Do you have a mountain of more than a year's worth of credit-card bills, ATM receipts, and pay stubs? Hanging on to every scrap of paper is not just a fire hazard. It could take you days instead of minutes to get the information you need for a tax preparer, a financial planner, or an attorney. If you're the victim of a fire, flood, or theft, locating the data you need to file a claim will just add to your stress. And if something happens to you, loved ones will have a hard time finding your medical power of attorney, insurance papers, and accounts.
Good record-keeping makes it easier to find receipts and pay bills on time. "It's amazing how much money disorganized people waste on late fees and interest charges," says Stephanie Denton, author of "The Organized Life: Secrets of an Expert Organizer" (North Light Books, 2006). "That really adds up over time."
Chances are you're storing lots more paper than you need to. The table below will let you know how long you need to keep your most important financial papers and where to store them.
You can reduce your paper load by switching to electronic statements and records whenever possible. And make a list of your important documents and their locations so that you or the person you've designated to carry on your affairs can consult it for quick access. Include details about how to find your safe-deposit-box inventory and key, insurance policies, and computer log-ons and passwords. Give the list to loved ones and be vigilant about updating it.
To help avoid identity theft, shred anything you throw away that contains personal information. Use a crosscut shredder rather than a strip one, which leaves long paper bands that could be reassembled.