If you have papers that have turned yellow with age or there is a stack of newspapers that crumble when you lift them, you are not alone. The abundance of papers coming into the home makes keeping on top of the accumulation an ongoing task. And unless you have a plan to remove them, you become like many others who simple have allowed papers to take over spaces in their homes. Of all the organizing situations I see, papers are a one of the most frequent problems.
A few weeks ago I posted strategies on tackling papers as they come in the door in order to eliminate saving unnecessary papers and avoiding stacks of unrelated paper items. But there are papers we need to keep and placing those where we can find them when we need them is important. The problem arises when we are not sure which we should keep, where we should keep them and for how long. And then there are the differences in personal preferences that make some systems good for one family member but not another.
While there is no system that will be perfect for everyone, there are some guidelines that everyone can use. All legal papers such as birth, death and marriage certificates, passports, adoption papers, divorce settlements, car titles, insurance policies, property deeds and deeds of trust, etc. should be kept forever. Most financial documents are now kept on computers so paper copies are not as important as in the past. Banks have copies of your checks, your monthly statements and other financial information and history on their computer files. Now it is not necessary to keep paper copies of those after you have verified their information.
For those who get nervous in letting those go, I recommend keeping the closing statement on loans and the end of the year statements. These can be kept with tax records for that year. Keeping the original and selling costs of investments you manage yourself is important, but only the year end statement of brokerage houses is needed for taxes. Once you verify the monthly or quarterly reports, you no longer need to keep them. Monthly credit card statements are no longer needed after they are verified. Even department stores can find sales tickets for purchases you made a year ago. If you are still fearful, keep items for a year or two but not for 10 or 20 years. I have even seen files with cancelled checks from 40 years back! At this time IRS states they do not audit tax returns more than 3 years back unless you have missed a year in filing, a return was challenged, you owed back taxes, you had employees, you have incorrectly filed, or there are other unusual situations. For any questions or more information check out the retention guidelines at their web site: www.irs.gov
As difficult as it may be letting go of financial papers, those with emotional ties are even harder. Love letters, school work, cards from special occasions, etc. can become an organizational nightmare if not sorted and contained in an alloted space. The general rule here is to save as much as you want and have the space to store in an organized manner. It is a good idea to set aside a container for such items and when it is full, no more can be added unless something is removed. Getting bigger or more containers defeats the purpose of maintaining order. And remember when everything becomes special, then nothing is really special. Pieces of paper are not necessary to remember those that we love or are special to us.
Finally, learn to be ruthless in dealing with outdated magazines, newspapers, catalogues, sales flyers, coupons, etc. If you haven't had time to go through them while they are current, there will not be more time later to do it. Most information in them is online should you need it and it will be more up to date. Set up a schedule to recycle them so they do not create piles in your home or office. Diligence is the name of the paper control game. You must deal with them in a consistent manner or they will win. If you have questions or comments about paper organizing feel free to contact me through my web site: www.OrderlyPlaces.com