Filing System Essentials to Run Your Small Business

As a small business owner, you need to be able to put your hands on essential files quickly and easily.  Though setting up a filing system sounds difficult, it is a relatively easy task that can be made easier by a few tips and tricks.

From above of opened modern briefcase with prepared papers placed on timber table in soft focus

1 – Set aside a specific place where files will be stored.  We have a large filing cabinet in the basement, and a small hanging file folder for our day to day filing.  We empty the small one weekly and transfer the files to the filing cabinet.

2 – Next determine whether an alphabetical, numerical or subject filing system for your papers will work best for you.  Do you search for things according to the client’s name?  The category (i.e. expenses, financial, marketing)? By reference number?  This is a critical step, as it will determine how you will layout your system.  Do this BEFORE you buy anything for your system.

3 – Invest in a good labelling system for clarity and easy access.  Though making sure you can easily read the file labels sounds like it should be an obvious step, clarity in labelling will save you more time than you can imagine.  Most companies who make labels provide templates that integrate with most popular word processing software.  If you are like me and need to label everything, it may make sense to invest in a label maker that can print out individual labels.

4 – Now you are ready to purchase file folders.  For those of us who are visual learner, I have found that coloured hanging folders (make sure the plastic label tabs are included) make it very easy to quickly identify categories and files.  I use coloured hanging folders for two reasons: (1) they are widely available and (2) they allow easy recognition of categories.  For example, all my client files are in yellow hanging folders, blue folders contain financial information and red is for marketing.  This way, I can see roughly where I should be searching for a particular file. 

5 – Now that you have determined both your storage and file folder needs, here is a list of  the common folders needed in a simple business filing system.

Covering the Basics – Filing System Categories

There are several files that should be present in a business filing systemDepending on the nature of your business, these may be too general or too specific for you, but you can customize the following information to suit your business.  Remember to use the KISS principle – Keep It Simple Sweetheart.  You need not invest in a complicated and costly system to house only a few files.  Any information contained in your files should only take 30 seconds to find.   Customize your system to work for both your business and your work style.  Keep the files you use most often closest to your desk.  Put archives or files you don’t use often in another location.  

You will notice that some file titles seem to be repeated, like Web site(s) under Marketing and Domain Names under Expenses.  The distinction here is that you would put items related to Web site content and design under the Marketing file, and invoices for hosting and domain name registration under Expenses.  


  • Last Name, First Name
    • Contact information
    • Personal information (if required)
    • Projects – On going (if required)
    • Projects – Completed (if required)


  • Business Guides from local Chambers of Commerce
  • Supplier Directories
  • Trade Directories


  • Accounting
  • Advertising
  • Business licences, fees (government fees, local and provincial/state fees)
  • Computer
  • Computer equipment – miscellaneous (PDA, mouse, router, microphone, speakers, etc)
  • Computer equipment – printer
  • Computer equipment – scanner
  • Consultant Services (business coach, organizing coach)
  • Contracted Services (virtual assistant, sub-contractors, cleaners, etc.)
  • Domain names
  • Employee Benefits (medical/dental, insurance, RRSP, 401K, etc)
  • Insurance – business/office property
  • Insurance – professional liability
  • Interest and Bank Charges
  • Legal
  • Library
  • Maintenance and Repairs (or Leasehold Improvements if you rent)
  • Meals and Entertainment
  • Office Equipment (telephones, fax machine, calculators, shredder, etc)
  • Office Furniture (desks, chairs, lamps, radio, book cases, etc)
  • Office Supplies (stationary, pens, labels, file folders, etc.)
  • Postage/Courier
  • Property Taxes
  • Travel
  • Utilities
    • Cellular phone
    • Telephone
    • Fax line
    • Internet connection
    • Heating/Lighting
    • Rent
  • Vehicle expenses
    • Fuel
    • Repairs and Maintenance
    • Insurance

Education and Professional Development

  • Include any courses you take that are business related, including seminar information, conference information, online courses, continuing education courses, staff development courses, etc.


  • Accounts Payable – Current
  • Accounts Receivable – Current
  • Accounts Receivable – 30-60 days
  • Accounts Receivable – 60-90 days
  • Accounts Receivable – 90-120 days
  • Accounts Receivable – In Collection
  • Balance Sheets – Monthly
  • Bank or Credit Union Monthly Statements (store only 1 year in active file/retain up to 10 years worth, depending on Federal/Provincial/State laws)
  • Bank Loans (original loan papers, interest rates, amount borrowed, payment terms, etc)
  • Capital Cost Allowance Information (Canada only)
  • Corporate/Business Tax Returns (retain for up to 10 years, depending on Federal/Provincial/State laws)
  • Credit Card statements
  • GST/HST Forms (Canada only)
  • Income Statements – Monthly/Annually
  • Payroll Records and Taxes
  • State tax remittances 
  • Tax Forms


  • Inventory Count
    • by product name/number
  • Invoices/Statements
    • by Supplier Name
    • then ordered by Invoice Number
  • Suppliers
    • listed alphabetically
    • ordering/contact information at front of file


  • Advertising – Print
  • Advertising – Radio
  • Advertising – Television
  • Advertising – Web site
  • Advertising – Internet
  • Articles of Interest
  • Business Plan (review annually – archive old copies)
  • Information Package (about your business)
  • Press Releases
  • Trade Show Information


  • Professional/Trade Organizations to which you belong
  • Boards on which you serve

Personnel Files

  • Each employee by Last Name, First Name
    • resume/application form, tax forms (Canada – TD1), payroll records, information on benefits package (medical/dental, RRSP, 401k, etc)
    • performance evaluations/reviews, disciplinary information, record of education provided by the company, etc.
    • record of salary/wage rate, and notes on raises, Direct Deposit information (if you provide EFT)
  • Miscellaneous tax forms
  • Procedures Manual
  • Resumes/Applications kept on file for six months
  • Record of Employment forms

The KISS principle applies to setting up a filing system that is easy to use and easy to grow with.  Keep It Simple Sweetheart!  Broad subject categories (as above) will allow you to easily add new files as you grow, and will eliminate the need to upgrade or reorganize your system on a regular basis.

Happy filing!

More help:

Essentials for Mastering Your Filing System

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