How to (Eventually) Sort Greeting Cards

This morning I decided it was time to finally organize my greeting cards. More specifically, my greeting cards insisted on being sorted when they were so over-stuffed that it was getting difficult to open and close all three of the shallow drawers I’d been shoving them in.

What!? You mean that Professional Organizer Katrina Hamilton didn’t already have a perfect and codified system for sorting incoming cards and letters? That she just haphazardly tossed them into a drawer?

Yes, of course. Because I didn’t need a system until now and I wouldn’t have known what to implement even if I’d tried. A system that isn’t needed is just clutter, and one that’s established in ignorance is doomed to fail. So I waited until my drawers were bursting, and then I got to work.

The important first step was to determine why I wanted to keep these cards in the first place. A lengthy letter or note from a dear loved one makes sense as an obvious keepsake, but a generic Hallmark card my aunt and uncle sent me on my birthday? Do I need to keep that? If so, why? For me, I wanted to keep a card like this because I knew that there would come a day when my aunt and uncle wouldn’t be around anymore, and I would treasure having a few pieces of paper with their handwriting on it.

One of the reasons it was important for me to define all of this first was it told me a lot about how I should sort things, and what I could immediately discard. I was sorting by people, which means everything from my grandma went in the same pile, regardless of if it was for Christmas, Easter, or birthday.

In addition to regular cards from friends and family, I also had some related to organizations. So all the cards from my old coworkers were in one stack, all the thank you cards from people at church were in another.

And then there were the weddings.

The last 10 years have brought me a lot of wedding invites. At first I put them all in one big stack, but I quickly realized I needed to spread them out more, because some weddings had multiple cards: save the date, formal invitation, shower invite, thank you card, etc. So I dedicated one side of the floor to weddings, and made sure the names were all facing up so it’d be easy to match thank you with invites as I found them. Seeing all these wedding invites laid out on the floor filled me with so much joy and gratitude. All those happy days, all those wonderful people who asked me to be a part of their commitment.

It also came with a lot of grief. One of the faces is no longer with us – he died less than two years after the wedding. One of the weddings was for March of this year – right when we all went into pandemic lockdown. The wedding still happened but in a much smaller way than the invite suggested. Three of the weddings got completely postponed to next year or later. So in addition to the joy, there was a lot of disappointment and sadness on that side of the floor.

Since the drawers had been overflowing and more cards will come in the future, I knew I couldn’t put everything back. I had to decide what would stay in my handy drawers and what could be moved to permanent storage. Piles of cards from my immediate family and close friends would continue to grow over time, so ideally they would stay in the drawers. But other piles, such as the one from my old job, were never going to grow again. I had all the cards I was going to collect from that category, so I knew it could be stored away in a box somewhere.

This moment of decision turned emotional quickly. The piles from my grandparents will not be growing anymore. I have all the cards I will every receive from them. I’m thankful for all the years we got to spend together, and thankful I can still see their handwriting when I need to. While most of the wedding invites can be stored, I will keep the three postponed events in the drawers as the start of my wedding pile. Those events will happen some day. They remain an open book.

Since the three shallow draws are wide enough for two stacks of cards per drawer, I can comfortably maintain six categories. I looked at the piles of individuals and events and settled on these:

  1. Immediate Family
  2. Aunts & Uncles
  3. Weddings/Babies/Graduations
  4. Christmas (from anyone who doesn’t have their own pile)
  5. Friends & Letters (AKA meaningful cards with longer, heart-felt notes)
  6. General (catch-all for the remaining thank you cards, well-wishes, etc.)

These categories make since for me because of who I receive mail from. I would never impose these categories on someone else, and I wouldn’t have known to make them for myself without the piles in front of me. They provided the evidence I needed to see what categories I really had.

For long-term storage I wanted to find a box where I could store them all upright like files, however I didn’t have the right size box in my house. Everything was either much too big or much too small. So I grabbed a shoebox and lined them up inside, using post-its to delineate the sections. I can’t put the lid on because the box is too short, but the other dimensions work fine.

It’s not perfect, but it’s not permanent. This is only half of the project. I know that I still have several stacks of old cards in bins at my parents’ house that never quite made it to my apartment, and I’ll have to combine them all before I can consider buying the right box. What’s more, I’m not committed to keeping every single one of the cards I currently have. Once they are all together I can start to assess which ones matter the most to me and recycle the others.

Knowing all that, it could have been easy to put off organizing the cards until I had everything all together and knew exactly what I needed. But putting it off is exactly why there are still cards at my parents’ house. I’ve never wanted to bring them to my apartment because I knew I didn’t have a plan. But then I couldn’t make a plan because I didn’t really know what I had. The drawers hitting their breaking point was the push I needed to complete this first step, and everything will be easier now that it’s done. Sorting the remaining cards will be easier. Finding the right storage box will be easier. Keeping the incoming cards organized will be easier.

We can’t always wait for everything to be perfect to act. We can’t wait for every other project to be finished before making progress on this one. I certainly had other, more important things I was “supposed” to do today. But this had been nagging at me for a long time and it feels like a weight has been lifted now that it’s done. Those other things I had to do will still get done – they always do. And I got to spend my Sunday morning going through old memories and preparing for new ones.