Now here was a category I felt confident about tackling. I took pride in the fact my paperwork was well-organised, neat and tidy, categorised and sub-divided. Sometimes I fantasised that someone would enquire as to the whereabouts of a particular document so I could impress them with the speed and ease with which I could locate it within my efficient filing systems. Alas, no one ever did but I harboured the belief that my filing was superior to that of the average lay-person’s. But sure, I conceded, my files could do with a little streamlining. Efficient they may be, but they didn’t adhere to Marie Kondo’s decree for decluttering paperwork: namely, discard everything.
I had four main folders for my paperwork; three for personal papers and one ring binder, in the kitchen, for flat related documents. My personal folders consisted of an accordion file containing all documents relating to money and banking, an accordion file containing all documents for non-banking concerns (eg employment, payslips, medical, union, charity, warranties and instructions), and an accordion file with more elderly paperwork relating to anything pre-December 2009. December 2009 had been somewhat of a demarcation in my life. Before that I had spent a good number of years in a transient state, not stopping long in any abode, job or country before the winds of opportunity and discovery blew me towards a new adventure. But come December 2009 I was settled into a new job, which I loved, and had just moved into a flat that I was happy to call home for awhile. At that point I sifted and trawled through my paperwork – keeping any that I thought may be significant in one file and starting a new file afresh with paperwork pertaining to this new life of a permanent base and a meaningful career. These four files were the official homes for my paperwork – one in the kitchen, one under the stairs and two in my bedroom – but there were a couple of other random folders of miscellany and also the little eddies of paperwork that tend to collect in certain spots – in my case, on top of the microwave or on the corner of my chest of drawers. These were papers yet to be processed, yet to be re-homed in the correct file or in the recycling bin.
Although I was pretty smug about the categorisation of my paperwork, it was clear that Marie Kondo would not be impressed. I imagined her surveying my rigorously sub-divided folders with a look that said “this just won’t do” before she set about joyfully discarding documents. In my head, Marie Kondo is sort of like a Japanese Mary Poppins. I pulled my files and folders from their respective drawers and cupboards. While rummaging under the stairs for the folder that contained pre-2009 paperwork I came across some work from my PGCE and decided to add that to the paperwork ripe for decluttering. I left the rest of my educational paperwork (things relating to my A-Levels and degree) where it was, for the intervening decades had manoeuvred these into the category of sentimental items rather than functional documents. Looking at those essays and notes was like looking at an aged photograph – the weight of the passing years had infused them with meaning and melancholy. Kondo says all sentimental paperwork should be left till the end when you’ve become deft, decisive and dispassionate – like a discarding ninja. She more had in mind old love letters and diaries for sentimental paperwork, rather than academic essays, but each to their own when it comes to minimalism.
I leafed through the folder of PGCE work – it was a scheme of work with lesson plans and resources. And, boy, was it rubbish! There was the odd piece that I still used today but for the most part, I would have been embarrassed to offer any of it up as work to judge the calibre of my teaching on. I guess I’ve grown a lot as a teacher since that first tentative, exploratory year. I dumped all the paper into a bin bag for recycling and kept the folder and plastic wallets to be repurposed at school.
Onto the accordion file of elderly documents. Here I found the paperwork equivalent of an archeological dig into my past. There was so many old and unnecessary things: old mobile phone agreements, old CRB checks, old NUT things, a Sony Ericsson W800 user guide (great phone! Very robust. But not used since 2009 when I’d eagerly stepped into the cult-like embrace of the Apple family). Here was the receipt from Snow and Rock for the shopping trip I’d made with a then-boyfriend before we embarked on working a ski season in France. The receipt told me we’d spent almost £800 on clothing to kit us out. I remembered that shopping trip well – such joie de vivre at the imminent taste of new adventure and such heady excitement at being able to spend freely and exuberantly. No point scrimping, may as well buy what we liked, after all these were the clothes we’d be living in for the next five months. I took a photo of the receipt because it made me smile and then added it to the recycling. And on the theme of adventure, here were my old passports – their corners clipped like the wings of birds; their flights of fancy had long since expired. The passports, filled with stamps and visas representing a myriad of memories, were put to one side. Obviously they were staying.
Here was a tome of old payslips, all chronologically ordered – into the bin bag they went with the exception of the first payslip I ever received from a salaried teaching job and the first payslip from the school I’m currently working at, the one I started at in 2009. Those I kept for sentimental reasons and to marvel at inflation – I imagined being elderly and saying to some young whippersnapper, “Look, when I first started teaching I was paid £1,300 a month!” and them replying “Wow, that’s nothing! How on earth did you afford to live?!” Kondo’s rule for payslips is to throw them out as soon as you’ve checked you’ve been paid the correct amount. I went with the compromise of keeping just the ones for this tax year. Once my P60 arrives each April I’ll discard the ones for the previous year.
Other old paperwork included documents showing the calculation of my redundancy payout when the company I was a journalist for folded in the dot-com boom and bust days of the early noughties. When I first joined the company there had been heady talk of receiving £8000 in share money. By the end, there was no money left and men came to take all the computers. During that time I’d found that the best thing about being a journalist was telling people I was a journalist (it sounded so glamorous and important) while the work itself had consisted of monotonous days of rewriting press releases. Thus being made redundant was the kick up the arse I had needed to retrain as a teacher. There was also paperwork showing the calculations of the tax rebates I had received. I’d never got round to claiming any tax back for the years when my employment had been interrupted by frequent periods of travelling but luckily the tax office had been on it and had duly refunded me over £3000 in overpaid tax. Thanks for being efficient, tax people!
Then there was paperwork reflecting less solvent times – such as documents from the brief periods when I’d claimed Job Seeker’s Allowance. I shuddered just looking at it – I’d found the whole process and rigmarole of going to the dole office so depressing. I even still had the Jobseeker’s Allowance booklet that you have to complete to show you’re looking for jobs. There it was, diligently filled in and culminating in getting my current teaching position – those entries were finished off with the exclamation marks of success. More depressing documents – paperwork relating to the worst flat I’ve ever lived in; not only was it cold, dingy, damp and noisy but I’d had to remain living there with a boyfriend I’d split up with as we waited out the end of the contract. That was officially bad times. Oh look, here was the court summons we’d received when he’d failed to set up the direct debit to pay the council tax bill! I’d ended up having to pay the entire year’s council tax in one go to rectify the situation. That was one of the items listed on the accompanying piece of paper where I’d carefully totted up all the money that ex-boyfriend owed me. Debts he’d never repaid. I’d kept that piece of paper in case I ever needed to prove his feckless ways. It was time to let that go – the money he owed me (and it came to several thousand pounds) was long gone. It was time to accept that and free myself from the feelings associated with it. These weren’t for the most part negative feelings, sure if I thought about it too much there was annoyance about the money but mainly I felt incredulity that someone would not do the right thing and square their karmic debt. And there was feelings of relief that I’d not spent any longer with someone who wasn’t right for me. In my mind, it was a bullet dodged. But holding onto this piece of paper detailing all the debts was like holding onto the negativity of that difficult break-up. In order to release everything associated with it, melodramatic tv shows led me to believe that the most fitting thing to do would be to burn the paper. But it was raining outside and I certainly wasn’t going to set something on fire inside the house so I settled for ripping it up into very small pieces instead.
Onto more recent documents from my folders containing current paperwork and despite believing that my filing system was a pinnacle of order and categorisation, when looking at it through newly minted minimalist eyes I saw I had so much that I just didn’t need – receipts, mobile phone bumf, bumf sent by the charities I give to, old gas and electricity bills, old letters regarding job roles and pay rises from school, reams of things from the NUT (what even are all these offers they always send? I’ve never once used any of these associated benefits), years worth of pensions paperwork, so much banking fine print (kept out of obligation but, of course, never read), P45s and P60s (chucked the P45s, kept the P60s for now) and all the paperwork relating to my student loans. I’d only just finished paying my student loans off this year having deferred the repayments for 10 years. I was pleased to see that in all that time I’d only accrued roughly £1,700 worth of interest – definitely worth it for all those years of travelling. When I began paying the loans back I had a balance of £6,387 – a pittance compared with the debt today’s students will need to repay. Also off to the recycling pile went pamphlets and paperwork for various medical ailments from over the years – the doctors would have all my medical records and reputable sources on the internet would provide me with any info I needed in future. The only medical documents I kept were my NHS card, the record of my childhood immunisations and current concerns e.g. teeth-whitening instructions and ongoing orthodontic work.
Thumbing through old credit card statements I marvelled at the ebbs and flows, peaks and troughs of my finances. As I transferred these for recycling, I noticed with surprise that I’d been paying PPI – why that’s what you can claim back for, I realised! I’d been hearing all about this PPI stuff for so long and had assumed it hadn’t applied to me. But now seeing it on these old statements, I remembered I had had a policy but had cancelled it back in 2009. I remembered that phone call now, it had been a peevish conversation, as the man I spoke to did everything in his power to persuade me to keep the policy while I explained over and over that as a teacher I just didn’t need it. I wondered if I could be due any recompense for a clear case of mis-selling. I filled out the forms, provided by Lloyds, and waited for my windfall. As I waited, I was regaled with stories from friends who’d claimed and had received thousands in return. I managed to convince myself that I was probably due enough money that it would cover the debts I’d been left with by that ex-boyfriend. That would be karma working its magic, I decided. With several thousand pounds in repaid PPI money, all would be right with the world and karmic balance would be restored. But karma works in mysterious ways and it clearly didn’t want to get involved with PPI repayments. I received a letter saying I would receive £149. Apparently this small sum is due to the fact I tend to pay my credit card bills on time meaning I wasn’t accruing the interest payments. Although disappointing, after hearing how much money other people had received, I had a grudging respect for past me who had been diligent and responsible with her credit card.
As I was tidying all this paperwork I came to the folder containing my old A-Level Media Studies and English Language coursework. This coursework had been kept separate to my general A-Level and Degree work (ear-marked to be tackled later) due to the high regard I held it in. To this day I’m ridiculously proud of my A-Level work. I loved doing it at the time and I now marvel at my youthful creativity, the diligence with which I undertook it and its resulting quality. I teach A-Level students now so I have a good idea of the standard of A-Level work and mine’s actually really good, you know. Looking at what I created twenty years ago brings me much joy. But there’s also fear in case something were to happen to it. As the process of becoming a minimalist is, in part, about releasing the hold that material items have on you, I decided to remove this fear from my life. I took the coursework to school, scanned it and emailed it to myself. Now I’ll always have a record of it even if something should happen to the original paper copies. Although that was clearly sentimental paperwork and thus technically should have been sorted out at a later date, I figured it was fine to process it now as no discarding decisions needed to be made as it was all to be kept. And if the house burns down tomorrow I’ll be glad I scanned it when I did!
One other place sort of related to paperwork that I tidied was my wallet. Out went the old receipts and I did a serious cull of my loyalty cards. Any that I don’t use on a regular basis went in the bin. Ones that bombard you with emails are the worst. I’m even thinking of cancelling my M&S sparks card – all they do is send me tedious emails and their promise to send me personalised deals has yet to offer me anything I actually care for. Mostly they just try to tempt me with small discounts to buy things I don’t want or need. But my loyalty to M&S runs deep so I’ll give them a little longer to see if their algorithm can ascertain my desires.
In the end I was left with two piles of paperwork to discard – one to go in the recycling bin and one to be taken to school for shredding. I wondered if I’d been paranoid enough with what I’d decided should be shredded…would an enterprising con-artist be able to steal my identity from what I’d left in the recycling pile? I decided to be vigilant and keep an eye on my finances in the coming months in case I spotted some fraudulent activity. There has been nothing to report so far. I suspect all that paper went merrily off to the recycling centre and no ne’er-do-well even came near it despite my mother’s worst fears.
And how does my paperwork look now all that discarding is complete? Amazing, streamlined and simplified. It feels really good not to have inconsequential papers cluttering up the folders. The ring binder with documents relating to the flat is now much reduced and contains only current, necessary papers. Instead of three files, I now have only one half empty accordion file with personal paperwork. And, again, it only has current or important documents…well, actually I did keep the instruction manuals for my electrical items – Kondo says there’s no need to keep these as they can all be found online but in her new book Spark Joy (which I’ve just purchased) she says that if you’re the sort of person who loves manuals you should feel free to keep them. That’s me. I like the reassurance of knowing I can reach for the manual if necessity or curiosity steps in. Then I have one slim folder of older, miscellaneous or sentimental documents – this is where I’ve kept those first payslips I ever got, the lesson plan and notes for the interview that got me my current job, old versions of my CV which document the evolution of my working life (kept out of pure sentimentality), and paperwork with ideas for personal statements and covering letters – if/when I apply for a new job I know I’ll be glad to have this to kick start my thought process for trying to appear like a glowing and highly employable person. I also have all important certificates (birth certificate, degree, teaching certificate etc) collected into one folder so I can easily locate them if necessary. Every time I now access any of this paperwork I give a little snort of pleasure at how minimal and organised it is. I still fantasise that someone will ask me to find a specific document but now, not only are they deeply impressed with the speed and ease with which I can locate it, they are also dazzled by my slick, sexy, living life on the edge, minimalist approach to paperwork. And then they fall in love with me and we live happily ever after. The end.