These 4 Important Steps Will Organize and Protect Your Most Valuable Documents
The world has gone digital — that is, except for a few important documents that still exist the old-fashioned way: tax docs, medical records, birth certificates, marriage licenses, and a few other necessary pieces of paper. But since filing cabinets are about as extinct as rolodexes, exactly how are you supposed to store, organize, and protect all of that stuff? Here, organizing pros offer tips to streamline and protect these necessary documents.
Gather Everything Together
“All very important and original documents should be stored together,” says Mary Cornetta, founder and co-owner of Sort and Sweet Inc. “Some people choose to keep things like their birth or marriage certificates in a safe deposit box at a bank. Others choose to store them in their home.” If you opt for the latter, Cornetta recommends getting a small fire-resistant and waterproof safe like this. “Even though it’s not fun to think about, the idea is that you can grab the safe quickly and go in an emergency,” she says. “And if you don’t feel the need to keep them in a safe, get a fireproof and waterproof zippered bag.”
Any original documents — such as birth certificates, passports, deeds/titles, marriage certificates, and divorce decrees — should be stored in a fireproof safe. These are the things that are either irreplaceable or difficult to replace. You can also store an inventory list of your possessions (especially valuable ones such as art and jewelry) and/or their certificates of authenticity for insurance purposes.
For the original documents you hold onto, Cornetta recommends a small file box like this this one from Target or this one from The Container Store. “We love that they are neutral and can blend in with home decor — perfect for spaces that function for living and work,” she says. If you need a little more space, consider a wicker filing bench like this one from Amazon. The things that can be stored in a file box should be able to be replicated. For example, medical records, tax returns, bank statements, and insurance documents can most likely be reproduced online so it’s not as imperative that they remain in a safe, explains Cornetta.
Alternatively, you could spring for a binder with sheet protectors for that additional paperwork, suggests Catherine Kelly, founder of Sistamatic Organizing. “Instead of using a bulky file cabinet, put together a binder to keep track of documents such as medical records, receipts being kept for tax purposes, and lease/mortgage paperwork,” says Kelly. “Simply slide the papers into clear sheet protectors and add dividers to keep the categories separate. If space allows, create separate binders for large categories.”
Heads-up: Wherever you decide to store your documents, it’s crucial that they are in a dry and temperature-controlled environment. “Avoid basements, attics, garages, or really anywhere that humidity, moisture, or even pests can get to them,” Cornetta says.
Streamline What You Really Need
Just because many of your documents are on paper doesn’t mean they have to stay that way, though. It might not be necessary to hold onto certain documents you’ve been storing in a drawer for years and years. “Learn how long important papers should be kept and in what format,” says Pia Thompson, founder of Sweet Digs. “We all want less paper around, don’t we? There’s no need to keep what isn’t necessary. Learn the document retention requirements for tax filings, for example, then revisit them at least annually and discard what’s no longer required to be kept.”
Digitize What You Can
For any paper docs you don’t want or shouldn’t toss — for example, medical records — you might think about whether digitizing is an option. “Thankfully, many bloodwork, MRI, CT, and other test results are issued through a secure portal now where you can access them from an app or email,” Cornetta says. “If you like the idea of going digital, you can scan [any paper records] to a password-protected cloud system and then shred the originals.”
The same idea could go for some financial documents. “If you feel overwhelmed about your growing ‘to be filed’ pile, nip the problem in the bud and switch to paperless billing whenever possible,” Kelly says. “Just make sure to check your accounts online periodically to ensure you’re not getting overcharged for anything.”
Maintain Records… of Your Records
“Once documents are organized, we recommend keeping a log somewhere safe of exactly what documents are in the container and where it can be found,” Cornetta advises. This can be a simple piece of paper, or a folder saved on your computer.
You might even scan the whole kit, too. “Keep a clearly-named and password-protected digital copy as well as a paper copy,” Thompson says. “This way, if you need to access your important paperwork while you are away from home, you can do so easily.”
Finally, you’ll want to make sure someone you love knows how to find your important papers in case of an emergency. “Laying down a well-organized plan is amazing, but if you are the only one who knows it, it may not end up working the way it should,” Thompson says. “Confide in someone you trust so that things can run smoothly with or without your involvement.”