Do you know how long you are supposed to keep documents? Do you know when it’s safe to shred? Having this knowledge is the first step to good recordkeeping. By following these guidelines, you can keep your documents and files organized and updated. Avoid keeping things you don’t need – or discarding something you should have kept permanently!

  1. Categorize your documents. Examples include past tax returns and supporting documentation, medical information, purchase contracts for large assets, legal matters, employment information, insurance records, property deeds, etc.
  2. Determine how you will store your records. Do you want to archive everything digitally? Do you prefer to keep paper copies? When considering how to store your records, think about worst-case scenarios such as fire, burglary, natural disaster, or even something as simple as snooping family members. Regardless of how you store your records, they should always be easily accessible.
  3. Label documents with a “keep until” date. Smead has a good list of guidelines which suggests lengths of time to keep your important documents. Labeling files with a “destroy” date will help ensure that your records will remain organized and current.
  4. Destroy records that are no longer needed. To minimize the risk of identity theft, it is very important that you permanently destroy documents. If the items are paper, shred them. If you have a large amount of shredding, consider taking it to a shredding facility. Occasionally, community organizations will offer complimentary document shredding on specific dates. keeps a list of upcoming evens that often includes community shredding events, free of charge. If your documents are stored on a computer, use specialized software to remove files or delete an entire hard drive’s data. There are many commercial options out there, but we prefer using Eraser. Eraser is free, open source, and gives you many different options for deleting an entire hard drive, or just a few files. Another option is physically destroying the hard drive if you plan to stop using the computer entirely.

Having a system in place for your record retention will not only make it easier to locate important documents quickly and keep unnecessary documents to a minimum, but it will also give you something priceless—peace of mind.