The annual tax deadline approaches. So does the start of that annual ritual—frantic efforts to retrieve receipts, document donations, and find forms.

With programs like Quickbooks and Mint supplanting the manila folders and tax organizers of the past, the old methods of compiling documents are as anachronistic as pulling your car over to look at a paper map. 

We talked to dozens of finance experts to find out: What are their best organization methods right now?

What Organization System Do Financial Experts Use?

Like money? Getting organized will save some for you. Says personal finance expert Jordan Goodman: "If you put all your receipts in a shoebox you're going to spend more money paying the accountant to figure it out that you'd save in deductions."

The good news—most of the experts we talked to said it's okay to use whatever organization system works for you. "If the client won't use the system properly, there's no point in even having a system," says Courtney Barbee of The Bookkeeper.

Here are some organizational systems the experts use.

A manila folder is pretty minimum but it does the trick. You can use it to put all your documents in and pull it out once you're ready to start on taxes.

John Schmoll, Founder, Frugal Rules

For me it’s creating a manual folder next to your computer and a digital folder on your computer and dropping tax related paperwork into them as they arrive in the mail and in email. These same folders become the year’s folder and go into the archives once the return is filed.

Philip Taylor, Founder & Attendee Champion of FinCon, PT Money

I rely on a checklist of documents I expect to receive and organize it that way. It's very similar to the way the tax forms are laid out, there's really no reason to reinvent the wheel.

Jim Wang, Founder, Wallet Hacks

There’s great research around the success of checklists including the book The Checklist Manifesto. Checklists provide a guide for doing your best to assure you are not missing anything.

Chad Smith, CFP, Partner & Financial Advisor, Financial Symmetry

Records must be organized according to how they’re used in tax preparation in order to be useful. That means all documents related to income like pay stubs, 1099’s, and W2’s go in one folder.

Similarly, receipts for all deductible expenses like medical, mortgage, moving, and donations should go in a separate folder. Any specialty items that require separate tax form preparation should be organized in a third folder like capital gains, selling a home, or operating a side hustle business that’s filed on a Schedule C.

The point is to organize your documents to match how a tax return is prepared: it starts with income, then deductions, then specialty forms. This organization reduces the amount of time required by the preparer which should lower your cost of preparation.

Todd Tressider, Money Coach, Financial Mentor

Most people should be able to scan their important documents, meaning they can keep them in a file storage system or somewhere on their computer. The best idea would be to scan in important tax documents as well as keeping a hard copy of them somewhere in your home as well.

Michael Cirelli, Financial Advisor, SAI Financial, Inc.

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I think it’s been 15 years ago at least (maybe 20) but I used to keep track of my tax records in a shoe box!  Just throw all my receipts in the box and sort it out at the end of the year.

That was the way my dad did it and I thought if it was good enough for him, it should be good enough for me.   This was terrible—it used to take me weeks to prepare my tax return. Now I just have my bookkeeper send my CPA my reports from Quickbooks. Life is good.

Neal Frankle, Certified Financial Planner, Founder, WealthPilgrim.com

At the very least, create a file for your taxes along with files for your various monthly bill statements, including credit cards.

David Bakke, Personal Finance Expert, Money Crashers

Even financial experts make mistakes because of poor organization. Craig of Retire Before Dad once forgot to report some interest income and had to file an amended return. Sam Dogen of Financial Samurai once opened his mail to find a $200,000 tax bill because he forgot to include some information about stocks he'd sold.

What Tech Helps?

Paperless statements, personal finance apps, and tax software are all relatively new. They should be making things easier—but do they?

A deductible charity donation listed on a .pdf of your credit card statement, buried somewhere in your "Documents" folder—it's no more accessible than a Goodwill receipt stuffed in the back of your glove compartment.

"We have so much data and information when it comes to our financials that organizing seems like a week-long task," says Jim Wang, Founder of Wallethacks.

Still, most of our experts agree that online statements and apps are doing more good than harm.  Eric Rosenberg of Personal Profitability exclaims: "Technology is making things much easier!" He adds: "If you can download an app and login to your bank's website, you have all of the needed skills to organize your finances with an online or app-based tool."

Here are expert tips for incorporating tech into your financial recordkeeping.

Don't let all of the options throw you off. Just pick one that looks like a good fit for you and use that to get started.

Eric Rosenberg, Founder, Personal Profitability

Keep it simple. For most individuals a record keeping system such as mint.com is sufficient. For most small businesses I recommend QuickBooks.

Shonty Spatola, CPA, CFP®, Spatola & Company

Most of the data gathering fintech software out there offer a consolidation platform in which clients can connect all of their financial accounts to one portal. This really helps clients see in one place what their “big picture” looks like financially and how money is being moved around amongst their accounts.

Helen M. Ngo, CFP®, Principal/CCO, Capital Benchmark Partners, LLC

Everyone needs to track their finances—so it will always be a battleground for new technology. Once you've chosen a program, you'll be tempted to change it.

"Unless there is a compelling reason to switch, it is usually not worth it," says Neil Frankle of Wealth Pilgrim. "There are bright new shiny technologies being introduced every day. It makes no sense to throw out your current system if it really does the job."

"I often find forms online—for example, property tax receipts that I paid online, or 1099 forms from brokerage statements," says Julie Rains of Investing to Thrive. "But I like keeping a paper file of my documents as well."

How To Stay Organized

Why don't people stick to their organizational system? "It’s the same reason people eat junk food, smoke, and don’t exercise," says Todd Tressider. "Most people have a difficult time connecting the impact of small daily decisions to longer term consequences."

"You have to make it a habit," says Jordan Goodman. "Think of it like brushing your teeth—you wouldn't just not do it for six months."

The experts we talked to know it's not easy—but they have some ideas to make it easier.

People look at it as this insurmountable task that’s going to be so long and grueling to get through. This really isn’t the case so long as you set goals and tackle each one individually.

Michael Cirelli, Financial Advisor, SAI Financial, Inc.

I like to break it up into "bite-size" pieces that I can manage within a couple hours. If you string a few of those together, you'll be organized in no time.

Jim Wang, Founder, Wallet Hacks

If you can set aside just 10 minutes per week—keeping in mind that you spend more time watching commercials during an episode of The Bachelor—you have plenty of time to organize your financial info.

Eric Rosenberg, Founder, Personal Profitability

Don't wait until the end of the year for tax season to get organized. Get organized every single week of your life.

Sam Dogen, Founder, Financial Samurai

Some of our experts speculate there's a deeper reason for people's lack of organization. "Some might be fearful of finding out the truth of where they stand financially," says Luis Rosa, CFP at Heydel Biel & Associates. "The answers can change the reality for that person and create additional fears. Am I saving enough to retire? Do I have enough to pay for my kids’ college?"

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Frankie Corrado, a CFP and Financial Life Guide with Blue Blaze Financial Advisors, says: "I think there is a sense of paralysis that comes both from the thought of organizing the information as well as the result of such organization…”all my financial information is organized…now what?”

Hey, It Could Be Worse

Just for kicks we asked financial planning experts for some disaster stories of appalling disorganization.

The worst record keeping I have seen is with one client who wrote down his account information on Post-It notes. He would have a pile of Post-It notes with various financial data and I had to help him organize and match up his information with statements and get rid of all the notes.

Helen M. Ngo, CFP®, Principal/CCO, Capital Benchmark Partners, LLC

We were once awaiting a document from a very disorganized client. When the email came in, instead of the financial statements we were expecting, he had accidentally attached a medical case study and a clipart image.

Courtney Barbee, The Bookkeeper

Tips For Getting Organized

So, what have we learned?

  • Pick an organization system. It can be low-tech or high-tech—as long as it works for you.
  • Tech can help. Investigate apps and programs that turn your organized info into actionable info.
  • Keep at it. Make financial organization a habit, like brushing your teeth.