Should You Keep This Document or Destroy It?

We all get a ton of junk in the mail, whether it’s credit card statements, insurance packages, or a 60-page retirement fund 401 (k) delay report from a job you did 10 years ago. Fortunately, deciding what you want to keep and what you can safely destroy is easy. And depending on the type of documents you are dealing with, you need to keep some of them for certain periods of time; others can be digitized, and still others can be discarded altogether (but it is always better to destroy them first).

Documents to be kept forever

Let’s start with the documents, physical copies of which you must keep forever:

  • Birth and death certificates
  • Social Security Cards
  • Pension plan documents
  • Identity cards and passports
  • Green cards
  • Marriage certificate
  • Business license
  • Any insurance policy (can be saved, even if the insurer provides access to a digital copy, in case a problem ever occurs)
  • Wills, wills and powers of attorney
  • Vehicle ownership and loan documents
  • Household and mortgage documents

Typically, you want to keep physical copies of anything related to state or federal affairs, including certificates, licenses, or documents. The reasons are twofold: you want to have easy access to them in case you need them, and they are also difficult to replace, because to do this you usually have to make a direct request to the appropriate government agency, which is time-consuming – and, as the ongoing pandemic has shown the closure of many government agencies, for unforeseen reasons, this can become a serious problem.

If you are unsure of what to do with these important documents, we recommend having an “emergency kit” so you (and your loved ones) always know where they are. You can also use a website like Get Your Sh * t Together to put together everything you need to keep it going for a long time.

Documents that need to be saved for a while

The second subset of documents to be retained refers to documents that you need to retain, at least for a short time. For them, follow our paper- free guide and scan them if you like, or store them in a safe place if free space isn’t an issue. Documents in this category include:

  • Tax reports and receipts (keep seven years)
  • Payroll receipts and bank statements (stored for a year)
  • Purchase, sale or home improvement documents (keep for at least six years after sale)
  • Medical records and invoices (store for at least a year after payment in case of disputes)
  • Warranty documents and receipts (keep as long as you have the item in question)

Finally, the last subset are the documents you need to keep at least the most recent version:

  • Social Security Statements
  • Annual reports on insurance policy
  • Pension plan extracts (401 (k), 529, IRA, etc.)

That’s pretty much it. Once you know what to store, organize them the way you like (whether you’re using that old backup, filing cabinet, or whatever) and you’re good to go. If you’re still not sure if you should or can save it, it’s worth considering how difficult it will be to replace the document you are considering if you need it for any reason. If you have to go down to a government office, wait in line at the hospital, or sit by the phone for an hour, it is probably worth the wait. If you can easily go online and download a copy, you probably don’t need to keep a physical copy handy.

Grind the rest

Everything else can be safely crushed or discarded. It’s always a good idea to destroy anything that contains personal information such as your name, address, phone number, and especially your social security number or bank account information.

The list of materials to be destroyed includes things you would not otherwise consider confidential, from ATM and credit card receipts to bills and even used air tickets. Shred credit cards, visas, passports, and expired IDs immediately – and the best way to shred documents is to use a good cross-cutter. On the other hand, it’s fun. This article was originally published in 2013 and was updated in September 2020 to update links, include updated information, and align content with current Lifehacker style.


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