What papers should you keep?

"What papers should I keep?" This question comes up over and over again when I'm helping residential clients organize their papers. Most businesses have a record retention policy that dictates what papers you should save and for how long. But many people are unclear about what they should be saving in their personal home files.

The lists below contains suggestions from Clark Howard, the consumer guru from Atlanta, and financial planner Ric Edelman. Prudence dictates that I tell you that I am not an accountant or lawyer. These suggestions should serve as guidelines to get you started, but you should also consult your accountant and possibly the Internal Revenue Service's web site (see IRS Publication 552: Record Keeping for Individuals) to see if there are other suggestions that better fit your situation.

Clark Howard says:


* Tax returns, keep forever
* Tax return documentation (receipts, supporting documentation), keep for six years
* Contracts, forever
* Real estate records, forever
* Last pay stub of a job if you leave the job
* Last pay stub of the year of your current job
* All mortgage payment checks (statements), until the mortgage is paid off
* All student loan payments, until the loan is paid off
* Car loan payment stubs, until the car is paid off
* Canceled checks, for 7 years
* Bank deposit slips, for 7 years
* Bank statements, for 7 years
* Home Improvement records, ownership period plus 7 years
* Investment records, ownership period plus 7 years


* Credit card statements that are more than three years old
* Past insurance statement
* Old utility bills, except the most recent one from your old address if you've moved
* Recently paid bills (statements), once you have something saying they have been paid

Other suggestions from financial planner Ric Edelman's web site:

  • Birth certificates, Death Certificates, and Marriage Certificates: never discard
  • Health records: never discard
  • Stock and bond certificates: discard or shred when sold
  • Vehicle titles: discard or shred when vehicle is sold
  • Wills, trusts, and powers of attorney: discard or shred when a new one is signed
  • College financial aid and other loans: shred ten years after loan is repaid
  • Insurance policies: keep copy of existing policy as long as policy is in effect. Then keep a copy for one year after your replace the policy
  • Investment account statements: seven years after the last investment held in account is sold
  • Pension documents: never discard
  • Receipts for items under warranty: shred after warranty expires
  • Receipts for expensive items: shred after item is sold or donated
  • Social Security statement: shred old one when new one arrives
  • Transcripts: shred old one after you complete another course
  • Vehicle registration: shred old one when the new one arrives
  • Vehicle repairs: keep until vehicle is sold
Most of these documents can be placed in a locked filing cabinet, though you may consider purchasing a fire and burglar resistant safe for some of your important, but hard to replace, documents. Consider using a safe deposit box for originals that you rarely need such as adoption papers, citizenship papers, lawsuits, divorce decrees, household inventory lists, photos of possessions, military discharge and veteran's papers.

Hopefully, these suggestions will help liberate your filing cabinet of all those non-necessary bits of paper that may be inappropriately squatting there now. Of course, they aren't going to jump out of there on their own. Sometimes you gotta go in there and throw them out.

Managing Email Folders

Later this week, I will be speaking to a large cancer practice about managing their email, along with other productivity tips. Like many companies, this group has been struggling with huge quantities of emails hitting their inboxes each day. Here are a few suggestions for folders you can create in your email program to help store and manage incoming email:

* ACTION: I use this folder to house those emails that I personally need to act upon. Then, after I've sorted through my inbox, I go back to ACTION and begin to prioritize the tasks I want to tackle first. A cool trick I use to make the ACTION folder pop up to the top of my folder list is to include the number 1 in front of the word ACTION.

* WAITING FOR: This folder is used for those emails where I have delegated a task to someone, am waiting for a response back, or am waiting to receive something in snail mail. For example, if I order an item off the internet, I put the confirmation email into WAITING FOR. Because I check WAITING FOR at least weekly, I use the same trick of adding a 1 in front of the folder name in order to make it pop to the top of my alphabetized email folder list.

* READ: I put those emails that are info-only and not time sensitive into a READ file. Then I spend a couple of minutes at the end of each day (during my low-energy times) perusing these emails. Or if I know I am going to be out running errands where I may get caught waiting, I print a few of my read-only emails to take with me. I love it when I can multi-task!

* PROJECT-SPECIFIC FOLDERS: For projects that are going to generate lots of emails that are save-worthy, create a project-specific folder. You may find that, as the project progresses, you need to break the project file into sub-folders to help you better manage the information. For example, as the Director of Communication and Technology for the GA chapter of NAPO, I oversee the chapter's web site, email list, and newsletter. To keep track of all of the info that I have to save for these different areas, I created a NAPO-Web, NAPO-Email List, and a NAPO-Newsletter folder. Then when I need to retrieve an email, all of my NAPO folders are close together alphabetically but separated into sub-categories by folder name.

* CLIENT-SPECIFIC FOLDERS: I create client-specific folders for on-going clients so that I can easily keep all of our save-worthy interactions in one place. I encourage you to use the same folder names for email files that you may also have in My Documents on your computer and/or your paper filing system.

* OTHER FOLDERS: Clients will often ask me, "How should I name my folders?" Whether it's an email folder, a paper folder, or a folder in My Documents on your computer, I always encourage you to pick the first name that pops into their head. More than likely, the name that first occurs to you is the same name that is going to occur to you the next time you need to find the information again.

And I would be falling down on the job as a professional organizer if I didn't STRONGLY encourage you to delete as many emails as possible, as often as possible. You've seen me use the phrase "save-worthy" in this post. Make sure that the emails you choose to keep are valuable enough to take up the mental energy and disk space it will take to store them.