Get Organized
Debbie Williams is an organizing strategist and founder of She is the author of  "Common Sense Organizing" from Champion Press.

Household Paperwork

Question:I need to know what I can throw away and when. I tend to hold on to household paperwork (receipts from utilities, bank statements, phone bills, etc.). What's the timeframe for holding onto these?

Answer: Jana,
Knowing what to keep, what to toss, and when to toss it is definitely the $10 million question these days. We are so overwhelmed on a daily basis with paperwork that it's hard to know how much we really need to actually organize.

The first thing I would do is contact your accountant- they can either give you guidelines or provide you with a checklist of things you will need for your taxes. That's the best place to start so that you will remain in good favor with Uncle Sam; the rest is really according to your personal use.

For example, I'd keep my bank statements and income tax returns indefinitely. Ten years ago, the rule of thumb seemed to be 7 years, but many CPAs and document managers are recommending that their clients hold on to them as long as possible, especially if you are a business-owner.

If you have duplicate documentation, there is no need to keep both. A good example is cancelled checks-- if your bank will provide you a copy of a cancelled check years down the road if you need it to settle a dispute, then just keep your bank statements only. Many banks do not even provide cancelled checks, to conserve paperwork and processing time.

In our household, we've elected to use one credit card for all our purchases to keep accurate records of our spending. So after the receipts are checked against the monthly statement, they are tossed into the shredder. We do, however, keep the statement that has each itemized purchase on it.

Keep receipts for durables such as electronics, household appliances, and so forth until the warranty expires. In other words, there is little use for a yellowed receipt for Junior's humidifier after he has left for college! If you want to record the price for posterity, make a note in a journal or household record book, then toss the paperwork. If you give it or sell it to someone else, pull the paperwork and pass it on. No need to let it take up valuable file space in your cabinets, is there!

Utility stubs can be tossed on a monthly basis, replaced with the new one. Notice I said CAN. I recommend keeping them for a year, since most take up little space once the envelope and "junk inserts" are discarded. Not only do you have a good reference for your change in utility billing as they rise, but if you sell your home it's a nice way to promote energy efficiency-- just show the prospective homeowner how reasonable your summer electric or winter heating bill is and close the deal!

Subscription information for magazines or clubs can be tossed and replaced with the new year's records. Same goes for your insurance policies. File monthly receipts and purge on a yearly basis as you would with utilities or other receipts.

Get into the habit of filing on a daily or weekly basis, purging files on a yearly basis. It's a good way to spend the first week of a new year, out with the old and in with the new.

And my biggest organizing tip for paper clutter is nipping it in the bud right at the front door or mailbox. Get off the mailing lists for catalogs, junkmail, and even the extra benefits your credit card and banking institutions try to sell you. Take charge and tame that paper trail before it gets too long.

Good luck,
Debbie Williams

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