A brief description of the 14 Folder Paper System that I use to manage receipts, paper bills, and similar physical paperwork I receive. Like the 3 Folder Email System it has worked relatively well for me over the past several years. I’ll also freely admit that I fall off the wagon frequently and don’t always follow through with all the steps and processes here. We are all a work in progress.

The goals of the system are to get bills paid on time, follow up on rebates or other timely things, and keep important paperwork without a large filing cabinet. I do scan some paperwork and had a go at scanning everything. Frankly, it seemed like a waste of time. Now I only scan paperwork very selectively.

The System

For paper receipts, bills, etc. there are 14 folders.

  • Inbox / Green Folder: where all new things not looked at get put.
  • Action Required / Red Folder; things I need to act on.
  • 12 Month Folders: one for each month with things that no longer need action are kept.

The 12 Month Folders are the running archive for the past 12 months. They are organized so the current month is in the front and the month that just passed is in the back. If it’s February, that month will be in the front followed by March, then April, and so on. The current month folder will have receipts, bills, and paperwork for the current month. The folder just behind it will have items from that month but last year. More on maintaining these below.

The Inbox / Green Folder is the physical Inbox. This is where everything goes by default when it comes in. Think of it just like your email Inbox. Every few days, sort the inbox

  • If it’s something that can be done in just a few minutes (< 5 min), go ahead and get it done then file the paper in the current month folder which should be right in the front.
  • If it’s something that will either take longer or you just don’t want to deal with it right now, drop it in the Action Required / Red Folder.
  • Repeat until the Inbox / Green Folder is empty.

The Action Required / Red Folder is the things to do folder. It needs to be regularly checked over to make sure things are getting done. You can be more picky here but you also need to pay attention to due dates and how long things languish here. You don’t want to be re-reading the same bill over and over again. When you complete an item from Action Required / Red Folder you follow the same process as above.

  • When you complete it, file the paper in the current month folder or if it was from last month, put it in last month’s folder.
  • In general these items have some lasting value so they likely won’t go in the trash or shredder, but there are always exceptions. You might want to scan things to get them in electronic form. I write “scanned” with the date on them when I do this.

The 12 Month Folders are cleaned and rotated at the start of each month. This maintains the rolling archive and prepares you for the next month.

  • Pull the current month folder from the front and put it in the back behind all the other folders.
  • Empty the contents of the new current month folder (in the front)
  • Look through the contents for anything that should be kept another year; large item purchases, warranty items, memories, etc.. Put those back into the folder or scan them if you want them electronically and have not already done so.
  • Shred or dispose of the rest.

Practical Modifications

My Green Folder / Inbox is actually in two places; a desktop tray I can just drop new things in and a Green Folder that I carry in my laptop bag. When I sort my inbox, I empty the Green Folder into the desktop tray and sort that.

My Red Folder / Action Required is similar in two places; a second level desktop tray and a Red Folder in my laptop bag. This works a little different from the Inbox. The real Action Required is the desktop tray. When I have something that I need to do elsewhere, perhaps during the workday, I’ll put it in the Red Folder so I have it with me while at work or elsewhere. This is dangerous and needs constant attention as it’s easy to forget something in the laptop bag!


This was adapted from “43 Folders” from Merlin Mann and “Inbox Zero”. Though his site 43folders.com has not gotten updates in over a decade and I cannot find the original article. My system here is a combination of these two that covers both paper and email. For both systems, the goal is to look at things as few times as possible and not forget to pay bills and get things done.