Simple tips for tax-time organization

As much as I'd love to fill your heads with pastel-colored images of bunnies and matzo, the stark reality is that this is also the time for another annual American ritual: income taxes.


I'll skip the anxiety-laden fretting and get straight to the obvious point: it's easier to do your taxes when you're organized. Even your tax preparer or accountant needs raw numbers, and gathering them can be a major feat in itself.

The good news: you don't have to be that organized to eliminate most of the pain of tax preparation. All you need is:

  • a system
  • a few low-tech, inexpensive tools
  • a few minutes every week or month attending to input

The Staples PR team pitched a review for one possible solution using products from the Martha Stewart Home Office line. I loved this "tax organization kit" for its simplicity, affordability, flexibility, and easy accessibility (you probably have a Staples nearby, or you could cobble together your own "kit" with stuff you probably have at home).

The Martha Stewart version happens to look nice on your desk, which goes a long way toward making a dreaded chore (for me, at least) a lot more pleasant.

Shagreen Accordion File-in blue (2)

Set up tax-related categories in an accordion file and file documents, statements and receipts throughout the year.

I like that this version can stand freely on the desk, but can also close up and sit primly on a shelf or in a cabinet. Use a small poly accordion file to organize receipts, labeling each tab by month or expense category.

If you're the "paperless office" type, set up an electronic version of your system: folders for each tax category, then scan and file everything.

StaplesR Mailmate M7 Cross-Cut Shredder
Shred anything that contains addresses, account numbers, or other important identifying information.

This MailMate Shredder has two features that have booted my old over-the-wastebasket model into the Goodwill pile:

  • it's compact, so I can stash it inside a cabinet
  • the tray slides out with a handle, letting me dump the shreds straight into recycling. No more shreddi-confetti all over my floor!


Save past returns in a binder with labeled tabs for each year so you can easily flip through your tax history.

Three-ring binders with dividers are easier to manage than a file folder in a drawer or a box.

* * *

That's it. A few minutes a month, and you're done. For those of you sweating this week, let this be your light of the end of the 2012 tax year…you'll never have to go through the pain of last-minute scrambling again.

WIN IT! I've got a tax organizing kit just for you. Inside, you'll find:

  • Two Martha Stewart Home Office accordion files: one large (for papers) and one small (for receipts)
  • A premium binder with dividers
  • A MailMate shredder

To enter, leave a comment on this post with your best anxiety-reduction strategy at tax-time. We could all use it right about now.

Comments will remain open until Monday, April 9, 2012, 5pm PST/8pm EST. The winner will be notified by email. Good luck!

Giveaway open to US residents only. One entry per person, please. (Multiple comments will count as a single entry.) Please include your email address so I can get in touch if you win. Your email address will NOT display on the site, nor will it go onto any sort of mailing list (mine or Staples').

Disclosure: The Staples PR team provided me with a tax organization package for review purposes. I received no other compensation for this post, and all opinions are my own.

More: Hacks for financial management


  1. Ali says

    Mmmm, I love thinking that I’ll be more organized if my office supplies are prettier. Actually, does that count as a stress reduction tip? I really do like dealing with paperwork more if I have colorful folders and labels.

  2. says

    If you really want to cut-down on expenses in your tax payments with your accountant, you better get organized with your taxes. By having them filed with a system you will definitely shorten the period of your accountant’s work and her fee as well. And would it not look great if you have filed them separately. This will enable you to lessen the troubles of looking for missing receipts and the like.

  3. Sara A says

    I think the best thing to do is to start early and not wait until the last minute. It’s much easier to draft the return, put it down and then come back to it to make sure nothing is missed if you’re not starting on April 14 ; )

  4. Trish says

    Starting early is always good. And keeping anything that could be needed for taxes in the same place. But what really reduces my anxiety is TurboTax. It tells me what I need to find and reminds me of what I might have misplaced.

  5. dave says

    start early and don’t wait until the last minute! BE ORGANIZED ;) spending the time upfront will save you in the end!

  6. Jessica says

    Have a bag of treats (e.g. M&Ms) beside you, and treat yourself for every page you finish.

  7. Diane cole says

    We finally just decided to hire someone to do our taxes. It is worth every penny, especially sine I have to file in several different states. To keep organized, we have a drawer labelled “taxe receipts” and anything that could be counted as a business or tax expense goes in there. Around March, I just empty the drawer and input all the receipts into a spreadsheet.

  8. says

    Thanks for the tip. But yet he biggest thing is to be deligent every month with filing otherwise things get overwhelming and you may not follow through. I hate to admit but this is my flaw.

  9. Lisa says

    Start wary and do a little at a time. If you don’t hire a professional, invest in tax prep software to help you out.

  10. tara says

    My tip is to start early, we do our own taxes and just entered our info as the paperwork came in… we didn’t file super early, but it helped to just do it in small chunks instead of devoting one long session.

  11. Elizabeth says

    This is probably the complete opposite of most people, but I love doing taxes. I think it’s a great opportunity to take stock of your overall financial picture and see what went well in the last year and how you can change things for the coming year.

  12. Megan says

    I use the “tax drawer” method as well. Our accountant sends us a questionaire where we input the numbers prior to our meeting. It’s worked well so far, but the idea of sorting and shredding along the way is appealing!

  13. Shani says

    The best way to avoid tax-time anxiety is to plan ahead! Since we now make nearly all of our payments and charitable donations online, and do our taxes online, too, I save the confirmation statements in a folder called, for example, 2012 Taxes. I add the recipient and the amount in the subject line, so I don’t even have to open the e-mail to see what’s what.

    For this year, the best advice is: just do it. The only way out is through.

  14. says

    Filing – I keep a tax folder all year. This way when I make donations and receive receipts, I put them in the file right away. Come tax time, they are all together and ready to go.

  15. Nan says

    I keep my anxiety low at tax time by starting early (as soon as I have all my W2s). I also use software that allows me to import previous year’s information so once I have my SS#s, addresses, etc. typed in once, I only have to review for updates.

  16. Melissa says

    I also start early – at the beginning of February – that way I have plenty of time to hunt down the one piece of paper that’s ALWAYS missing, despite my efforts at filing!

  17. Steph says

    Yuk. Taxes. I keep a folder and put anything tax related in there. It then goes to our accountant. I’m starting to get a little more involved in the whole process so keeping organized is reallly important.

  18. Marla says

    I keep records on my computer and file away receipts, etc. all year long. Then, I turn it all over to my husband (stress-reducing for me!) and TurboTax. We usually file at the end of Feb. or the beginning of March so we can both relax knowing it’s done!

  19. Holly says

    Fortunately we have pretty simple taxes, so all I do is collect the papers as they come in into one folder so I know where to find them. Having everything in one place makes such a difference!

  20. Tamrah t says

    Having a tax prep software really has been wonderful…but only after I’ve done it all myself for years prior. The most noticeable similarity between both is the required documents. (They are always the same, just the numbers change and few details, i.e. donations.) Yes, having a file set up makes it easier to prep taxes! Printing a checklist also helps to make sure all documents are accounted and not misplaced.

  21. Judy says

    Have an overflowing box full of receipts and bills…then drop it off at your local friendly tax professional’s office. They will love you, and charge you, but it’s anxiety free. Totally not what we do…I just keep a file in our crazy-pile-o-everything by the phone to put receipts in if I remember.

  22. Hillary says

    Your best anxiety-reduction strategy at tax-time:
    H&R Block online.
    A separate shelf for tax-related paperwork when it comes in the mail.
    A drink

  23. says

    In January, I place a folder for tax documents by my front door. That way, I have a place to stash all the incoming mailed tax documents like W-2’s the second they come in; they don’t get sorted into other items to file. Then I can sit down with the checklist from the accountant and find what’s missing sometime by the end of the month. (It’s the same folder that I use during the year to track paper copies of donation receipts, so that’s all in one place, too.) Thank goodness we can afford an accountant, though. That has been a lifesaver.

  24. says

    Here are my tips (echo of some previous comments). We always use TurboTax, it makes things so much easier – it imports the previous year’s data and helps you catch any errors you might make.

    To ensure I have all my documents together, I label a plain file folder with the tax year and keep it upstairs near where we store our incoming mail. As soon as I see a tax document, I put it in the folder. It takes about a second and saves me a lot of searching time later on.

    I also start my tax return as early as I can so I don’t feel rushed. When I get tired or frustrated, I can save my work and come back to it.

  25. Abbey says

    I have folders labeled with our major deductions in a basket in the kitchen (medical, childcare, work expense, etc). Every time my husband or I get a receipt, it goes directly in the folder. No sorting needed in April.

  26. Sara says

    Leave it to my husband! He collects all the paperwork, receipts for everything and files it away till tax time.

  27. Nicole says

    If you keep it organized and sorted properly throughout the year, you’ll save yourself a big headache!

  28. says

    Because of our baby’s major surgery on Leap Year day, I decided to get everything important done beforehand- which included our taxes.

    Throughout the year, I use an email label of Taxes for relevant receipts from online transactions (automobile licensing, charitable donations, equipment purchased for business use). This makes things much easier to reference.

    I used to plan a single day to do my taxes, now I look at as a multi-day process (which shortens each session and takes off the pressure of locating missing documents).

    My first run is like a crash-through draft in writing. I go through the whole process and make note of questions and missing documents.

    In the subsequent days, I will either locate or get replacements for the missing documents. This is done piecemeal, so it may be placing a call when waiting for preschool pick-up or taking half an hour in the evening to finally file Mount Paperwork on the dining room table.

    Then I take another run at the tax prep software and fill in the gaps. Sometimes I find new things that I missed previously or there is still an elusive piece of documentation.

    Later, I’ll sit down and do a final run-through to check that everything is completed and search for errors. This usually only takes a few minutes. Then I file.

    I usually file a few weeks before the deadline, but filing in late February was less stressful than any of my other timelines. It’s hard to file much earlier as some paperwork may not arrive early enough. I think the last day of February is my new goal for filing.

    (Also, I’m really glad to have filed early as the refund helped when we had to replace our failing HVAC system last week.)

  29. Cbrown says

    I keep everything in one place, and notes of where I need to download certain statements when it comes filing time. Having everything in one place eases a lot of the process.

  30. Emily B says

    My two best tips are–work with a tax preparer (for advice, at least, if not preparing the whole return) and make it easier by keeping up on things through the year. It’s easier to remember that some purchase or expense will affect taxes when it actually happens, not months later at tax time. We use online banking and accounting software for home and the two small businesses we run. I try to flag any transactions with tax implications (like buying assets, or things that will be subject to our state’s sales/use tax which is collected only once a year) to make it easier to find them.

  31. says

    My biggest anxiety reducer is to do it EARLIER. I always file my returns by mid-February, as soon as I get all the necessary paperwork in from the employers, banks, etc. Why spend two more months feeling stressed about knowing you’re GOING to have to do it??

  32. says

    Hiring an accountant is our trick. It forces us to get everything together early and to file on time. We own two small businesses, which makes everything a little trickier, so it’s definitely worth it for us.

  33. Sara says

    I keep a file folder labeled with the current year in my desk, and file receipts as they come in. I make sure everything is together over winter break, and make our tax accountant appointment for the beginning of February.

  34. Nicole says

    I can never quite remember how I did things a year ago, so our biggest helper is a printed sheet with the steps we need to do each year. It lists all the papers we need to collect, the steps for communicating with our accountant, and the receipts we need to total. I update the sheet each year as things change, and it’s ready and waiting for me at tax time next year.

  35. Daffodil says

    My tip is to put a Post-it in our tax file every time we make a charitable donation. I just list the organization, the date and the amount. When we get a receipt, it goes in the tax file, but the Post-its help us remember how many donations we made (so we can make sure we have that many receipts when we sit down to start taxes), and they also serve as reminders in the rare cases we have to call an organization and have them issue a receipt for tax purposes.

  36. Brenda says

    I started as soon as I got my W2, and was very thankful because my income was vastly different last year. I ended up owing a fair amount that I had not anticipated, so that gave me a few months to get my finances ready and have someone double-check my figures. Keeping all my papers in one spot helped make it easier to figure out my deductions because I wasn’t panicked over not being able to find something important.

  37. says

    My tip is to be prepared! We weren’t so prepared this year and we’re definitely more stressed out than we were last year!

  38. Lorilin says

    This is so ridiculously basic, but I wish I had done it this year: wait until you have everything before you file your taxes. If you think you do but aren’t sure, wait a bit more! This year, my husband and I filed early (ish), only to receive a tax form for an investment we had completely forgot about. It bumped us into a different tax bracket, and we had to change EVERYTHING and refile. It was a complete pain. Next year, I will definitely wait until March or at least late February to file.

  39. Paul says

    My best tip… don’t wait until April to get started. Even if you don’t file until the deadline, get started early so if you are missing something, you have time to find it, or if you owe, you have time to save.

  40. Sherri Blueberry says

    If you have kids, it is VERY BENEFICIAL and pretty much a MUST to arrange for them to stay with a family member or sitter during the time you plan to prepare your taxes. Don’t procrastinate or wait until the last minute to complete your taxes. Organize and prepare your taxes while listening to calming music. Use as a resource. Last but certainly not least…Hire a tax preparer and let them carry the brunt of the anxiety. =D

  41. Bonnie says

    We like to use TurboTax online! They remind you off all the deductions you can take and file it for you. Although last year we did accidentally forget to claim our child as a dependant -oops.

  42. Kari says

    Start early and try to keep clear files all through the year. Some years I’m better at managing this than others.

  43. Lisa says

    I keep a stapler with my tax file so I can staple donation receipts to descriptions or keep account statements together. Also, have one (and only one) glass of wine.

  44. Wendy says

    File early! Until you have little kids and can’t get anything done in a timely manner. Then it’s best to turn to tea & chocolate.

  45. says

    Just being aware of which papers need to go in with the tax prep stuff helps, so I can file it in the right place right when I get it. I take a couple large chunks of time (*don’t* try to do it all in one day!), and just plug away until I can feel my brain dying — then it’s time for a break. I like to get mine filed before the end of January if I can! Getting my refund in my bank account before other people have even filed — best feeling ever!

  46. Casandra says

    I enjoy preparing our taxes each year. Gives me a Nice sense of accomplishment. The one thing I do to lessen my anxiety and stress during that time is have my husband take the kids to the park or wherever for the afternoon while I deal with it.

  47. bitts says

    Even though the accountant does all the tax business, we REALLY need a shredder. Plus shredded stuff makes great craft project material for the kids!!

  48. Christina P says

    Well, I have my husband do it. We definitely have a special file for taxes and shredder. When he’s working on taxes, I try to at least take care of the kids if not choose to take them out of the house entirely while he does what he has to.

  49. Jennifer E says

    Filing receipts and related paperwork throughout the whole year makes life so much easier when it finally comes time to do taxes. Also, I track our finances with an online free service that lets me keep track of purchases and categorize them. Then at tax time, I can quickly pull up all of the category I need to deduct.

  50. Rebekah C says

    I could try sitting back and letting my husband do it, but that is even more stressful, so I just do it myself in the middle of the night when everyone else is asleep and not bugging me.

  51. says

    Since I have to file in two different countries, paying tax preparers makes it so much simpler. I do still need to have all the paperwork for them tho! The filing cabinet is next to the desk, and I’ll drop stuff straight in to keep my desk clean.

    Or so I think. Who am I kidding, I have a huge pile on top of the filing cabinet that needs filing. I’m just too tired at the end of the day! Reading all the great comments is helping…but I do have tax preparers in each country, who talk to each other (one found an error the other made last year!) and is worth every penny.

  52. Lucia says

    I wish I had an organization-related tip, but I’m in need of those myself these days. I do find, though, that a nice drink (decaf iced coffee for me) makes it more bearable.

  53. Michelle says

    As a tax prep I give my clients an envelope and a check list. I tell them to just stick all their receipts in the envelope with their copy of their tax return and bring it back next year.

  54. says

    I use Evernote to organize my taxes and it makes life so much easier.

    Step 1: Make a Notebook for Taxes 2011
    Step 2: Make a note within this notebook called “Documents.” List everyone you should receive a tax document from. Example, employers, banks, investment firm, mortgage company, property manager etc…
    Step 3: Make a separate note with important receipts for 2011 (ideally you do this at the beginning of 2011 and place them in there all year long) Also create a note to document charity donations.
    Step 4: As the W2s, 1099, and other tax documents start rolling in, scan in (or snap a picture via smartphone) the document and place it in that note titled “Documents”, filling in the list of places you should have received from.
    Step 5: Create a new note “Expenses” chart with any expenses you want to make sure you include when doing your deductions.
    Step 6: I use and LOVE turbo tax. I find that having everything organized in advance makes it easy to go though and just fill out the information. I do it once and then review with my husband. Having everything electronically saves time of shuffling through papers in our review. Bonus idea: if you use an accountant simply share your Evernote notebook with them for easy access to everything they need.

    Hope that might help someone looking to go the more paperless route!

    Not an Evernote user? Not sure how to get started?

  55. says

    Thanks for the giveaway! The best anxiety reducer for me is to know that someone else is keeping the records I will need, and I can get them whenever I want them. So online accounts at all my financial institutions (bamks, brokerages, funds, etc) where I can log in and download the 1099s without worrying if I caught them when they arrived in the mail. And a password management system (I use LastPass) so the strong unique passwords for those sites that I use ony once a year are at my fingertips when I need them.

  56. lizzy says

    My best advice is to not wait till the last minute. If you start organizing early, it won’t be as stressful.

  57. Carmen says

    My advice is to have some allocated time to work on taxes (so you don’t waste time having to start-and-stop) and get everything organized ahead of time!

  58. Cin_D says

    I hire an accountant to do them, and throw all my receipts/bills for everything into a basket all year. Then I only have one basket to sort through. It’s not really a tip, as much as a desperate cry for organization!!!!

  59. Nicole says

    I think I might have to say that chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream is my best tip. :) Seriously, having a folder that I stick things in all year long instead of trying to sort through stacks of paper saves lots of time and anxiety. I think I’m finally wrapping mine up :)

  60. Lawanna says

    My favorite tip has already been mentioned. I keep a file folder in the desk drawer and any tax related paper goes in there. When it’s tax time I just take out the folder and start working through them all in Turbo Tax.

  61. Kelly says

    My best anxiety reduction tip at tax time is to [hopefully] not have waited that long to get organized….HAHAHA funny I know. But seriously, I am a self diagnosed OCD-er and although my current method of tons of little envelopes tacked to my office wall to sort reciepts and pay stubs as they come in is not the best, it does help to cut down on anxiety later with trying to go back over a year’s worth of stuff and organize or remember what something is for….I also write details on each item (if it isn’t obvious like a pay stub) so I can remember later…I do a lot of travelling and professional development and supply buying for work (I’m a college instructor) so I have a lot to track that I have to claim and any kind of organization helps!! I know I’ve got the right idea but I need a better system before my wallpaper is completely made out of little stuffed envelopes!

  62. Cathy says

    Finding the time and energy to bang out the taxes is the hardest with 2 kids under 5. Piles? Oh so interesting! This year, my husband took them AWAY for a long afternoon. Mid day energy levels, clear task and a general idea of where all the receipts and forms are. 95% done. The other 5% can be handled with post-bedtime energy levels.

  63. Natalie says

    I try to get it done by the end of January so if there are any problems or if any unexpected forms come later I have time to make corrections.

    I use HRBlock and its not stresful for me at all, just taking time to do it is the hard part. We keep all our stuff together though and i start totaling things while i wait for all the forms to come in.

  64. Emily D says

    my best stress reduction tip at tax time isto plan ahead and try and stay organized! hard to do with a little one in the house but it makes life much easier!