What Papers Can You Get Rid Of?

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.

Paid bills

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.

Receipts

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.

Pay stubs

binder clipOnly 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.

Taxes

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.)

Auto Records

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.

School papers

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.

Did I leave something off the list? I know it’s a long one.  Do you have any questions or more ideas?
About Rachel

I write about practical tips that will help you simplify at home. Connect with me on Pinterest and Twitter.

Comments

  1. What a helpful list! I’ve got a stack of old pay stubs going back years–I’ll be getting rid of them soon! One thing you didn’t mention was what should be shredded. A cross-cut shredder is best instead of the kind that makes the long strips. Certainly shred anything with your social security number or bank information, and I usually shred any junk mail credit offers too. Unfortunately, you just never know who might be going through your trash with bad intentions.
    Thank you for your wonderful blog–I enjoy it every day!

  2. A lot of this stuff can be viewed online as a PDF, including billing statements, credit and debit statements, bank statements, and insurance documents. Most companies that offer online billing statements keep an archive for you on their site, but I usually open my statements every month and save them as a PDF on my computer. If I need to access them again, they’re organized by company and date. I clear out the old ones once or twice a year.

    If you have a scanner, you can scan statements, receipts, and other papers you get that aren’t accessible online. (I’m not sure if scanned receipts would be acceptable for tax purposes, and I’m pretty sure they’re not acceptable for returns, so you might still have to keep the original copies for that stuff.)

    I find it a lot easier to file and organize things on my computer than as paper documents. There’s less paper clutter around my house, and it’s easy enough to print out a copy if I ever need it, though I’ve never had a reason to.

    Karen’s last blog post..My personal (student) loan experience

  3. Love it! I’m getting a shredder today and tackling cleanup tomorrow morning during my baby’s morning nap.

  4. smallnotebook says:

    Amy, I would shred papers that showed my full name, address, SSN, birth date, or financial info. Perhaps that is overly cautious, but after cleaning out a stack of papers, the pile to shred is really short compared to the rest.

    Karen, I save a lot on my computer too. It definitely takes up less space.

    Great Lauri! You can do it.

  5. Thanks for this post! Our filing cabinet is about to explode but I wasn’t sure how long I needed to keep stuff. Any suggestions on a quick way to get rid of it old documents? We just have a dinky single sheet shredder.

  6. smallnotebook says:

    Amy Sue, you can check to see if your city has a free shredding day. Or maybe do a little at a time? Hmm, does anyone have a suggestion?

  7. Another great option for people is to go virtually paperless by scanning important documents into PDFs and then shred the originals (of course, use your head about which ones are OK to have scanned copies of). There are lots of different software programs out there to organize your documents as well.

    Andrea’s last blog post..Obama vs. McCain part 2

  8. This was very helpful Rachel! I’m going to print this off and start going through my filing cabinets..thanks! I have papers in there that are probably just taking up much needed space and have always just kept them “in case” I need them…

    Great post!

    Amber’s last blog post..Week In Review 9/15 – 9/19

  9. How about what to do with the kids’ many papers and drawings?
    My solution. I have a hallway outside the kids room where I have a string hanging between two hooks along the wall. I clip the kids’ artwork up there when it comes home from school. It looks really cute and the whole family gets to see it. When more papers come and the line is full, something must come down and get recycled. I have a box of keepsakes for each kid, so if they do something special I might put it in there, but most papers spend a week or two on display before they get recycled.

    Holly’s last blog post..What!?!

    • Holly,
      I love your idea of the “clothesline” of artwork. I also display the artwork in various frames and clips around my home. I also scan in the best pieces and keep a digital file of it and then toss the original. Then it becomes part of my screen saver on my computer! I also do this with my kids “good work” certificates and other fun things they get from school and sports.

  10. smallnotebook says:

    Holly, you are so smart about your kids’ drawings. Kids can produce a mountain of art, and I’m planning a future post with more ideas for how to manage all of it.

  11. That is a great list. I always wonder how long I should keep some of that stuff, like bills. I actually cleaned out a bunch of papers from my file cabinet a couple weeks ago. It is so great to get rid of what you can!

    Richelle F’s last blog post..Projects This Week

  12. One trick I have used to use to manage my monthly statements is a 13-tabbed file folder. One pocket for each month — once paid the statements get filed along with bank statements and pay stubs. The front pocket is for anything related to taxes that year so everything is in one place come January.

  13. Thank you SO much for this info! I’ve been dreading filing away papers/bills because everything is just gets so bulky I figured I would not be able to find anything when I needed it. Solution? A big paper pile (or two) where I can’t find anything when I need it… Not working.
    Now I have a very practical plan of attack to get those papers under control.

  14. I just found your blog after reading Life with the Lyngs blog crush on you! :) I am a declutter freak, but I admit I probably hang on to more stuff than I need to. It’s always nice to be reminded what we need to keep and what we should pitch!

    Michelle’s last blog post..Tip Junkie’s Talk to me Tuesday!

  15. Jenni at My Web of Life says:

    Your blog is FANTASTIC! I just stumbled across it today after reading a post from Crunchy Domestic Goddess. It’s funny that I was just writing about decluttering on my blog today. It is a constant struggle for me to stay clutter-free, especially with three children!
    I have added you to my blogroll. I look forward to reading more of your posts!!!

  16. Valjean Leiker says:

    My city has a recycling program, so what we do is shred whatever papers we want to get rid of and put them into a grocery bag (paper, of course) and place them at the curb. You can staple or tape the top to prevent the contents from blowing away. The city picks them up just like the plastic bins you normally use.

    Also alleviates the “paper or plastic” dilemma at the grocery store. I choose paper because I know I’ll use it for recycling!

    Cool blog!

  17. I have a lot of medical papers – insurance statements, bills, records of treatments – and more. I keep records for taxes (if I do get a deduction). Sometimes I have managed to keep a running list of symtoms, diagnoses, treatments, etc.I have had several major illnesses myself,

    Sadly, my husband passed away this year. His medical records (bills, insurance, treatment permissions, etc.) are all crammed in one file cabinet. What should I do with these?

    I appreciate your knowledge about this subject, and your blog, and look forward to more cleaning up.

  18. Ok, I have another solution for the kids artwork. I have two very passionate artists here at home myself and so here is what we do:

    When they bring art projects home or make something here, we hang it up. But at the end of the month, I take it all down. The most special ones we keep in a extra box and the rest I take pictures of and store them on my computer under a file for just that. When they are older, they can look through the file to see it and I don’t have huge piles of art projects cluttering up my house :)