Paperwork to Keep

paperwork to keep

“The constant barrage of paperwork results in piles of paper on our desk, our kitchen counter, and our recycle bin.”

Joshua Becker

Hopefully you’ve created systems to handle your “active” paperwork. If not, see my earlier posts: Paperwork: How to Move a MountainPaperwork Out of Control? The 10 Minute Fix and Paper Clutter: More 10 Minute Tasks. You may also want to read Shopping Lists Make Life Simpler and Forget Your Schedule.

Wow, I didn’t even realize I’d written that many posts dealing with paperwork. I feel a little obsessive. It is one of the biggest problems around our house, though, and I don’t think I’m the only one.

Today’s post deals with paper you need or want to keep for future use or reference. I’ll cover sentimental paperwork and other keepsakes in a future post.

Do You Really Need That?

As you sort, scan and file the paperwork you plan to keep, think about whether you need to keep it at all.

Don’t be tempted to keep things “just in case.” Not even if you’re going to scan them.

Electronic clutter results in buying more electronic storage as well as more difficulty in finding what you need.

Information You Can Easily Get Elsewhere

You probably have some papers containing information you easily get online.

If you’re old enough to remember the days when you had to go to the library to look things up, you might have a collection of ripped out magazine articles, photocopies and print-outs you’ve saved on how to do various things. I’ll bet you can find instructions for all of those things online. Recycle these pages now.

Hopefully you’ve now set things up so you get electronic bank, credit-card and other statements. Even if you got them in paper in the past, odds are good they’re available online. If they are, shred your paper ones unless you need to save them for tax or other reasons.

Paperwork You Have to Save

I’m not going to go into what you should save or for how long, since there are different rules depending on where you live. If you’re not sure whether it’s okay to throw something out, you might want to ask your accountant or lawyer.

If you don’t have either, at least read some articles on the issue such as What Documents to Shred, Personal Financial Records, and Record Retention Guide. (Sorry, these all apply to the United States).

Remember that you should shred any sensitive paperwork to keep your personal information safe from identity thieves.

Hobby-Related Papers

I’m terrible about collecting far more recipes than we’ll ever use. Why on earth did I even think I’d ever make that super-complicated dish? Why did I save those meat-based recipes when most of our meals are vegetarian?

Because I know I save things I’ll never make, every time I look through my file of “recipes to try,” I toss several recipes.

As you going through your files and piles, think about whether you’ll really make Baked Alaska or Beef Wellington any time soon. Will you knit that Alice Starmore Henry VIII sweater or build that Victorian bird house? Double dig your garden or travel to Europe? Brew your own beer or start a blog?

If not, don’t keep those papers. Even if you’re like me and have a hard time getting rid of things you think you might use it in the future. Don’t keep anything that’s easy and cheap to replace or that will become outdated before you get around to doing the activity.

Digitize Most of What’s Left

Most of the paperwork you need to save for reference or later use can be digitized. There’s more than one way to do this. The most obvious is scanning. As I mentioned in an earlier post, you can get a low-tech scanner for less than $30.

My Canon scanner/copy/printer cost $29. It doesn’t have WiFi so I have to plug it into the computer, and it doesn’t have a document feeder, but I rarely would use one anyway. If you think you would, you may want to spring for a more expensive model.

Sometimes I want to keep certain information, but don’t need to have it in the same format I received it in. For instance, I like to keep track of what happened at medical and veterinary appointments, but the doctor or vet usually supplies at least 2 or 3 pages.

All I need is a couple of lines of information: date, doctor/vet, weight, what the appointment was for, any prescriptions and any tests, along with their results. It takes a few minutes a month to keep these tables up, and it’s a lot easier to find the information if I need it.

I don’t have to leaf through a hundred sheets of paper or scroll through endless PDFs to see what the doctor prescribed the last time I had that rash – I can just hit Ctrl-F. It also makes it easy to see changes, like the increases in my son’s height and weight over time.

Paperwork to Keep in Paper Format

There are certain things you’ll have to keep in paper format. For example, if someone asks for a certified copy of your birth or marriage certificate, they want a hard copy. As I mentioned above, you should check with a lawyer or accountant to see what you need to save and for how long.

If you know you’re going to need them for school, camp or the kennel, go ahead and keep paper vaccination records for your kids and pets. This is true for anything else you know you’ll need a hard copy of soon.

Then there are things that you don’t have to keep in paper, but you’d just be happier with hard copies. For example, I keep a file of ideas for a future small (not tiny) house I plan to design. The way my brain works, it would be hard for me to work with that information on the computer.

If you’re tempted to keep everything in paper format, pick the type of paperwork that it would stress you the least to have only digitally, and try just that for awhile. If all goes well, digitize another category.

If you don’t already have a good filing system, you’ll need to develop one. You shouldn’t have a ton of paper left after decluttering and digitizing, so if you don’t have a file drawer, a couple of file boxes should suffice.

There are plenty of opinions on what makes a good filing system – just choose one that works for you.

“It’s as if papers (or clutter) on top of my desk are necessary for me to be considered “productive.'”

Raymund Tamayo

Once you’ve reviewed your paperwork and disposed of all the things you first thought you needed to keep, but realized you don’t, and then digitized what you can, you shouldn’t have a lot of reference paperwork left.

And since you should have already organized all your “action” paperwork, you should now be able to have a clean desk!

I admit that I don’t keep mine as spotless as I see in some photos of other minimalists’ desks. I still like to take notes on paper, and I don’t immediately digitize everything I need to.

I usually have a small pile of papers ready to scan, add to my calendar, type into my list at the library website, etc. I make sure to deal with these at least a few times a week, so they never get out of hand.

Your Ideas and Questions?

Please post your “Paperwork to Keep” suggestions in the comments. I also invite you to ask questions.