15 April 2011

Environment: Paper Clutter

Today, I am going through stacks and stacks of papers collected over the years: tax returns, old receipts, manuals for appliances I sold or donated ages ago, term papers, college essays, old invoices... I find that clearing out the paper clutter is much easier than the "stuff" crammed into our bursting-at-the-seams houses and storage units simply because I don't have any emotional attachment to an old Starbucks receipt.

Here are some ideas for knowing what to keep, what to shred, what to toss and what you should try to find in digital format...

1. Financial Paperwork

  • I have used Quicken for so long that I'm not sure I know how to use the old-fashioned check registers any longer.  Switch to Quicken or other reputable personal financial organizing software. Be sure to backup your data frequently.
  • Go green, stop paper waste (and the higher risk of identity theft) by switching to e-Statements from your bank or credit union.
  • Continue on the green fiscal policy and switch your monthly bills to e-Statements.
  • Pay bills online.
  • Save tax returns for up to 7 years; shred the old ones.
  • Use your personal finance software to create budgets, or import the data into Excel for more data manipulation options.

2. Manuals & Receipts
When I buy something, particularly if it is an electrical appliance, I keep the receipt. If I can find the owner's manual online, I will download the file (often a .pdf file) to my computer for future reference and then recycle the paper manual. If I can't find a digital version of the owner's manual, I attach the receipt for the item to the front cover and keep it in a special file. If anything goes wrong, I have all the information I need at my fingertips.

Recently, I had to exchange a slow cooker I purchased on sale at Williams-Sonoma many years ago. When I brought it in, the ladies at the cash register were surprised to see it, but they could only offer me a fraction of what I paid for it as store credit without the receipt. Not to be daunted, I produced the receipt which was shockingly almost 8 years old. I received store credit equal to the full amount of my purchase price. Moral of the story - it does pay to hang on to some paperwork!

3. School Papers: Essays, Term Papers and Theses
Unless there are particularly significant messages written on returned papers, digitize these papers and toss 'em. I have a grand total of one paper I wrote in a creative writing class; the professor wrote me a particularly ironic and amusing note without ever realizing that he was doing so. I save it to remind myself that I can paint some detailed pictures with words.

4. Old Invoices, Receipts
If it's paid, toss it. Unless the receipt is for a serviceable or uniquely valuable item, toss it.

5. Reference Materials
Chances are, this is the first time you've looked at this stuff in years. Equally probable - it's likely the last time you'll look at it in years. We get so much information with the ease of the internet - recycle old reference materials after scanning and saving the useful bits.

Be ruthless! The shredder is your friend!

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