How to Organize Your Important Paperwork, Once and For All

when to shred

Editor’s note: Navigating your finances, not to mention your life, in your 20’s can feel overwhelming… but it doesn’t have to be. Follow our blogger Abby as she figures it all out in her new series “Adulting: I Can’t Even… and So Can You!”

I’ll admit it: Now that I’m closer to 30 than to 20, I’ve got my grown-up swagger going on.

During the first half of my twenties, I paid off my car, I adopted a dog, and–thanks to the help of an artsy friend–my first place was featured on the mothership of all renter blogs: Apartment Therapy.

Yeaaaaah! What up, adulthood! I got this!

But in between grown-up stuff like contributing to my retirement savings and actually caring about the difference between soluble and insoluble fiber (link for the lazy), I realized I had a problem.

A paperwork problem.

To clarify: I’m not a slob. I zap dust bunnies and dirty dishes like nobody’s business. But when I find an old car insurance card from six years ago… Well, that looks awfully official. I might need it later. So off it goes to the back of the glove compartment, along with that receipt from an oil change 75,000 miles ago. (Better to have it piled up somewhere than to not have it if I need it, right?)

Friends, I needed an intervention–so I did some research, and here’s what I found. (You’re welcome.)

#Adulting: The Ultimate Guide to Organizing Your Important Paperwork

First things first:

  • Invest in a good shredder. Identity thieves have been known to comb through trash (gross) to find bits and pieces of your discarded personal information. Shred any documents with personal information in them so they don’t get the opportunity.
  • Invest in a sturdy safe deposit box. On the other end of the spectrum, there are records you want to hold on to forever–so buy something solid to keep them protected from theft, water damage or fire. Also keep an inventory of what’s in there, and review it once a year.
  • Establish a trusted system, and stick to it. What good is an organization binge if the papers will just pile up in another week because you don’t know where to put them? Find what works for you–a bill box, a filing cabinet, a desk drawer–and stick to it. (I’m a believer in the Getting Things Done method.)
  • Think about going digital. Consider receiving your bills and statements electronically to reduce the paper pile-up. Bonus: Many owner’s manuals and mail-order catalogs can be found online, so don’t feel too bad about tossing those.
  • Get organizing. Your financial paperwork can be divided into two big categories:
    • Short-term storage is for those papers you need to access fairly regularly, so keep them in a filing cabinet, drawer or accordion file. That includes stuff you keep for a year or less (like your insurance policies) and stuff you shred when you get rid of the item it relates to (think big purchases, like a car or a laptop).
    • Deep storage is for the stuff you need to access less frequently, but should still keep. These things are better off in a safe-deposit or fire-proof box. They include tax records (save these for seven years) and official documents (like your birth certificate and Social Security card).

Keep this stuff for a year or less:

  • Bank records, like your monthly checking and savings statements. If you reconcile your deposit and ATM receipts with your statement, you can shred them right after.
  • Credit card bills. Once you’ve paid ‘em, shred ‘em. An exception is when you need a record to support a charitable donation you will be deducting on your taxes.
  • Documents you need for your tax return. There are a lot of different forms and papers that may or may not apply to you. Here’s a list from TurboTax.
  • Insurance policies. Shred the previous year’s policy when your agent sends you a new one. (While we’re chatting, make sure to schedule an annual review with your agent to make sure you’re properly covered and getting all the discounts you qualify for.)
  • Annual investment statements. Shred the monthly and quarterly statements from your 401(k) or IRA, but keep the yearly ones until you sell the investments.
  • Pay stubs. Keep these until you reconcile them with your annual W-2.
  • Most receipts. Let’s get real about receipts: If you’re not actually using them to track your spending or to reconcile your statement, you can pitch them right away. But if you plan to return a purchase or itemize a tax deduction, it helps to keep them all together in a folder.

Keep this stuff on file (but review it once a year to keep it up to date):

  • Paperwork from big purchases like furniture, electronics or appliances. This includes warranties, receipts and instruction manuals.
  • Loan documents. Shred closing documents for mortgage, vehicle, student and other loans when you pay them off. (Hooray! No more loan.)
  • Savings bonds. Save them until you cash them in or convert them to electronic form.
  • Vehicle records. Hang on to receipts, titles, registration information, and maintenance and repair records for as long as you own the vehicle.
  • Personal health record(s) for you, your spouse, your kids and– yes, even your pets. Keep a list of important events and information about each person’s medical history, like immunizations, medications, surgeries and lab/X-ray reports. Get started with this checklist from the American Health Information Management Association.

Don’t even think about throwing these things away:

  • Birth certificates
  • Death certificates
  • Marriage licenses
  • Divorce decrees
  • Social Security cards
  • Military service records
  • Pension-plan documents from both your current and former employers
  • Estate-planning documents, like wills, trusts and powers of attorney
  • Life insurance policies. Insider tip: It’s best to keep copies in at least two places to ensure your beneficiaries will find them. Read more from the Insurance Information Institute. Lost your policy? Fortunately, there are steps you can take to find a lost life insurance policy.

Knowing the basics of what to keep and what to shred gave me peace of mind now that my personal information is under control. I’ll be the first to admit I’m no expert, but my system works for me–even if it’s not Pinterest-perfect. (On that note: Who honestly has a room fully devoted to chic, color-coded filing cabinets? Do these people sleep?!) _____________________________________________________________________________

Identity thieves can steal information from your personal documents and use it to open fraudulent accounts, make unauthorized purchases and more. That’s why it’s worth considering Identity Recovery Coverage from ERIE. Covered costs include lost wages, costs of supervising children or elderly relatives while you sort things out, certain legal fees, fees for refilling applications and more. Talk to an Erie Insurance agent in your community to learn more and get a free quote.

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