Paperwork: What to Throw Out...and When

Paperwork: What to Throw Out...and When

Catrin Morris
Oct 21, 2010

Countless how-to articles on the web (think Suze Orman or Martha Stewart) provide us with tips on how to de-clutter and organize our piles of financial documents. There are also a bounty of filing systems for sale that promise to harness our paper trails, whether in toile-covered boxes or industrial strength filing cabinets. If only we all had McMansions in which to store all these magnificent organizational systems!

Finding an efficient and effective system for managing the documents we need to store is essential to financial well-being (and mental well-being). According to a survey by the Consumer Reports National Research Center, nearly one-quarter of Americans have either misplaced or forgotten about an important financial document. Even more worrying, the survey founds that 16 percent had lost money or incurred a charge due to poor organization.

So, there are many guidelines about what papers we should save, where we should save them and for how long. But let's look at the problem from a different angle: Surely it would be easier to prioritize and systematize our paperwork if we had less of it. In other words, maybe if we got rid of the papers we really don't need (but thought we did) it would be easier to locate those documents that actually do matter.

But which documents can we toss without guilt or fear? And when?

In the Spring I bookmarked an article in the New York Times by Jennifer Saranow Schultz that is extremnely helpful in outlining which documents you can purge and when you can do so.

For all the dirty details, check out the Times article, as well as this useful report by Consumer Reports.

For now, here's a sneak peak of some things you CAN throw out:

• Bank deposit and ATM receipts that have been reconciled with your monthly statements

• Bills for things like utilities and cell phones (once payment has been processed)

• Old insurance policies (once any disputes or claims have been settled)

• Monthly bank statements that are more than a year old (unless you need to save for tax deduction purposes)

• Credit card statements more than a few months old (unless you need to save for tax deduction or warranty purposes)

• Loan documents that have been paid off (just keep proof that you paid in full)

• Insurance documents for old policies you no longer have

• Health insurance records covering treatments are completely paid for or resolved (unless you want to save for your own medical health purposes)

• Monthly statements from brokerage, 401(k), IRA and other investments can be shredded as new ones arrive (unless they show how much you paid for an investment and how much you earned for selling it)

• Credit card bills after they have been reviewed and paid (unless needed to support tax filings)

• Household warranties and receipts for items you no longer own

• Pay stubs (after you reconcile them with your W-2)

• Receipts for purchases after you reconcile them with credit card / bank statement (unless needed for a warranty)

So get out that shredder and start purging!

This Aurora shredder is inexpensive and compact (if somewhat slow to use). And as for your most valuable documents (wills, passports, marriage licenses, bonds, etc)? Store them in a fire-proof and waterproof portable safe at home or in a bank safe deposit box. I like this one from Sentry Safe, available at Amazon.

(Image: Flickr member BlackburnMike_1 licensed for use under Creative Commons)

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