As we tackle our paper pile, the motto for the day is:
Do not organize what you can toss!
Are you overcome by papers but don’t know how long to keep them or if you even need to save them?
Set aside 45 minutes and turn on good music. Get a bag or a recycle bin ready, and borrow a shredder if you don’t have one. It’s time to make some big progress.
Start with the obvious.
Go quickly through your house and throw away all the junk mail, expired coupons, catalogs, and old grocery lists that you see. Any little scribbled notes that you no longer need should be tossed.
Take it one step further and prevent useless paper from entering your house in the first place. Open your mail over the recycle bin. Opt out of credit offers, and remove your name from catalog mailing lists.
Magazines and newspapers
Save individual pages from magazines instead of the entire issue. Give magazines away to a friend or donate them to the local library. Put yesterday’s newspaper in the recycle bin. Cancel subscriptions for newspapers or magazines that you never get around to reading. Read more ideas from readers about how they organize magazines.
You really don’t need more than three months of past bills that have been paid. If the company has a reputation for frequent billing errors then it might be worth keeping more, but otherwise it’s safe to toss them.
When the transaction has cleared your account, you probably don’t need those little slips of paper any more. The only reasons to keep them would be:
- the possibility of returning an item
- insurance valuation for expensive items
- for taxes, such as sales tax credit or home upgrades
Almost all other receipts can be tossed after you’ve checked your bank or credit card statement. Most receipts will fade as they age. I scan the few I want to keep long-term.
Only keep the most recent few until you get the last one for the year. Then compare it to your W-2 statement before you toss it.
Bank or Credit Card statements
I save most account statements (digitally) because keeping them helps me to toss other paperwork. I can easily throw away paid bills and receipts because there is a record of the transaction on the bank statement.
Retirement Account statements
You don’t need the monthly statements once you’ve received a quarterly or annual statement. It’s also fine to toss the Prospectus Report for an investment. Keep letters and documents that confirm your right to a future retirement benefit such as an employer’s pension plan.
In most cases, you should keep tax returns for at least 3 years, since that’s the time limit to amend a return or for the IRS to audit good-faith returns. (There’s no time limit for the IRS to audit fraudulent returns.)
Keep the title in a safe place, and keep maintenance records as well until you sell the car.
Auto and Property Insurance papers
When you get the new insurance card in the mail, throw away the expired cards. You don’t need to keep paperwork for insurance that expired or that covered property you no longer own.
Health Insurance Papers
When you need to refer to your medical history, it’s easier to look at a one-page summary instead of a stack of medical bills. Make a list of your important medical events for your personal records. Keep medical bills for the current year, and then toss them if you don’t need them for tax deductions. Instead of storing a bulky directory of physicians, search online for network doctors. You can find the list of preferred prescriptions online as well.
Are you keeping old school notes or research papers just because you worked hard on them? (You’re not keeping them to show how smart you are, right?) Unless you actually use them in your current career, you don’t need them anymore. They have already served their purpose. Keep a small sample if you must, and then let go of the rest.
Warranties and Manuals
If you have any warranty paperwork that is expired or manuals for appliances that you no longer own, give them a toss.
What about cards, letters, and keepsakes?
Papers with sentimental value are challenging, but you should keep your favorites, not all of them. Read more advice about what to do about cards when you’re not sure if you should keep them, but it’s hard to throw them away.
Most Papers Can Be Scanned
When you want to save a document, it doesn’t mean you need to save the actual paper. In most cases a digital copy is as valid a form of documentation as the original. Keep paper copies of important papers such as your car title. Scan less important papers such as account statements. Read more about going digital with paper storage.
If you still have a lot more to clean out, that’s ok! Just take a look at how many papers you’ve already managed to toss. Later you can pick up right where you left off.