Every household, no matter how large, receives an abundance of paper through its doors that must be dealt with every single day.  It’s often overwhelming trying to decide how to handle all of it.

One main problem faced by many is getting comfortable with WHAT to keep. As a result, every scrap of paper that passes through the front door is kept “just in case.”

Here is a summary of the primary types of papers you should consider keeping. This is not an outline on the fine art of “filing”, but rather a list to move you off the hump of trying to decide what to keep. In addition, this list is not inclusive and you should clearly check with your attorney and/or CPA for specific retention guidance on legal and tax matters.  You may also refer to IRS Publication 552 “Record keeping for Individuals.”


A great amount of paper left in piles throughout the house are “actionable” items … we’ve held on to the item because we need to take some form of action.  Gather all your piles, take a look at each piece of paper and ask yourself “why I am holding on to this?” Sort these papers right away into an ACTION FILE.  Action Files should be readily available to increase the likelihood of the action actually taking place. If you’re worried about putting something in an Action File and then forgetting to do it – you can mark deadlines on your calendar and refer yourself to a specific Action File. Of course, everyone’s Action Files will be somewhat different, but here are a few suggestions:

  • To Call
  • To Discuss
  • To File
  • To Mail
  • To Pay
  • Pending
  • Projects
  • Special Events
  • To Write


Other papers simply need to be filed. You do not need to take any further action, but you may need to access the information in the future.  Where you choose to keep these documents, and for how long will depend on your specific circumstances.  Again, please check with your attorney and/or CPA when appropriate.

Here are some broad categories of documents you should consider keeping:

  • Financial Records
    • Banking
      • Keep all canceled checks relating to tax deductions
      • Keep actual statements per your tax advisor (generally 7 years)
      • Deposit slips and ATM withdrawals may be shredded after they appear on your monthly statement
    • Bills
      • Keep with your tax backup if used to support a tax deduction
      • If not related to taxes, can shred after approximately 3 months (it is good to keep a history to prove residency, etc.)
      • Keep final statements showing account has been closed
    • Credit Accounts
      • Keep all statements relating to any tax-related charge
      • Monthly statements may be shredded once you receive a year-end summary
      • Receipts may be shredded once the charge appears correctly on your statement (unless there is a possibility the item may need to be returned, or the receipt supports a tax deduction)
      • Keep notices of closed accounts (or accounts showing zero balance) forever – you may need to prove the account has been closed
    • Investments
      • For taxable accounts – keep all statements showing how much you paid for as long as you own the investment (and generally an additional 7 years)
      • Monthly statements may be shredded once you receive a year-end summary
    • Receipts
      • Keep all receipts relating to large, important purchases
      • Keep all receipts relating to a tax deduction (generally 7 years)
    • Tax records
      • Plan on keeping actual returns permanently and all supporting documents per your tax advisor (generally 7 years)
  • Insurance Files
    • You may shred policy once its expired or canceled and as long as there is no chance you will need to file a claim
    • Keep a copy of any claims relating to a tax deduction (generally 7 years)
  • Medical information
    • Medical history file for each family member
    • A yearly file for bills
  • Military Records
  • Personal Property
    • Auto, boat, etc.
    • Home documents
      • Mortgage Documents and/or Lease
      • Home Improvement receipts
      • Casualty losses/insurance reimbursements
  • Personal Reference (This category will be unique for each household)
    • Memberships
    • Memorabilia
    • Recipes
    • Travel information
    • Etc.
  • School records/diplomas

VITAL PAPERS – to be kept in fire proof box:

  • Appraisals
  • Birth and/or Adoption Records
  • Copies of the contents of your wallet
  • Citizenship papers
  • Death Certificates and all Probate documents
  • Deeds
  • Divorce Records
  • Marriage Records
  • Military Records
  • Passports
  • Powers of Attorney
  • Social Security cards
  • Titles (auto, boat, etc.)
  • Trust Documents
  • Wills

Now what to do with the rest of the papers in your life not listed above?  It is likely they fall into the last category:


  • Junk mail – don’t even bring it into the house
  • Information that is duplicative or can easily be obtained somewhere else
  • Papers that are not of interest or relevant to you
  • Reference material that will likely be outdated by the time you need it

One final note: when tossing information, please remember to shred anything that has your personal information on it.

© 2008 Kim Cossette.



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