Ask LH: How Long Should I Keep Old Documents?

Dear Lifehacker, I've been holding onto old documents (pay stubs, credit card bills, insurance paperwork) and my filing cabinet has finally had its fill. I know moving into the 21st century by scanning and sorting is probably the best option, but I don't want to give the time or energy to scanning, organising and backing up all those documents. When can I just get rid of them? Thanks, Peeved by Paper

Dear Peeved,

Going completely paperless has its advantages, and for many people won't even take as much time and effort as you might think. However, when you have paper documents going back many years (maybe even decades), it can be daunting and, plainly, not worth your time to digitise all of them.

Within your stacks of documents there will be ones you probably should hold onto for many more years, as well as making a digital copy for extra backup. However, most of the papers in your overflowing filing can be confidently recycled or shredded. Here's the lowdown on the lifespan of key documents, so you can sort them out and clear some clutter.

Documents To Keep Until The End Of Time

The documents you should never get rid of are all fairly obvious: They're official papers from government agencies, typically involve lawyers, will be very important to your loved ones if you pass away, related to something of significant value, and/or are a pain to replace. As we noted in our what to keep and what to shred guide, these include:

  • Birth and death certificates
  • Passports
  • Social security cards
  • Marriage certificates
  • Any current insurance policy
  • Wills, living wills, and powers of attorney (because we're all going to die one day and need to prepare for it)
  • Vehicle titles
  • Loan documents
  • House deeds and mortgage documents

Keep physical copies of these documents in a safe place, such as a safe deposit box or a fire-proof safe — one single location that's easy to grab in case you need to evacuate — and also make digital copies for off-site backup. To keep track of your valuable information and share them with your loved ones, see our "in case of emergency kit".

Documents To Toss As New Ones Arrive

The paper parade is endless. The good news is with every new investment statement, renewed insurance policy, or many other regularly recurring documents, you can keep just the latest version. Specifically, you can shred these documents when you get the new one:

  • Monthly or quarterly investment statements
  • Annually renewed insurance policies

Documents to Keep Until a Specific Time or Event

Finally, some records can be tossed after certain triggers or time:

  • Credit card receipts: After you've reconciled them with your monthly statement — unless it's needed for a warranty or tax records.li>
  • Credit card and bank statements: Five years if you need them for tax purposes, otherwise one year.
  • Tax documents: As we've noted in our detailed post on tax records, the basic requirement in Australia is to keep documents for five years after you've received an assessment.

Dealing with your many records and important documents is a bit of a hassle, but an essential one nonetheless. With a little paper organising and the checklist above, you'll have a much more organised system — and more room in your file cabinet.

Cheers Lifehacker

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Comments

    If you happen to have kept them all this time, you may as well scan your utility bills before tossing them out. This was my experience:

    I moved away from Sydney for a few years and then returned to a similar rental dwelling in a similar suburb, with the same household setup. After a short time I thought my gas bills seemed very high from what I'd recalled. And because I still had my gas bills from before I was able to compare usage (not just cost, which I knew from my financial records) and to establish that my gas usage had doubled(!).

    This evidence proved to be very helpful in persuading a reluctant real estate agent that this problem needed to be looked into. Just as well, since it turned out there was a leak in the gas pipe running under the lawn…

    Last edited 15/04/13 2:22 pm

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