The Digital Filing Cabinet Plus

March 19, 2009 at 3:02 am | Posted in Backup, Computers, Online services, Software, Web Apps | 4 Comments

I was recently offered some free “Dummies” software for an electronic filing cabinet for organizing files digitally. While it had some useful features, it had some notable limitations, like not supporting some of the software I use. It also has a key issue of much software like this – a lot of the data is being saved into a private system that may not work when you move or upgrade computers. You don’t want to loose all that data. I thought it would be useful to outline how to set up a digital filing system to bring everything together. I’ve touched on this subject a few times before.

If you don’t use it, get to know Windows Explorer. It is your file manager. It’s in Programs, Accessories. Right click and select Send to, Desktop to get a shortcut on your desktop.

1) Folders
You want to set up the filing cabinet first. In My Documents, create a new folder like _My Files. By starting with an Underscore, the folder rises to be first in the list of stuff other programs stick here.

Within your new filing cabinet, create folders by:
– Subject: the life area like Home, Car, Kids, Computer, etc.
– Supplier or Area: Company
– Year – at the end of each year, create a year folder and move all those files in there. Thus the Supplier folder is just this years stuff and the older things are sub-filed by year.

e.g.: Cars\Ford08 or Home\Appliances or Kids\Reports\Gr1 02-03

Subjects may include: Budget, Bank Accounts, Car, Loans, Taxes, Home, Family, Medical, Work, Estate. You’d want a separate folder set if you have a small business. Or for things like groups you help with, etc. If you want the folders to sort a certain way, like having budgets, then loans, then taxes, put numbers in front, like 01 budget, 02 loans, 03 taxes.

If your needs are simple, start with just Supplier folders. You can file them by Subject later as the list builds.

2) File all of your incoming stuff in the new file system.
* get in the habit of using sensible file names so you know what it is without opening it. ‘Checking Mar 07.pdf’ for example.

– Digital documents, like Wills and other key files. Not in a heap on your desktop or in My Documents.

– ebills – when you look at your bills on-line, download the file to the right Supplier folder.

– paper bills – arrange to get ebills to save you a step. Scan the papers and file them into the right Supplier folder. Scan all important documents.

– emails – with important information, like contract, service summary, invoice, etc. Use File, Save As or Print to PDF. (see resources below) Save to the Supplier folder.

– web pages  – Print to PDF. Or look for a download or Save option. Don’t print – you don’t want paper now. (Save as Archive is not reliable for on-line bill pages)

I only get one bill on paper now. My paper file cabinet has dropped from a 3 drawer cabinet to a plastic holder. A little more to convert yet.

3) Budget
For this I use the free OpenOffice Calc spreadsheet. You can use MS Office Excel if you have that. One file for each year. I create a typical month, listing Starting Account balance, pay, bills and other budgeted items (like spending $), and totals for each pay period. Set the columns for Currency number format and the Totals to Sum the columns. Don’t forget debits for savings, etc. Everything your pay cheque will go to. Debits are placed under the pay period they’re due in.

For columns I have due date, auto or manual pay, Supplier, Credits ($ in, pay and balance top this), Debits ($ out, the bills), and Notes for details on changes, etc. If this is new for you, you may want a check column for marking that the current bill is entered. i.e.: that its the billed amount, not an average entry. Maybe another column for Paid.

With a little testing, you’ll have all the expenses in there and a good working budget.

I then Add new Worksheets for each month, pasting the Typical month onto each, then labeling them for the month. Each month can then be updated as variable bills come in.

If this seems too much to start, you could try a budget template at one of the sites below. I’ve found one I’ve designed for my own needs best. You can gradually soup it up.

As new bills arrive, just note the amount and due date, then file them in the system above. Then you have a current running budget.

You can also add tabs to set up loan amortizations, savings projections, a list of assets and liabilities (debts) = net worth, and so forth. Much faster than paper and all the math is done for you.

Bill paying is simple – check your budget twice a month on payday. Enter any bills you have not updated. Pay the bills marked manual. Check your on-line bank statements. If you get paid randomly, do your budget on the first and 15th.

Think a budget is a waste of time? If you have any real income and you’re not budgeting, I bet you have no wealth either. Budgeting is about allocating your income. It’s the first step for any financial planning. If you don’t manage your money, who else will? It’s not hard once you have a system. Plan to retire on a government pension?

4) Contacts
This is your address book. The key here is consolidating your address books together rather then having several versions. Most email programs have something you can use. Hopefully, you have some way of grouping them, like friends, family, work, medical, etc. I like Thunderbirds. Webmail ones are still too basic for a real address book.

5) Tasks
Programs like Thunderbird and Outlook have a task section to remind you of upcoming things that need doing. I find these best for non-current stuff that needs a look a little later. I keep a small paper pocket list of events and do’s for the week. It’s faster and more portable.

6) Calendar
Using a Calendar program like Lightening/Sunbird, Outlook, or Google Calendar allows you to keep track of appointments. The first 2 are better as they consolidate the tools above. Emailed appointments and invitations can be converted to Calendar events. I put new appointments in, then review it at the beginning of the week.

7) Passwords
Managing your stuff digitally also means tracking a whole bunch off passwords. Banking, web sites, bills, etc. You can’t use your dogs name for everything. And it’s not a good idea to keep them written on sticky notes. These allow you to use one password to remember all the others.

8) Backup
As you compile all that data, you want to be sure it’s not lost. You want a backup of all these important documents. I’d suggest 2 things:  A backup on save program and an on-line backup. The first makes a copy of the file each time you save it, automatically ensuring all data is retained. The second backs your key files up off-site, keeping all that stuff safe in case of system failure, theft, fire, etc. Make sure you include all the files of the above programs and MyDocs.

This is really about habit. It may seem a big job, but once you set up the system and get in the habit of using it, its much easier. Even if you misfile something, you can always find it with a quick search, unlike paper. And digital does all the calculation for you.

Free Resources:
Free PDF printer: Primo
Free Spreadsheets: OpenOffice Calc
see also

OpenOffice budget templates
Excel Budget templates

Password saver: KeePass

File backup on Save: FileHamster
On-line Backup: Reviews
(review comments too)

Google Calendar

Soup up Windows Explorer

Sharing your records
with a laptop or other mobile computer

Other free solutions


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  1. […] If you’ve never learned to file digitally, take a look at The Digital Filing Cabinet. […]


  2. […] | Leave a Comment I’ve spoken before about Windows Documents. How to set up your own Digital File Cabinet, and so forth. With XP, they introduced a great idea, with a default location for saving your files […]


  3. NOTE – FileHamster is no longer presented as free. However, basic realtime backup functionality remains when the free trial period ends. You can upgrade if you want more features.

    They tell me it also works in Windows 7 and with 64 bit.


  4. […] You do want to learn to organize files on a computer. A heap of dated scans really doesn’t serve you well long term, though you can use Search to find content. Give the folders and important documents names with dates for faster finding. File them in a sensible folder structure. See more in Digital Filing Cabinet. […]


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