What to Keep?

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From my own experience and what I have read, I think the most difficult thing to declutter and keep under control is paperwork.  It seems to be so insidious.

After my post the other day, titled ‘Gone From the Office’, Angasagain asked, “How long do you keep bills and bank statements for? Some of my filing sleeves are bulging but I’m not sure how ruthless I should be.”

The first thing to remember is that there are legal requirements regarding documents relating to tax returns.  In Australia, you need to keep all taxation papers and relevant documents, such as bank statements, for 5 years after the completion of the tax year.  This may be different in other countries so it is important to check the local laws.

I have set up the suspension files in the filing cabinet with one for each year.  At the moment we have:

Current year 2011-2012

5 previous years

2010-2011
2009-2010
2008-2009
2007-2008
2006-2007

When the next tax return is done, I will discard (shredded) the 2006-2007, add 2011-2012 to the previous years and create a new “Current year” which will be 2012-2013.  This is based on the principle of 1 in, 1 out.  If you do not do this regularly you are likely to find that you have 20 years worth of tax returns bulging out of the filing cabinet.

In conjunction with the annual cull of tax stuff I also get rid of the relevant year of bank statements.  Remember to shred all documents carefully to protect your security.

For all other paperwork, I find the best method is to ask yourself why you are keeping it and what possible scenario could arise where you would need to refer to it.

Household bills – we usually keep for 1 – 2 years so that we can compare them with the same period of the previous year.  I do not keep a record of how much we spend on particular bills over an entire year but some people do.

Product warranties, instructions and receipts are kept for the life of the item.  I would suggest setting up a 6 monthly schedule to review all of these documents and discard any that are no longer relevant.

In order to reduce the amount of paper, we choose to receive whatever bills possible via email and save them in the electronic format.  We only print them if required.

Being a good gatekeeper is essential.  Stop that paper before it gets in the door.  Consider putting a ‘NO JUNK MAIL’ sticker on your mailbox.  What will you miss?  Store catalogues advertising stuff that you didn’t even know you needed?  Flyers advertising services that you do not require?  If you seriously want to follow what grocery specials are available, I believe these can be accessed online although I personally have not done this.

Everyone’s requirements will be different.  This may depend on whether you are renting or have a mortgage, are studying, employed or receiving Centrelink benefits.  The most important thing is to review all paperwork critically when it arrives in your home and decide:

Do I need to receive this information?
Do I need to retain this information?

Please tell me how you go about deciding what documents come into your home and more importantly what gets to stay and for how long.

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