A Simple Approach to Living With Less

Minimalist Mailbag: A Guide to a Small Home Office

I thought it’d be fun to start a new feature here of answering reader emails. I always love getting comments and questions from the reader’s here because it helps us all grow. If you’d like to send an email to the Minimalist Mailbag, just visit the contact page.

Do you have anything about how to organize a home office? What do you do with paperwork: what to keep, what not to keep, and for how long? What do you do with bills, paid off loans, and paper work that just doesn’t seem to matter anymore? How do you set up a little home office in the corner of your living room when there’s no other spot for it?

This boils down to two issues really: 1) How to deal with office records and paperwork and 2) How to set up a small home office. I’ll attack them separately.

How to Deal with Office Records and Paperwork

Paperwork around the house can quickly become overwhelming. Up until recently, we had a full three-drawer file cabinet plus half a dozen cardboard boxes in storage filled with miscellaneous paperwork. Just getting up the courage do deal with the mess can be challenging. I can encourage you that it is much easier to stay on top of the clutter once you’ve conquered the paper mountain.

Don’t keep everything. Let’s face it, we are prone to keep more than we need. Before you file or scan anything, go through everything first and decide what you really need to keep. When we went through our records, we found receipts for things we didn’t even own anymore. This article from the New York Times provides some guidelines of what kind of financial records you need to keep and for how long. Going digital with your records nearly eliminates the concern of how long to hold onto your records. It’s still important to clear out your computer files from time to time but the storage concerns are greatly minimized.

Scan the important stuff. The two biggest tools that have helped us conquer office clutter are a compact document scanner and a shredder. We have one of the smaller ScanSnap document scanners that scans both sides of a document in color at the same time. All of our files are now digital including our tax records, insurance cards, birth certificates, social security cards, and receipts for important purchases. It has made a HUGE difference for us. It’s great peace of mind having back ups of important documents.

Store your information securely. Before you get rid of any important documents, make sure you have secure storage. DropBox provides bank level encryption and that is where we keep our financial documents. You can get a free account with DropBox that has 2 GB worth of storage. There are other online options available, but be sure to check about level of encryption because you want your information available to you, but not accessible to online threats. We also have dual back up hard drives at home and they are synchronized with off-site back ups. We keep our digital photos and other documents there because 2 GB doesn’t go very far when trying to store photos. Things like birth certificates and social security cards that we want to physically keep, we store in a fireproof box at the house.

Shred the rest. Now comes the easy part. Once you’ve sorted, scanned, and stored it all, have a shredding party! Over the course of two weekends, we shredded six large black trash bags full of paperwork.

How to Set Up a Small Home Office

Whether your space is limited or you just want to eliminate the amount of clutter an office creates, there are some easy steps to making your home office work for you.

  1. Plan the purpose of the space. There are several things you can do to organize a home office, but the first step is deciding what purpose you want the area to serve. Do you actually need to work in that area or is it more for storage? Will you need a desktop computer permanently set up there or do you have a portable solution like a laptop? Don’t purchase a desk and filing cabinet before you decide if you really need one.
  2. Start as small as you can. I don’t work at a desk at all. I take my laptop from the couch, to a chair, and to the dining room table when needed. Don’t grow the space you need until you find it consistently difficult to work in the smaller area. Your clutter will spread to the largest amount of area you provide. So set up automatic restraints by not providing a large surface unless you require it daily.
  3. Look for compact and multi-purpose storage options. When space available is minimal look for pieces that take up the smallest amount of floor space. IKEA is known for great storage options for small spaces. We have this great compact laptop workstation that barely comes into the room at all. We also have this small IKEA drawer unit for storing a variety of office items. It is below desk height and can easily roll out of the way. Cabinets that mount above your workspace are also an option to gain storage without giving up floor space.

Do you have some office tips to share? What works for you or what has been challenging for you to deal with? I’d love to hear your feedback.


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photo by nkzs

Article originally published on 11/01/2010

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  1. I need to go through my papers, set up a place for incoming mail, and a process to go through it and a place to put stuff. Right now my office has spilled from a desk in the kitchen to boxes in the dining room! Unfortunately this is not real high on my priority list right now, as long as my bills get paid!

  2. Karen (scotland) says

    By total coincidence, that’s what I’ve been doing over the last week – we filled the paper bin with shredded paper – very satisfying. I’ve always been on top of general paperwork but this was the “big stuff” folder I was dealing with – old copies of title deeds for the house, conveyancing documents from the purchase/sale of houses when we moved home. I was avoiding it as I wasn’t really sure what I needed to keep. Turned out, not much! It was intimidating but setting aside an evening to read the papers and decide what was just communications and what was essential paperwork was SO satisfying!

    My “home office” is an actual desk – I struggle with mild back problems so I choose to prioritise a wide desk and chair with storage above and next to where I sit, as well as all the basic stationery within reach. I used to have a filing cabinet but felt it took up more space than it justified. Plus, it was hard to transport files if I had to! Now, I have three large folders holding pretty much the same info.

    Next stage for our family is to digitise as much as we can of the essential paperwork for safekeeping. Again, intimidating but something I know I’ll regret not doing if the house goes up in flames…

    Thanks for a good article.

  3. We use a scansnap too! We also use document management software called M-Files to organize our files, emails, everything that needs keeping. And M-Files is actually the one of the software tools we sell in our home business! Full circle hey? I hope you don’t mind if I include our Canadian website! http://www.fusiontek.ca. Enjoying your blog as our family is also on a journey to minimalism.


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