Sad but true: it's hard to pay bills on time if you can't find them. Lowcountry professional organizers say helping tame home offices is a frequently requested service.
Beaufort-based organizer Roxanne Cheney recently worked with a Realtor who lives in Sun City Hilton Head to organize her primary work space.
"The house had an open floor plan, and the office was really visible from the time you walked in the front door," Cheney said.
Although the office furniture the client had "wasn't particularly well suited to the space," Cheney made it work because the Realtor was emotionally attached to it, and to avoid the expense of buying new furniture.
Cheney and her client talked through the tasks the Realtor did during a typical day and how she allotted her time, with the goal of having within easy reach the things she used often.
Lateral files replaced file drawers. Cheney also focused on helping her client manage her mail, and created a daily organizing system with three files marked "to do," "to pay," and "to file." She recommends people set up reoccurring bills as auto drafts, but not everyone is comfortable doing away with checks, envelopes and stamps, Cheney said.
A former Marine Corps officer, Cheney calls organizing her "true life's passion" and had fun as a child organizing her grandmother's makeup table and medicine chest. Her business, Roxanne Cheney LLC, includes helping senior citizens with household paperwork and providing move-in services.
On Hilton Head Island, Leila Nelson of A Better Space provides organizing services for homes and offices. She recently helped a mainland client who had moved into a new home "purge every piece of paper she didn't need." Nelson also helped the client set up better lighting for her office space.
"There are two kinds of people in a home office: people who want everything visual, and those who want everything put away," Nelson said.
Shelves with pretty files in decorative boxes, with frequently used files within easy reach and rarely used documents up higher, are a possible solution for visually oriented people, she said.
"The challenge for an organizer is to work in a way that speaks to the client, not to me. If I do it my way, it's not going to work in three weeks," Nelson said.
Instead of a traditional home office, for a family with children an organizer might set up a "command center" in the kitchen where children can do their homework while Mom cooks or pays bill. This type of office usually has a primary family calendar, and a place for filing school papers and household bills.
"The world has changed dramatically in terms of home offices, because we're digitizing a lot of our paper and we don't need as much filing space," Nelson said, adding that massive desks aren't necessary because modern computers and other home office equipment are smaller.
Organizer Jill Weaver, owner of Personalized Solutions in Beaufort, says children need as much organizing structure as adults when dealing with paper. She has helped families with kids set up filing systems for art, poetry and journals, as well as adult home offices.
"We all struggle with paper," she said.
Weaver, who also teaches courses about organizing through the Technical College of the Lowcountry's Continuing Education program, said many people seek her help after their lives change.
"We get disorganized around major life eventsâ€" we have a baby, we divorce, a spouse dies or we move," she said.
Weaver conducts workshops about organizing at local elementary schools, teaching kids to sort objects by form, function, color and other properties.
"Organizing is about finding a system that works for you personally," she said.
Getting it organized can free up usable space, and result in less time and money spent looking for lost items or buying replacements.
Everything in your house needs its own home, including every piece of paper you keep â€" because people like to pile instead of file, organizers say.
When tackling a home office organization yourself, there are two necessities: a good filing system and a commitment to purge paper â€" and an understanding that organizing often is ugliest at its start.
To begin, spread your piles on the bed or floor and sort by category: taxes, insurance, bills, owners' manuals, etc. Put a sticky note on each pile as you go.
Once they're sorted, create sub-categories. For instance, under "Insurance," you might have separate files: "Insurance â€" Health," "Insurance â€" Life," "Insurance â€" Home."
Keep a small binder or spiral notebook on your desk to consolidate all your to-do lists, phone calls, follow-up reminders and sticky notes, says Holly Graff, owner of Clutter Control Angels in Sacramento, Calif.
Claudia Buck of McClatchy Newspapers contributed to this report.