Money

Drowning In Paperwork? Here's How To Organize All Your Important Documents

Plus, how long to keep files around.

Whether you’re getting ready to KonMari the crap out of your home or just want to do a bit of spring cleaning, going through stacks of paperwork is a necessary evil. As you sift through bank statements, tax forms, bills and more, you might wonder what you really need to hang on to and what you can toss.

It might seem like a daunting task at first — but resist the urge to trash it all and walk away. Experts gave us the lowdown on how to organize documents cluttering your home, plus how long to keep files on hand.

Which Documents To Keep (And For How Long)

“When it comes to paperwork, people think they need to keep everything,” said Tracie Fobes, owner of the personal finance blog Penny Pinchin Mom. You really don’t, since there’s a time limit on how long most documents need to be kept on hand, she explained.

That said, some documents need to be kept longer than others. And there are a few things you should never get rid of. As you go through all this paperwork, be sure to separate it into folders according to category so you know how often to review and purge it (not to mention find things easily).

Personal legal documents: Keep forever.

Among the items you should always keep hard copies of are birth/marriage/death certificates, Social Security cards, passports, estate planning documents, deeds and wills. It’s a good idea to secure these documents in a fire-proof lock box that is small and can be tucked away somewhere easy, like the back of a closet, said Kimberly Jones of L+ K Home Organization. “You want to keep items in here that you need original copies of and can not be duplicated,” she said.

Tax records: Keep 7-10 years.

According to the IRS, you should keep tax returns and related paperwork such as W-2s, 1099s and trade confirmations for a minimum of three years. However, if you want to be on the safe side, you should hang on to these records for seven years in case you end up needing to file a claim or if a reporting error is discovered.

Fobes noted that if you own a business, you might need up to 10 years’ worth of data. Confirm with your accountant to be sure.

“Usually, your accountant has these saved, but I always keep a hard copy just in case,” Jones added. Again, it’s a good idea to keep the hard copies in your fireproof safe.

Home improvement projects: Keep until you move.

Jones said that she keeps every detail of home improvement projects, such as plans and product information. “These can be easy to reference and also nice to pass along to new buyers if you were to sell your home.”

Vehicle history: Keep as long as you own the car.

It’s a good idea to hold on to any documents related to the maintenance and repair of your car. You don’t necessarily have to keep the receipts for every oil change, but definitely keep documentation of body work, electrical repairs, engine work, etc.

Additionally, if you were ever involved in an accident, you should keep documents related to the insurance claim and related repairs, said Eileen Roth, author of Organizing For Dummies. If another person was involved, hold on to this paperwork for a year.

And of course, you also want to keep a hard copy of the title (in your safe) and registration (in your glove box).

Medical billing statements: Keep until you’ve been reimbursed.

If you don’t owe any money for a check-up or procedure, you don’t need to keep the explanation of benefits that details how it was billed to insurance and paid out.

The exception is if you have a pending worker’s compensation or other medical claim. “Once the bill has been satisfied and paid, you can toss the benefits statements,” Fobes said. “If there are ongoing disputes or claims, keep all paperwork.”

Also, keep medical bills and prescription receipts until tax time if you need them for tax write-offs.

Warranties: Keep until they expire.

There’s a good chance you’ll come across some warranties for products you’ve purchased over the years. If the warranty has expired, go ahead and throw it away.

“If there are some that you still need, find the purchase receipt and attach them together so they are ready should need to file a claim,” Fobes said. If the company will allow you to submit the warranty claim electronically, you can scan both and toss the hard copies.

Credit card statements: Keep up to one year.

Many credit cards offer additional benefits such as extended warranties and purchase protection, so it’s a good idea to save credit card statements related to big-ticket purchases for a year just in case you need to go back for a proof of purchase, Roth said. However, if you have any receipts related to warranties, keep those in the warranty file and not attached to your statement.

Insurance policies: Keep until they change.

There’s no need to keep old auto, home, medical and other insurance policies, except for the most current coverage summary page, according to Bankrate. Both your agent and insurance company will keep electronic copies for years.

You should hang on to your most recent policy booklet, which is the actual legal contract. If your insurer makes any policy changes, you’ll be sent a new booklet.

Receipts: Keep for 90 days.

In most cases, Fobes said, returns are only allowed within 90 days of purchase. So any receipts for items you purchased that are outside the return window should be tossed.

The exception is receipts related to warranty claims and tax purposes, which, as mentioned above, should be attached to any related paperwork and filed to that category.

What To Toss

Aside from the important documents above, you probably have much more paper clutter sitting around that can be tossed right away. Of course, don’t simply throw these documents in the trash; shred everything that has any kind of personal information, such as your address or account numbers, and recycle the rest if you can. Or better yet, go paperless.

Financial statements

You don’t need ’em, plain and simple. “You can access them online now and download and print PDF copies should the need arise,” Fobes said.

Bills

“There’s no real reason to save your utility and service bills like Netflix, satellite, internet, electric, gas, water, trash and cell phone,” Roth said. If you rely on monthly bills to create a budget, pop the numbers into a spreadsheet like Excel or Google and then shred the bills.

Owners manuals

“Almost all manuals are available through the manufacturer’s website, so there is zero reason to keep them,” Fobes said. “Toss them all.”

Clearing The Paper Clutter For Good

“The best way to eliminate paper clutter is to cut it off at the source,” Jones said. She explained that the main source of paper clutter is usually the mail, so she recommends a process for identifying where it all belongs as soon as it comes through the front door. “I classify as either to read, to do, to pay or to file,” she said.

And though there are some documents that can only exist as hard copies, almost everything can be saved digitallythese days. If you don’t already receive it electronically, documents can easily be scanned and stored on a hard drive or uploaded to the cloud.

“To ensure that I am not at the mercy of my computer breaking down, I save everything into Google docs,” Jones said. “I maintain folders in my drive to make it easy to keep organized.”

No matter where you save your documents, you should have two key goals for each file: That it’s easy to find and that it’s well-protected.

Be sure to follow a detailed and consistent file naming strategy. For example, you might save all tax forms with the category, exact name and year, so it looks something like this: “Taxes_Form_1099_2018.”

Also make sure that you use a strong password to protect all your devices and cloud accounts so that if your laptop or phone falls into the wrong hands, none of your sensitive information is easily accessible.

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