive with it though, whilst sending dog poop seems funny, the CEO isn’t the one who gets covered in it. That happened about once a week πŸ™

  11. Holy shit. I’m buying a tiny recylcing bin to store under the mail slot. Maybe then disorganized husband dude can recylce the junk mail. Why have I never thought of that!?!

  12. One suggestion regarding junk mail: Don’t just immediately stick it in the recycle bin if it has your name and address on it! Tear off the name/address and shred it! Last year, I received 17 different magazine subscriptions and bills for every single one of them. SEVENTEEN! I hadn’t ordered a single magazine. Some of them even made it to a collection agency because I couldn’t figure out how to cancel them (the ones in spanish, which I don’t speak). I talked to a few people who had heard of this happening, and presumably, a door to door salesperson found my address in the trash and signed me up for stuff, since they often have a certain quota to fill. Now I shred every single thing with my address on it.

    • I completely destroy anything with ANY of my information on it (a cross-cut shredder is great for this). There is no such thing as being too careful.

      And door-to-door salespeople wonder why no one likes them. What a rotten thing to do.

  13. In addition to the junk mail recycling bin, I’ve created a coupon basket. The future hubs is a coupon freak, and it’s his duty to go through the basket, clip what he wants and recycle the rest. (And periodically cull expired stuff.) Coupons never get used if they just end up in the aforementioned Pile of Shit.

  14. I hate having mail clutter things up. For me, having the following items makes handling mail easier:

    ~A small shredder

    ~A file cabinet with folders for various accounts (loans, insurance, credit cards, etc.)

    ~A small rack/holder for bills that are due (on the computer desk, where we pay bills)

    ~A small bin for magazines (on the floor between the couch and recliner, our reading spots)

    Once I get home and take care of the dogs, I go through the mail. The procedure goes as follows:

    ~Shred all junk that has personal information on them. All other useless paper and empty envelopes go in recycling.

    ~Put all bills that are due in the bill rack.

    ~File paperwork in the appropriate folders.

    ~Place magazines in the magazine bin to read later.

    Mail is taken care of in just a few minutes. I think the most major thing was to have file folders made up for everything and to have them stored in a convenient place. I used to have folders absolutely crammed into a small, plastic bin that was such a pain in the butt to access that I would just pile stuff on top and then force myself to finally jam into the folders once a month or so. Not fun. We were able to get a really big file cabinet for free (it’s a little banged up but, dude…free!), and it is a total joy to have everything so nicely organized and easily accessible. I feel like angels sing when I pull open one of the drawers.

  15. Does anyone have any suggestions on how to deal with all of the paper that comes home from school with the kids? I was just getting the mail situation under control when my son started preschool. Now that he’s in kindergarten, the amount of paper coming home is INSANE!!! I have a hard time throwing out his work, but I don’t know what to do with it! Scan it? File it? Toss it?

  16. Mixed-media piles of shit make my brain explode, too! I will confess that I’m a piler, but my piles are neat and organized. My ex boyfriend made mixed-media piles all the time, and said piles usually had trash and food crumbs in some of the layers!

  17. We had EXACTLY the same issue! We now keep a cardboard box stashed under our dining room table. As soon as one of us comes in with the mail we sort through, putting junk in the box and opening and sorting the rare piece of legit mail. When the box gets full we take it down to the recycling dumpster and replace it with a new box.

  18. “mixed media Pile of Shit”

    OMG that is my #1 new year’s resolution : stop creating Piles of Shit and in particular the mixed media ones. I’ve got items 1-3 down so this is the last step!

  19. For a while there we had seven adults receiving mail in one house (remember when the economy tanked? yeah we all moved back in to our parents large house and my sister brought her fiance with). My mom got so fed up with the mail piles she got organizers that hang on the while and designated it the mail corner. Each person had their own thingamajig, labeled with their name. You could probably do the same thing with hanging folders cleverly or something and having one for bills one for personal or whatever.

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