Downsizers don’t always know how long to keep bulky paper records like bank and credit card statements, annulled marriage licenses, mortgages from prior homes, and decades of tax documentation. Legal and financial documents take up valuable living space, and they’re heavy to move, but they often seem too important to shred.
Luckily, our 15 years of experience sorting household documents has taught us a few tricks. Our experts help you distinguish between important records and those you can definitely trash.
Start by Sorting
We sift through literally tons of common household documents each year.And trust us, most of it is not worth keeping. As a general rule, when assessing what to toss and what to keep, we’ve learned it’s best to take emotion out of the process. Focus simply on items you need to keep for legal or financial reasons. Digitize the keepers, and store the paper copies in a safety deposit box or fireproof safe. Then shred the rest.
Professional Papers — If you have a collection of letters of a famous novelist or jazz pianist, that may worth keeping for sentimental or resale value. But, say your late husband was a lawyer or business owner. He may have implored you to save his papers and receipts to protect against a lawsuit, but there’s really no need. Either shred them now, or keep them for a year after his death, then shred them.
Tax Records — There are opposing schools of thought about how long to keep tax records. Some authorities argue seven years, others three. Our rule of thumb is to digitize three years’ worth and toss the rest. Consult your attorney for case-specific recommendations.
Old Bills — Believe it or not, our single largest source of trash is old phone bills. Whether it’s utility bills, automobile liens, credit card statements, charges for medical treatments – anything that’s paid off and more than a year old can go.
Bank Records and Credit Card Statements — We spend a lot of time digging through cardboard boxes and filing cabinets bursting with decades of dusty bank and credit card records. Locate the most current statement from each account and dump the rest. From there, call the bank and credit card companies one by one. Make sure each account is actually closed. If it is, the document can be shredded.
Old Mortgage Documents — Once you’ve paid off a mortgage, the bank creates a record of satisfaction. At that point, you can toss all earlier documentation pertaining to the mortgage. Hold onto the record of satisfaction as long as you own the property. Once the property has been sold, it’s safe to shred that as well.
Financial and Investment Documents — Investments often create droves of mail like privacy notices, address confirmations, prospectuses, and so on. Dump any outdated information and anything you don’t plan to act on. Otherwise, retain three months of balance statements and toss the rest. Keep transaction records for investments until you sell them and complete your subsequent income tax return.
Medical Records - Digitize everything and toss the physical records. However, if that makes you squeamish, thin out the archive and keep only those documents pertaining to major conditions (like diabetes, hepatitis, or auto-immune disorders), vaccinations, and major surgeries. You don’t have to keep records for pets who have died.
There are additional records to keep whose usefulness depends upon ownership or elapsed time — for instance, a car title or refrigerator warranty. And there are those that should be retained forever. These are the important documents to hang onto indefinitely:
- Birth, marriage, and death certificates
- Divorce papers
- Adoption records
- Veteran’s papers
- Pension plan documents
- Social Security cards
- Important contracts
- Life insurance policies
- Wills, living wills, and powers of attorney
We have actually seen house floors sag under the weight of too many saved documents. If you are downsizing, don’t cart boxes of useless papers to your new digs. If you are staying in your home, shred these useless documents to reduce fire hazards and make room for fresh living space.