In this report
Overview
What to save and when to toss

How to tame your paper piles

Last reviewed: November 2010
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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.

Additional safe-deposit-box tips

Store personal and family records such as birth and death certificates, marriage licenses, divorce decrees, Social Security cards, and military discharge papers in the box; those documents should never be discarded. Keep a complete list of what's in your box, and note the location of the box and keys. Update the list once a year or as you add or remove documents. You should also keep copies at home of all the documents that are stored in the box in case you need to refer to them.