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Ask LH: What Documents Should I Shred And What Should I Keep?

Dear Lifehacker, I have a giant pile of important-looking documents sitting in front of me, and I have no idea what to do with them. Some of them look pointless, but they could still be important. Which ones should I keep and which ones should I shred? Sincerely, What’s this Garbage

Title image remixed from Pryzmat (Shutterstock) and design56 (Shutterstock).

Dear WG,

We all get heaps of junk in the mail — whether it’s credit card applications, insurance brochures or a long report from your superannuation fund. Fortunately, deciding what to keep and what to toss is simple.

The Important Documents You Need to Keep

Depending on the type of documents you’re dealing with, you need to store some of them for certain periods of time. Some you can digitise, and others can be thrown away. Let’s start with the documents you need to keep physical copies of forever:

  • Birth and death certificates
  • Tax file numbers
  • Superannuation documents
  • ID cards and passports
  • Marriage certificates
  • Business licences
  • Insurance policies
  • Wills and powers of attorney
  • Vehicle registration and loan documents
  • House deeds and mortgage documents

You want to keep physical copies of anything related to state or federal matters, including certifications, licences or deeds. The reason is twofold: you want to have easy access to these in case you need them, and they’re also a pain to replace because you typically need to make a direct request to a government agency, which takes a lot of time.

If you’re unsure what to do with these important documents, we recommend keeping an “in case of emergency kit” so you always know where they are. You can also use a web app like Get Your S**t Together to gather everything you need to keep for the long term.

The second subset of documents to hold onto relates to documents you need to keep for a little while. With these, you can follow our guide to going paperless and scan them in if you like, or just store these documents in a safe place:

  • Tax records and notice of assessments (keep for five years)
  • Pay stubs and bank statements (keep for a year)
  • Home purchase, sale or improvement documents (keep for at least six years after you sell)
  • Medical records and bills (keep at least a year after payment in case of disputes)
  • Warranty documents and receipts (keep as long as you own the items to which they correspond)

Finally, the last subset is the documents you need to keep the most recent version of:

  • Bank statements
  • Annual insurance policy statements
  • Superannuation statements

Once you know what to keep, organise them in a filing cabinet and you’re all set. A good rule of thumb to think about when you’re deciding what to keep is to think about how hard that document is to replace. If you need to venture down to a government office, wait in line at a hospital or sit on the phone for an hour, then it’s best to hold onto it. If you can easily pop online and see a document, then you likely don’t need to keep a physical copy. Picture: Vegansoldier/Flickr

Shred Everything Else

Everything else you have you can safely shred or throw away. You should shred anything that has personal information like your name, address, phone number, tax file number or bank account information.

This might include a few documents you don’t initially think about, including ATM receipts, credit card receipts, bills and even used airline tickets. You should also immediately shred expired credit cards, visas, passports and IDs. The best way to shred documents is with a good cross-cut shredder. Picture: Clive Darra/Flickr

Cheers,
Lifehacker

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