Ask Wirecutter, an advice column written by Annemarie Conte, explores the best approaches to buying, using, and maintaining stuff. Email your biggest product-related problems to email@example.com.
I just came back from vacation and the pile of mail is overwhelming. Most of my bills are on autopay, which is why the physical bills that come tend to get forgotten about. My partner handles other household stuff so this mail management is on me. Can you help me find a better system than “leaving it on the counter to get buried and then ignored”?
I love mail. At its best, it can bring you a physical memento of someone’s love. It’s comforting that an element of slow-traveling surprise can still exist in this immediate-notification world (that is, if you outsource the Informed Delivery email to another member of the household).
But at worst, mail delivery is a tempest of paper that can leave you cowering like Vernon Dursley. Different types of mail inundation require different solutions, however. Are you getting mail meant for a different tenant? Catalogs from West Elm or Casper because you bought something once? To solve your unwanted-mail problem, I asked our ever-industrious Wirecutter experts how they weather the storm.
Stop misdirected mail from being delivered in the first place
Nip a former resident’s mail in the bud. Write “return to sender” and black out the barcode at the bottom of an envelope, then stick it back in the mailbox. This should be effective in boomeranging it back to the sender, but whether the company takes that person off its mailing list is anyone’s guess.
If it continues to be a problem, you need to go to your local post office and ask to speak to the postmaster or a supervisor, said Sue Brennan, senior public relations representative for the United States Post Office, in an email. Redirecting mail when a resident no longer lives at an address is one of the tasks they can flag and remedy. (You can also find some handy information online regarding how to stop or forward a deceased relative’s mail.)
Reduce unwanted solicitations
Are you getting unsolicited credit card applications, mail-order catalogs, subscription offers, or donation asks? Unfortunately, once your address is in the databases of certain organizations, they’re legally allowed to send you mail. “By law, we [USPS] have to deliver everything that a company pays us to deliver,” said Brennan. “Some people like advertising mail – some people don’t.” That means it’s on you to stop catalogs and other junk from coming to your door.
When it comes to catalogs, the first thing to do is reach out to customer service. I know it’s a royal pain to call a company to be taken off its list, but many, like L.L.Bean, allow you to do so from its website, which can be faster. You can opt out of larger marketing lists at DirectMail.com’s National Do Not Mail List (free) and the Association of National Advertisers’ DMAchoice (about $2 for 10 years). OptOutPrescreen.com can limit credit card and insurance offers as well. This should also stop the flow of charity solicitations.
How to manage junk mail that’s still being delivered
Even after trying all of the above, you may still be getting mail you don’t want. Like Sisyphus rolling that rock up the hill, it’s a battle you’ll likely lose. What you can do is efficiently deal with the stuff that slips through the cracks after you’ve taken yourself off every possible list.
Trash it before it enters the house
If you live in an apartment building or someplace with a central mail room, see if you can get a shared recycling bin and cross-cut shredder for the space. You can then dump it before it even has a chance to enter your home. Likewise, if you live in a single-family home and have the ability to immediately recycle or shred unwanted stuff outside, there’s no chance of it piling up. Check with your local recycler to determine how to dispose of shreds. Often companies require it to be bagged and thrown in the regular trash because the confetti can contaminate the rest of mixed recycling.
Make two piles: recycle and shred
Trashing junk mail isn’t just about throwing it in the bin: You should recycle the paper or put it through a shredder to protect any compromising information. How to decide what needs shredding? Shred anything that could affect your health and wellbeing if misused, such as an airline credit card offer or a letter with your social security number on it.
If you don’t already own a paper shredder, resist the urge to get an untested one. “Years ago, I bought a cheapo shredder after having mail with a check stolen. The shredder was terrible, and I replaced it with the Amazon Basics 15-Sheet Cross-Cut Paper, CD Credit Card Office Shredder, a previous Wirecutter top pick, and I love it,” said senior staff writer Kaitlyn Wells.
If you can’t swallow the cost of a shredder, our top-pick scissors are a bargain, and they “reduce IDs and credit cards to shreds with frighteningly little effort,” said senior staff writer Tim Heffernan. While many places host an annual shredding day to dump your built-up paperwork, do you really want to store piles of paper for that long?
While you’re shredding/dismembering your mail, take note of items that you want to set to digital-only. You may need account numbers or log-ins to do it. “Some companies (like AT&T for cell service) have separate settings for receiving bills in the mail versus things like privacy statements, so you may have to enable them individually to stop the paper mail,” said avowed mail hater and senior staff writer Jackie Reeve.
Otherwise, you can recycle any solicitations you don’t want. (How many coupons for gutter cleaning does one really need?) I’ll often rip off my address out of sheer paranoia and then recycle the rest of it.
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Keep track of mail you actually need
The problem with junk mail is that it’s enough to put you off from going through your mail at all—even the mail you want to receive. This is the important stuff, and hopefully you find some notes from loved ones mixed in with the medical bills and insurance declaration pages. Once you grab your mail from the mailbox, you should get into the habit of sorting it immediately so nothing gets lost.
Open your mail right away, even if you don’t take action immediately. Don’t assume you know what’s inside the envelope. It always stinks to realize you’d thought something was junk and it turned out to be, say, a notification of a rate increase that will make your autopay inaccurate and result in you accruing delinquencies without realizing it.
Create a filing system in a high-traffic area. Senior editor Erica Ogg uses a small built-in cabinet in her dining room. Other people use the Poppin Fin File Sorter, a basket, or even a vintage toast rack (that last one would be supervising editor Joshua Lyon). “Bills go up front, and if I’m rushing and don’t have time to completely sort out the garbage, I stick it in the back slots and then edit on recycling/trash night,” Joshua said.
Set up a system for follow-up. Erica writes a “due by” date on the front of each envelope and sorts them by date. If you prefer a digital poke, make a note to follow up through a notes app, a reminder via Alexa or Google Assistant or an online calendar.
And it’s not just the boring stuff like bills that necessitate responses. I keep a stack of blank postcards and stamps on my front entryway table so I have a fast track to thoughtfulness when a friend pops into my head.
This article was edited by Annemarie Conte and Jason Chen.