The Great Paper Chase: Dealing with the Paper in Your Life

I have a confession: I have a paper problem. Currently, my desk is a staging post for piles of tax forms, receipts, note cards, bills and magazines. In the attic are boxes containing the more sentimental stuff: old love letters and even my elementary school report cards. (Thanks, Mom!)

Paper piles are hard to keep on top of–and that’s even when the recycling bin seems perennially full and my shredder works overtime. And, quite frankly, they’re an eyesore. Every so often, I dedicate an hour or two to corralling the bills and articles ripped from magazines, using the good old KonMarie Method (“What sparks joy?”) For bills, very little. For more sentimental items (my sons’ kindergarten self-portraits, for example), decisions have to be made. 

Decisions would be even more timely and necessary if I were downsizing and moving. So let’s set down what needs to happen to corral all that paper:

  • Admit the problem and set aside a short time each day to deal with it. (Depending on stamina, fifteen minutes might be all you can stretch to.)
  • Invest in a small filing cabinet, as well as file folders and labels. 
  • Tackle a pile, with a paper bag next to you. That’s where all the paper that will be recycled goes. Any magazines more than six-months old? Out. A bill from your retired dentist from 1998–out as well. (Below, I’ll say more about which bills and documents need to be kept, and for how long.)
  • As Marie Kondo suggests, leave the sentimental paper for last. In my case, over the years I have dedicated three scrapbooks for each one of my three boys. In them, I’ve put selected school and art work, programs of plays they’ve been in, and other such memorabilia. My plan is to present their scrapbooks to them when they leave the nest. 

I also own a portable fireproof safe, which could be lugged along with me if there were a natural disaster. In it I keep passports, birth certificates, my marriage license and other such important documents.

A general rule of thumb when dealing with documents or important paperwork*:

  • Tax returns: The IRS recommends you keep tax returns for seven (7) years
  • Insurance Policies: for as long as the policy is in effect
  • Legal and Real Estate Documents: keep documents related to real estate transactions, home improvements, and legal matters for as long as you own the property
  • Medical Records: keep medical records for three years, especially if they are related to tax-deductible expenses. 
  • Employment Records: keep pay stubs for at least three years after you’ve filed the related tax return.

Personally, I believe you should be able to keep all the above documents in a compact banker’s box. If you find you accumulate more paper than that, it might be time to take it to the next level, by signing up for paperless statements from your bank and credit card companies, your utility companies, insurance companies, and medical organizations. You can also look into document scanning or receipt scanning apps which you can easily use on your phone. Put paper into the cloud and not all over your desk!

As always, if you need help preparing your home for a move, The Move Makers service includes such important steps as decluttering and streamlining your home, assisting with decision-making about what items to keep, and arranging for a donation, sale, or disposal of unwanted items. Let us help you make your move a simple one. (And good luck taming those paper piles!)

*Please be sure to contact your tax advisor for document retention recommendations specific to your individual circumstances.