Yearly planning with a file crate system

As much as I love paperless planning and Pinterest, for some things there is just no substitute for actual paper planning.

I love technology, but when it comes to things like holiday recipes written in my grandmother’s hand, family wedding invitations, and articles from the print resources I use, I find it is just more practical, even meaningful, for me when they are in their original paper form.

And, truth be told, even though I am a blogger, I like to have certain aspects of my life “unplugged” and power-cord free.

However, those bits and pieces of paper that serve as part of the tool kit I use to keep organized during the year could easily dominate my desk, kitchen counters, and my life if it weren’t for a simple system I discovered four years ago: the file crate system.

What is the file crate system?

My file crate system, as it is currently, is the results of layers of organization that get added to and tweaked year after year.  It is still a work-in-progress, but it definitely helps me stay on top of things, so I wanted to share it with you.

Now, I should start out by saying that I can’t take full credit for this idea. My current system is inspired by Dawn’s from By Sun and Candlelight.  I’ve taken her idea and run with it, personalizing it for my family’s needs, and I encourage you to do the same and make it work for you.

I’ve been using this system for years now and can’t imagine managing my home, or organizing life with small children, without it.  I wonder if a system like this might not serve some of you in your homes as well?

Are you ready to hear about how to set up a home file crate system?  Let’s get started!


  • file crate
  • 52 hanging file dividers and file folders
  • that stack of papers, invitations, recipes, and holiday crafts you’ve been meaning to organize
  • a map of your family’s year (more on that in a moment)
  • a free afternoon to get your file crate set up

The file folders and hanging file dividers that I use were recycled from my husband and my mom’s office leftovers and the file crate cost us $2 at a back-to-school sale in Fall 2009, so this is a pretty economical system.  Of course, pretty matching file folders are nice, too and can still be fairly inexpensive if you want to go that route, especially if you watch the back-to-school sales coming along right now.

Map out your family’s year

You can read more on my Rockin’ Granola blog about the nitty-gritty of how I use this system for homeschool, but the file crate system serves me in so many ways beyond school planning.  One tip I will pass along from my homeschool planning that you may find helpful as you’re setting up a file crate system is to sit down and map out a rough draft of the year.  In a nutshell, you’re giving yourself an overview of the year ahead.

When I do this, I take a piece of paper and fold it to make 12 squares, a section for each month of the year. I then make an outline of the year, including any family events, birthdays, vacations, festivals, and scheduled time off. This is not the space for details, but is meant an overview of the year ahead for our family.

Now I’ve got a guide when I’m doing my planning that helps me break down the year into the 52 weeks/file folders.

In the file crate

Been invited to a birthday party or a wedding?  Stick the invitation in the correct week’s file and you’ve got the address and directions on hand.  Fundraiser or church event?  Into that week’s file.  Found the perfect birthday card? Into the file crate it goes, reminding you to mail it at the correct time of year.  A copy of Grandma’s taffy apple salad recipe (which no Thanksgiving is complete without) is in there, too.

I use it to keep track of recipes and holiday ideas. I write down what the kids get for Christmas and their birthdays each year and then just put it in the appropriate week’s file.  (This is fun for me, too, as I often don’t remember from year to year so there is almost always a surprise waiting for me by the time that week rolls around again next year.  Plus, I have a handy age by age record of gift giving ideas.)

Once a week, usually on Sunday afternoons, I sit down with a cup of coffee, a pen, post-it notes, and the upcoming week’s file.  I jot down any notes or reminders and stick them on the file with the post-its.  I use the contents of the file to help me with my grocery list, family calendar, and other weekly planning.

So, what exactly goes into the file folders for each week?

I think you get the idea.  It all goes into the current week’s file folder, which stays on my desk until next week, when it goes back into the file box to wait it’s turn until next year.

Then I grab the current week and the whole system rotates through again.

Once a year, usually around New Year’s, I sit down with the whole system and I go through each file, making a rough draft plan of the year and cleaning out any information or papers I know that I don’t need any more. 

As we’re working through the year, if we don’t get to everything we need to in one week, I can just take it out and put in the next week’s folder.  Found a fun holiday or birthday idea after the occasion has come and gone this year?  No problem, just stick it in the file for next year. This is why I LOVE this system – it is easy to make changes!

Have questions? Let me know in the comments and I’ll do my best to answer you. I’d love to hear how you organize papers, invitations, cards, etc, too.

top photo source
Kara Fleck

Kara lives in a small town in Indiana. She's a wife, a mother of four, and caregiver to her special needs adult sister-in-law. Unconventional and uncomplicated, you can find her writing about creative living, habit stacking, and sock knitting at K.Elizabeth Fleck.

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  1. I am so ready to start again caring about organization. Good thing is I have much of these supplies. I am gonna be ahead of the game come fall….I say that every year. Thanks for the tips!! I love this site so much.

  2. I’ve tried almost every filing system known to man and while I love the idea of filing things, it always just takes up more room. I recently got a Neat Receipts and have drastically cut down on all my paper clutter but this would be a good idea for those things I just can’t part with. Maybe a revised mini file box for me. Especially for all my homeschool planning.

  3. Love this idea, I have been looking for a way to manage all the mail, papers, bills, school stuff for the kids… My current system making “organized” piles means I’m constantly looking for stuff. I’m going to try this instead and see how I go. Thanks!

  4. We don’t have enough paperwork stuff to need this (we have a plastic sleeve that is attached to our calendar, and it never gets close to full) but I reckon this will come in handy as the girls get bigger and more social. Thanks for the tip!

  5. I actually have a file cabinet with hanging folders, but I’m having a hard time dedicating that afternoon of free time to it. If I add some of your fun ideas (ie birthday cards, recipes, notes to self) instead of just cramming in old bills and paperwork, I’ll probably be more inspired for the task. Thanks for the tips.

  6. I really like this idea but I think for us a monthly folder would be easier for now. When my daughter gets older and we start homeschooling, I could definitely see the benefit of weekly folders.

  7. Kristin says:

    We used this sytem for homeschooling last year. I felt like it really helped us keep up with the “extras” that we tend to skip, since the pages were right there in the folder. I never thought to use it for non-school things, though. I just might have to try it.

  8. I do a version of this; mine is more like a tickler file than a full-on system like yours. I never thought of anything like this. I struggle with remembering the very things this system addresses: birthday cards, holiday crafts, and seasonal recipes. It would be easy to implement because I’m already halfway there 🙂

    Thanks so much for sharing!

  9. This seems doable even for my organizationally challenged self!
    Thanks so much for the inspiration 🙂 .

  10. Kara, I’m really intrigued with this idea – esp. for running my home business more effectively. I like you value ways to unplug. I keep a paper calendar/planning book ( I LOVE my Planner Pad!). So I’m going to mull on how to incorporate this.
    I also have a smaller accordion file folder I organize by actions: Bills to pay, pending, research, phone calls, upcoming events, to file, taxes, etc. and I use this to file papers according to what action I’m going to take with them. When I’ve finally finished with them (i.e. wrangling with insurance about bills that were hanging out in the “pending” file) I move it to the To File file and then I file a bunch of stuff in one fell swoop.
    But I like the long perspective – I’m mulling about this!

  11. This is a great idea! I never thought to separate out an entire system into weeks. I think that would make everything more manageable. Instead of looking at the entire month, you can separate out everything. I will have to try some of these ideas!

  12. I love this. I’ve kept seasonal folders but this really does break it down so that nothing slips through the cracks. I think I will mess around with this idea and see what I can come up with that works for our family. With the back-to-school season upon us in three weeks, now is a great time to get organized. Again. Maybe birthday cards to distant relatives will actually get sent on time with this system. : )

  13. I’m with you — always looking for the balance of cleaning out the paper clutter by going digital, but there are some things that just work better on paper.
    I use David Allen’s bigger filing system in general and what I want to implement next is a “tickler” system which feels similar to what you’ve shared.
    The only thing that confused me is putting old cards/recipes in there with the planning stuff. Does it feel cluttered? I feel like for homeschooling and planning I’d need to pull the folder and see actionable items. So for example, when you pull this week’s folder, what’s in it and what does it trigger/provide you?

    • Thanks, Hillary! Yes, as much as I love the internet, I don’t like to be tied down to it or feel like I can’t function as a homekeeper without it, you know? It helps, and inspires for sure, but I need to be able to take breaks away without the rhythm in my home being affected 😉

      I guess I should clarify, I don’t keep old cards in the file crate, but new (purchased or homemade) that I intend to send. Keeping them in the appropriate week’s file helps me remember to actually mail them.

      Regarding recipes, I keep copies usually and the original ones in my recipe binder (if not online) but found over the years that, especially during the hectic holiday season, it was easier to have a copy of say, Grandma’s Taffy Apple Salad or my Mom’s butter cookie recipe at my fingertips without having to go hunt it down.

      Does it feel cluttered? Some weeks have more in them than others. I do find that I am editing – sometimes taking away, sometimes adding. For example, when I first started I filled it with lots of articles and crafts I’d torn out from magazines (before the days when everything was on the internet LOL) and I found that I just didn’t use many of them. So, out they went. It is a system that changes as my needs do. Does that make sense?

      What is in this week’s folder?
      – Our Little Acorn Learning July week 4 curriculum
      – sheet of paper I’m using to plan Amelia’s first bday (that will move into next week’s folder when I sit down and plan out the week on Sunday)
      – info my husband needs for a tux fitting for a wedding he is in
      – soccer schedule (this moves up every week as well and when the season is over, out it will go)
      – post-it note reminding me about Tsh’s webinar last night 🙂
      – the bills that have come in the mail this week (I’ll pay them on Sunday when I sit down to plan for the next week)

      I also added to the file crate this week:
      – the newspaper clipping about flag football sign ups (I stuck it in the appropriate week’s file)
      – a picture Lucy drew for her Aunt, who is coming to visit next week
      – our library receipt (I stuck it in the file for two weeks from now so I know what books are due)

      Does that make sense? 🙂
      Let me know if you have any more ?s (and sorry for writing a short novel back to you LOL)

      Best wishes!

  14. michelle says:

    I discovered Dawn’s system (throught Pinterest) last year and LOVE IT! 🙂

    • She is so inspiring, isn’t she? And her impressive system has so many components and even little mini-systems that surround it. I often joke that her file crate is what mine wants to be when it grows up 🙂

  15. Thanks for sharing this! I am just starting to plan our next year for homeschooling, and I really like this idea!

  16. This is great, exactly what we need. I think we officially decided we’re going back to homeschooling again this year, so I will be checking out many of your links today as well! The file system looks perfect for homeschooling, too, like you mentioned. I need to get on that! We already use the filing for all other home info, insurance, medical, car info, …etc. Love the tips! Thanks so much for this!

  17. This looks wonderful! I’ve been looking for something to help me organize-will take a closer look during nap time today. 🙂

  18. Say I find the thanksgiving cards I meant to send last year and it’s today – last week of July. How do I find the correct folder to file the cards in? That’s the part I either missed or don’t understand. Seems like you’d have to label each folder with a date?

    • Mary, yes, I’m sorry I didn’t include that in the post – what I did was sit down with the calendar and then I labeled each folder like “January Week 1” “January Week 2” etc. through the year (as the years go by you may have to do a little bit of shuffling annually to make sure the holidays are in the correct weeks according to the calendar, for example)

      Once labeled, it makes it much easier to glance at the calendar and then use that to find the correct week’s file. Actually, I can kind of tell by what I have in the files, too (if that makes sense)

      So, if I found thanksgiving cards today I would go to the 3rd week of November and stick them in there to remind me to send them. Or, if there were a lot of cards that were bulky, I might put the cards in a desk drawer and then write myself a note to stick on that week’s file “Thanksgiving cards in lower left desk drawer” or something like that 🙂

      Make sense?

  19. Wow. This is a great way to stay super organized! I only wish that I was organized enough to sit down once a week and actually do the filing and sending and such!

    • Weeeelllll, while we’re being honest there may be some weeks where on Sunday nights everything just gets moved from one folder to the next 🙂

      We’re all doing the best we can and only human, after all 😀

      Best wishes!

  20. You rocked it on this on Kara. This is a fabulous idea. I’m going digital, because it works better for our lifestyle but this is a great idea!

  21. I am fairly sure I heard angels singing while reading this… I am in LOVE!
    It strikes me as a more comprehensive version of the Sidetracked Home Executives system. Do you use yours for cleaning/housekeeping stuff as well?

  22. I am loving this for mailing cards and other correspondence!! Thanks for sharing your system.

  23. I love the calendar system. I guess i know what I’m working on this weekend. Thank you for sharing this. I am so excited to have found you!

  24. The only paper things I ever file are the ones that I absolutely need, such as tax forms, anything financial, paychecks, medical records, etc. Everything else is digital: receipts, my expenses, photos. I don’t even keep cards or crafts sadly, although now that my little guy is doing more, I am considering taking photos of all of them and we hang the ones that he really liked.

  25. Katie G. says:

    I love this idea! Two questions: Do you think it would work to have four regular file folders inside of the month’s hanging folder, or would it be too bulky?
    Also, do you have a separate crate for your homeschooling weekly folders?
    Thanks so much for sharing!

    • Katie, I’m not sure about the number of folders: that probably will vary according to what each person has in the files as to how bulky it might end up. Give it a try, though. You could always add more later, you know?

      Yes, I do keep homeschool in there as well. It seems more organic to me to have it together as there isn’t much of a line between family life and homeschool life at our house – there’s lots of overlap. That said, I do keep normal file folders in the hanging folders and those are where I keep homeschooling-specific items. Does that make sense?

  26. This is exactly how, and exactly why I use the Franklin Covey Planner (instead of a crate). Great blog!

  27. I like this. It’s a modification of the Getting Things Done ticker files (where you have 31 daily files and 12 monthly ones and cycle the daily ones) but I found that too cumbersome. At the moment I’m using monthly files plus one for this week but I can see this could be very useful, especially in a crate like that (I’m a visual processor so I need things easily available if I’m going to remember to use it.)

  28. love this…I am a self proclaimed “filer”, my wife is a “piler” so this could be the answer the “piles” of little notes/recipes/bills/scraps of paper that she has all over the kitchen counters…sometimes drives me crrrraaaazzzzyyyy and then I move them all into one tidy pile and that drives her crrrraaaaazzzzyyyy…you get the picture, opposites sure do attract, don’t they?

  29. This is a GREAT idea. I have used tickler files at work in the past and have thought about how to transfer the idea to home and as I am working on this coming school year this week, I am ready to try this. Thanks for sharing.
    I do have one question. How do you fit 52 weeks into one portable file crate? I am thinking I may run out of room with all the homeschool papers.

    • Good question Julia!

      The answer is that I don’t keep the completed homeschool papers in the crate. The children’s work ends up in a binder. I have one for each child that is in school and then at the end of the school year I select their best work, but that is another post all together 🙂

      Since I plan one school year at a time, but rarely have the whole year planned out, it isn’t all bulky as you might expect. Right now I have school planned until about December and the empty weeks are at the back. As I get further in my homeschool planning, more gets added but I’m also taking things away as each week goes by. Does that make sense? Let me know if I’m not being clear.

      And, I have to admit that there might have to be some adjustments further on down the line as more of the kids reach homeschool age. There is only so much room in a file crate, after all 🙂

  30. Love it – I’m with you all the way – sometimes you just need to use old fashioned paper and pen to get things done!

  31. This is a great idea! I’m wondering, though, do you label each week? Is it hard to find the week you need once it’s more in the middle of the year?

    Thanks for the tip!!

    • Natasha, this is a very good question. I started out just labeling “January, week1” “January, week2” and that is how my file stand currently. However, I’m looking into sitting down with the calendar and getting ambitious enough to haul out the label maker and make dated labels for each file. I think that might make it even faster to find what I’m looking for. 🙂

      • I read this earlier in the week and was so excited about the idea I ran right out picked up a crate! It’s already helped me to pile less paperwork – thank you!
        To label my folders, I bought a pad of the 3×3 post-its and wrote the dates of the week (ie 8/6 – 8/12) on each and then put them on the tab of each folder. They come off a lot easier than my label maker labels. Looking forward to Sunday when I can put the whole idea into action :o)

    • How about saving time and money by moving each week’s folder to the back of the file box when the week is done? That way you’re not floundering with the weeks in the middle of June or July, and your folders are in place for next year ready for repetition of that traditional recipe, etc. Another option would be a folder in a stand out color to mark your place between the current week and the week to follow. To make use of the “marking-my-place” folder, put in an inspirational quote to keep you going or a short list of books you want to read before the end of the year.

      • Yes, the files get moved to the back of the box when the week is over, that way I always have the current week in front (unless the file it out and on my desk, of course). I’m sorry if I didn’t make it clear in the posts that I rotate the files like that.

  32. Lisa Manning says:

    Working on my crate system now! Every day, I have something new I want to add. For example, today I made monthly index cards with all the birthdays on them. I am putting those in the first week of the month prior so that I can pull it out and know what cards/gifts needs to be purchased for the next month. I am going through all of my old Family Fun magazines and pulling all of the things I wanted to try with the kids and never seem to get around to it. Putting those in random weeks too. Should be able to start using this on Sunday. I used to be really organized until kids…and early menopause which has thrown me for a loop. Hoping this will be my answer. It HAS to help!

    Thank you a million times for sharing!

  33. This is the answer to my husband’s prayers:-). I am a pile maker and it drives him crazy. It drives me crazy too but not enough to organize it all. Now I just have to find the time to implement it. I am quite excited to try this for my family. Thank you so much. You might have saved me from my piling ways.

  34. Thank you for sharing this idea! I am so disorganized, I hate to admit. I know this will get (and hopefully keep) me on the right track!

  35. I love this idea. My only question is, where do you keep your file crate? Is it always out or is it hidden somewhere?

  36. Thank yoU!

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