Quick! Can you get your hands on your 2010 tax return, the deed to your home, the bill from the last time you got your house painted? Chances are you'd have to search - panic stricken - through some random combination of paper piles and online records. When I started my organizing business 23 years ago, paper clutter was the #1 problem plaguing my clients. Today there's a new vexing challenge: determining what to store electronically and what to keep in an old-fashioned file box.
You can consolidate all your important documents into a single, reliable system that leverages the best of the electronic and papers systems. Ultimately your system should match your personal style, but here are a few guidelines to get you started:
Bank, Investment and Credit Card Statements. Banks have made it easier than ever to manage information online. Unless you need hard copies for cash flow analysis or tax purposes, save yourself the time, ink and space of storing hard copies. If you can't quite let paper go, keep hard copies of your monthly statements, then shred in December, replacing them with your End-Of-Year summary.
Tax Records. Tax returns can be filed electronically, but backup paperwork is...well just that, paper! Label a folder with the current year ("Taxes-2012") to capture all tax-deductible expenses as they occur (print out and file receipts if paid online). Consider using specific credit cards for each category of deductibles, i.e. medical expenses, charitable donations, business expenses, to speed preparation. According to the IRS, you only need past tax returns and documentation for the last three years. (It used to be seven!) Check with your accountant and lawyer to make sure you don't need to keep additional years on file.
Property & Insurance Records. Information about what you own (leases, titles, mortgage papers, insurance policies) are contracts, often signed, and the original should be stored in your paper files. It's fine to scan and create an electronic file, but you need to have your own original hard copy of these records.
Receipts & Warranties. The paper detritius of purchases can be the bane of our existence. Remember: All receipts are not created equal. I'd recommend keeping just two types in your paper files. First, receipts for big-ticket items, such as appliances, art, furniture, and electronics, clipped to the warranty and owner's manual. These items represent investments under warranty, and/or whose value you may need to prove one day. Second, keep statements of service from significant home improvements, or repairs. They can increase the value of your home, and are a helpful reference if you ever need to have the work repaired.
Follow these guidelines to the letter and your paper financial records probably won't amount to more than a file box or two. To speed access and enable easy cross referencing between electronic and paper records, make sure you locate those files in a space where you'll actually use them, i.e. wherever you sit at your computer (not in the back of a closet in your guest room!) Having swift access to all your financial information will give you peace of mind and the relief of knowing you are ever-ready for the tax man.