How to Get Your Office Organized: Simple Filing System Suggestions

What is the best recordkeeping system for a small business to get and stay organized … so you can get rid of those drawers of stashed receipts? Are you looking for a bookkeeping filing system for your business receipts?

Your entire accounting system – from your paper receipts to data entry into journals to preparation of financial statements and your tax return – is an organized system developed to document and summarize accounting and financial information.

This article is going to discuss organized methods for the collection of all the pieces of paper needed for data entry into your manual or computerized journals.

In this article, you will find filing system options, so you can pick the best filing system for your receipts … to match your own organizational style.

File organization doesn’t have to be difficult or complex to work. Do you have a simple filing system that works for you?  

Here are some simple choices and guidelines for your office filing system that should eliminate stress and panic .

Getting Your Filing System Organized – Make It a Habit

Make it a habit to only handle a piece of paper once if possible. So file ALL of it immediately … when you get it. This is a big step in office organization and taming the paper jungle.

Make it a habit to batch your data entry. That’s right. Collect it ALL over a week or a month, then sit down and get it done in one sitting. It is a very efficient time saver. 

Make it a habit to deposit your cash receipts as soon after receipt as possible. Be sure the bank deposit is for the entire amount of cash received if you want your bank reconciliation to go smoothly.

Make it a habit to enter ALL your business expenses into your accounting system, no matter how small the amount. You will be surprised how all these small amounts add up over a year … and it ensures you don’t overpay your taxes by losing legitimate tax deductions. 

Make it a habit by developing a routine for your filing and always do it the same way ALL the time … no procrastinating.

Your Choice of Office Filing System Must Pass the Test

Keep in mind that if you have a computerized recordkeeping system (you enter data into a software program), your actual paper filing recordkeeping system can be more generalized.

That’s because you can look a lot of things up within your organized, computerized data records … reducing the need to “touch” a piece of paper to get the information you need … BUT you still need the original source document trail, whether it was paper or electronic, for a tax audit. 

Don’t be afraid to play around. Experiment with some of the filing suggestions in this article until you find something that works for you.

Once you have made your choice of business recordkeeping systems to use, put it to this test:

  • Does it meet Canada Revenue Agency’s (CRA) record keeping requirements and standards?
  • Will you be able to easily purge or store historical documents to keep your immediate work area clean and efficient?
  • Does your business recordkeeping system let you find the document(s) you need quickly and efficiently?
  • Can others, using your recordkeeping system, find the document(s) they need quickly and efficiently? … think employees, accountant, tax preparer, tax auditor. I know you are king of your business but it needs to be efficient for others working in your castle … I mean business. If others can’t work efficiently, it’s like throwing money out the window … as easy as following a trail of bread crumbs!

Every Filing System Must Have Permanent Files

No matter what recordkeeping system you choose, you will need to set up a set of permanent file folders or envelopes that contains documents or summaries of important business papers. These are keep forever types of documents – no destruction date.

If you are incorporated you will need to keep your legal documents and corporate records. Here is an example of some of the paperwork:

Certificate of Incorporation and, if applicable, your Certificate of Continuation

  • Annual Report filings
  • Minutes of Board Meetings
  • Issuance or transfer of capital stock
  • Resolutions passed by the directors
  • Bank account applications

Keep any paperwork to do with capital assets in a permanent file. This means you will want to photocopy any invoices you receive and file the copy here in this file. (Keep the original with the appropriate accounting period in the event of an audit or to look up information easily.)

Keep all your insurance contracts, loan papers and lease agreements in a permanent file.

Keep your income tax returns in a separate file as well … you get the idea … permanent files have to do with filing legal agreements / contracts and proof of ownership documents.

Matching Your Filing System to Your Organizational Style

Now for all the rest of that mountain of paperwork you get buried under so easily, you have choices … 

The filing system should match your personality and the size of your business … unless your style is a shoebox … now that’s not a style, that’s just plain lazy!

Here are some suggestions on organizing your invoices and receipts and support documentation. Most small businesses use one of these recordkeeping systems:

  • Numerically by accounting / tax line
  • Chronologically
  • Alphabetically
  • Hybrid recordkeeping system
  • Imaging – going paperless
  • Portable document filing system (This is covered in a separate article and is great if you work out of your vehicle.)


Numerically by Accounting/Tax Line

Recommended for business owners who keep records solely for income tax purposes.

Chronologically by Date

Recommended for business owners just starting out.

This recordkeeping system is sometimes referred to as the receipts method filing system. This simple filing system for organizing your business receipts is my favorite. It takes the pressure off of you by getting rid of the those huge piles of receipts … and it does it without sorting.

With this method you have file folders that are divided into time periods. It may be 12 months but if you have very few transactions, it could just as easily be 4 quarters … a year is a bit too broad!

Office Alternatives to File Folders

    • envelopes filed in a box, hanging files or hole punched in a binder
    •  large freezer baggies for each month hole punched into a binder
    • tickler file or accordion file
    • plastic sheet (sleeves) protectorsto hold receipts by payment type and filed in a binder with the 12 months in the year. For each month you have three sleeves.
    • One sleeve holds business expenses paid with cash,
    • another with business expenses paid through your bank account, and
    • a third sleeve for receipts pertaining to credit card purchases.

The sleeve method makes data entry a breeze because you don’t have to spend time tracing how the receipt was paid!

With this recordkeeping system, you file ALL your business transactions for the period in the appropriate file. No sorting. It just all goes in … invoices, bills, vendor statements, bank statements, credit card statements, receipts, government correspondence … everything ) OR you can have one envelope for income and one envelope for expenses… whatever works best for you.

It’s the simplicity of this recordkeeping system, which is available when you are a small business, that makes it shine. Large companies could not use this method.

When you are ready to do up books for the period (how about creating a routine of doing it when you receive your bank and credit card statements), you take out all the paper, sort it into categories (or not) and enter it into your accounting program. Once you have entered it, you stamp the document with an “Entered” or “Posted” stamp so that you know it is formally recorded.

If you have been using good habits, you should be able to easily post the transactions to the correct accounts … so you have accurate financial statements. I like to key in my written notes or stories on the memo lines … you’ll see why in a minute.

After each year-end, the maintenance for this recordkeeping system is minimal. How minimal?

You simply file it all away in a storage box including the tax return, ready for a tax audit if it should ever happen. My preference is to keep two years ( current and prior year) active before it goes to storage.

This keeps your immediate work area free from excess paper and chances are, if you need to look something up , you can just look it up in your computerized recordkeeping system.

Remember I said I keyed in any extra notes about an invoice or bill? Here’s why. There should be enough information in the computer so that you don’t need to look at the original document and there is less of a chance your original document will get lost or misplaced. Why is this important? The number one rule with regards tax deductions – no receipt or support document … no deduction!

If you do need to look at the invoices / receipts, consider buying a ScanSnap and scanning the original documents … so you have them on hand to reference … and leave your original source documentents intact in the event of a tax audit. You need the originals for an audit because scanned receipts are not acceptable.

Even once you have to switch to a different system once you have too many transactions, you may still want to use this simple filing system for all your business receipts, not your invoices and bills, but all the little business receipts you collect throughout each day. I can’t say it enough … this is my favorite recordkeeping system.

Alphabetically by Vendor/Customer/Employee

Recommended for business owners who have a lot of transactions … for example, you need to do your bookkeeping daily or weekly to keep on top of it.

With this recordkeeping system, each vendor/customer/employee gets their own file with paperwork filed in reverse chronological order (most recent stuff is on top)…which works well for large organizations, but if you are a small business, you end up with a ton of files and many of them only have one or two pieces of information.

You can get around this by creating files with groups of letters to file such as A-D, E-J; and only have a separate file for large volume vendors / customers.

If your business gets to the point where there are “many fingers in the pie” and you notice customer and vendor invoices start to go missing, consider keeping the accounting records as described in option 2 and having copies of the invoices available for everyone to use and lose. Or start scanning and filing alphabetically online for their use.

The other problem I have with this method is purging the files when you are legally able to destroy your files or just getting some of the old information boxed into storage to keep your main area organized and efficient, not overrun with old files.

As it is not all in one place, you have to put time aside to pull out documents you want stored from different places and different files. A note here on storage boxes. If it’s going in the basement, make the storage container plastic to protect against possible water damage.

I have to say though, I like to use this method for employees … one file for each employee.

A Hybrid Recordkeeping System

Recommended once your business grows and your transactions increase. You can begin using color coded files if you like that sort of thing.

Use chronological filing (option 2) of:

  • bank statements with cheque images (or canceled cheques) and reconciliations [orange]
  • deposit slips [orange]
  • credit card statements with reconciliations[orange]
  • expense reports along with cash and credit card receipts paid from your personal funds [an envelope]
  • payroll reports [blue]
  • tax payments (by tax type) and tax reports [yellow]
  • financial reports [manilla]

Use sequential filing (for audit trail) of:

  • cheque vouchers with supporting documentation [acco binder]
  • journal vouchers with supporting documentation [acco binder]
  • customer invoices (optional) [green]
  • vendor invoices (optional) [red]

Use alphabetical filing (option 3) of:

  • customer files (optional) [green]
  • vendor invoices (optional)[red]
  • employee files [blue]
  • insurance files [purple]
  • permanent files (important documents) [purple]

You may use a form of methods 2 and 3 when the volume of transactions increases because you have more customers, write more cheques, increased government filing reports, and a large number of journal entries.

You can use Acco Binding Cases to file by how you look them up – numerically in sequential order or by date (most recent documents are on top).

So journal vouchers are filed sequentially with supporting documentation, cheque vouchers too.

Canada Revenue Agency reporting is filed by type of tax compliance and then by date with supporting documentation.

Bank and credit card statements are filed by date with their reconciliations attached.

Vendor vouchers are filed by date (again with most recent stuff on top) with supporting documentation but I pull out types of accounts I need to reference a lot. Legal bills are given an envelope or Acco Binding Case to themselves.

Once you move onto this hybrid method, now decide how to handle paperwork that needs to be entered into the accounting system.

What I do and it may not work for everyone is: I have an IN basket for data entry by business (I manage more than one). I open the mail. If it can be filed right away I do. If it needs to be processed, into the IN basket it goes. On bookkeeping day, I take the IN basket and enter it into the accounting system … stamping each piece of paper with a “Posted” or “Entered” stamp. (If more than one person is doing the posting, they are each issued a stamp with their initials so you know who handled the entry.) Then it gets filed into the Acco binders … right away!


Imaging – Going Paperless

When selecting this recordkeeping system, you get rid of as much paper as you can by scanning it in pdf format; or creating e documents for transmitting; and signing up to receive e documents where possible … using the same philosophy as above just in computer format.

I recommend that if you go this route, you will need a e-courier like Soft Trust Inc. or a drop box to transmit and receive sensitive and confidential data such as financial information.

You will also need off site backup in the event your computer fails.

Canada Revenue Agency permits electronic data storage and accepts it as supporting documentation as long as it is legible and it keeps up with technology. If technology changes so you can’t access it, it is your responsibility to convert it to current technology that is accessible.

Update May 2011 – I was writing an article for the IPBC newsletter on the paperless office. I contacted a CRA specialist on electronic recordkeeping. Here is my excerpt from that article on paperless recordkeeping systems:

“I wanted to know if the original receipts could be destroyed if a scanned copy was available. Would the scanned copies be adequate proof during an audit … or was it necessary to be able to produce the original receipts?

It turns out that scanning is not imaging and therefore you need to keep your original receipts.

The problem with scanning is the documents can be altered and are therefore not reliable. A scanned receipt would not stand as evidence in the courts.

CRA’s website points out that “imaging and microfilm (including microfiche) reproductions of books of original entry and source documents must be produced, controlled and maintained in accordance with the latest national standard of Canada as outlined in the publication entitled Microfilm and Electronic Images as Documentary Evidence (CAN/CGSB-72.11-930).”

Control is key. Scanning does not meet the guidelines established by the Canadian General Standards Board.

His advice was to keep your original receipts and documents for the required periods … and to request written permission from CRA prior to destroying them.

Two references he suggested that would be useful were the Information Circular IC 05-1 on “Electronic Record Keeping” and the Information Circular IC 78-10R4 on “Books and Records Retention/Destruction”.

I have also found that the CRA publication RC4409 titled “Keeping Records” is useful as well.”

You can read the whole article on paperless recordkeeping systems at> Community Blogs> Free Articles to Assist and Inform Bookkeepers> In The Forum – The Paperless Office published May 2, 2011.

The United States Department of Labor Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP) website has some great information. There are a number of articles on going to an electronic format. If you live in Canada, don’t assume CRA’s rules will automatically be the same. Use the site more for general practices and then check with CRA policy.

I’m just beginning to play around with this as I’ve read so many positive things about it. I have concerns as a small business so until I have satisfied myself, I’m not ready to go completely paperless yet.

My biggest concern is computer security. I don’t have an IT department! and trusting financial information to sit on someone else’s servers means I have to trust the company hosting the server … like I said I’m not there yet but if I find a way to address the security issues, you can bet I’m there.

If I am doing data entry for an electronic document, I have a pdf reader that allows me to write notes on the document … so instead of stamping it, I type in that it has been posted or reconciled or whatever. Again I file it immediately to the appropriate electronic file.

Being organized allows you to track the progress of your business and look after your customers … so pick a method try it out and don’t be afraid to change it if it’s not working for you.


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