Managing my paper clutter is the second step of my New Year’s declaration to take control. Paid bills, medical records, tax returns, legal documents, warranties and oversized collections of reference materials are just some of the items that litter my study and closets and threaten to take over the rest of my house. It’s time to do something about it!
I am a paper hoarder. I hate deciding what to keep and what to discard. I’m worried that once I get rid of papers, I’ll find out I should have kept something for legal purposes or proof of payment. I did a little research on the IRS website and found two good articles pertaining to tax records file retention.
“Tips for Managing Your Tax Records” gives advice for people who work for someone else. Expect to keep your returns and associated documents for at least three years. For small business owners and the self-employed, “How Long Should I Keep Records?” lists longer file retention times, offering questions to determine the category that best fits your situation.
If you pay your bills online, you may decide you don’t need to keep paper copies any more. Many companies retain your statements and payment records on their websites for easy reference. I now keep only the last month or two of my revolving account paper statements, such as credit cards and utilities. I’m working toward a paperless system for my revolving account bills. Doing so would cut way back on the amount of paper clutter entering my home.
For long-term loans and yearly renewals, I keep the most recent policies and contracts on file until they expire. I save payment booklets, receipts and non-negotiable titles until the items are paid in full, and I’ve received the originals or final statements reflecting zero balances. I keep a year’s worth of paid medical bills and benefits statements on file. If a medical condition and insurance claim carries over into the next year, I extend the file retention to two years.
So what to do with all the rest of the clutter that comes through the house via the mail? When any member of the family brings in the mail, it first goes into a basket near the front door. I deal with it when I get home and have time to sort through it. Referring back to my favorite clutter control guru, Lorie Marrero, I use her plan of “ART” to sort my mail. (You can read Lorie’s full article here, “Facing the Giant Mail Pile”, for great tips on tackling the paper clutter entering your front door.)
Lorie suggests dividing your mail or paper piles into three stacks – those items that need action taken, items you are saving for reference purposes only, and trash. An action item could be a bill to pay, correspondence in need of a reply or an appointment to set. Reference items might be magazines, warranties, school records, paid bills and receipts you want to save. Trash could consist of junk mail, catalogs and other items you have read or paper copies of bills you don’t need. I divide my trash stack into two piles – shred and garbage. I shred any items containing personal information. Everything else goes straight to the trash can.
Here is the result of my little sorting session last weekend.
A large pile of papers to shred, a larger pile of trash to toss and two very small piles of papers to take action on and file for reference. No wonder I’m drowning in clutter!
For important papers you will keep indefinitely – certificates of birth, death, marriage, divorce, etc – file them in a fire safe box, available at your local department or office supply store. That and a designated space for reference materials will keep your office in good order.
Slowly but surely I’m reclaiming my home office space. While conducting this clutter cleanup session, I found that most of my paper piles were actually trash and only a small percentage were things I needed to save. Wish me luck, and I hope you can make peace with your clutter!