The Futility of Paper Filing in a Digital World

Wonder Woman is incredibly organized: she writes lists of things to do each week (often revising them daily), never leaves clutter for more than twenty-four hours, and has an unwritten rule, which I will write here, to throw away anything that you haven’t looked at or used within the last two years, unless it has real or sentimental value (sorry clutterbugs).   Her habits seemed so relevant this morning as I went though stacks of papers in my office, (I subscribe to the philoshopy that “neat piles” of stuff = clean), and resolved to at least 20 minutes of daily clean up and filing before my office move at the end of the month.  After about 30 minutes (10 more than I bargained for), I felt that hardly a dent had been made.  Besides this feeling of futility, as I filed paper after useless paper, I started to ask myself: “why am I keeping all this stuff?”  Most of it is available online, from bank statements to health insurance reimbursements, employee evalutations, emails with presentations, share point document libraries (with current versions of tracking sheets).  Just what is the point of paper files in a digital world?

From Yahoo Answers:

Some things you should keep forever — tax return; loan paperwork, expecially the paid in full part; financial settlement paperwork; last statement of closed credit card or similar accounts.

Some things you can trash after a year or two — pay stubs, check carbons (keep the bank statements), utility, phone, cable bills.

I tend to keep 3 or 4 years worth of credit card statements and car insurance paperwork. But that’s probably really longer than it needs to be.

I keep bank statements more than 10 years but just about everything else can really go after 7 years (except the keep forever stuff). There’s probably other important financial documentation that you should hang onto forever. When in doubt, keep it.

Keeping records for tax purposes has a whole different time table.  There is an old adage that 80% of paper files are trash and 20% are relevant (some apply this to email also), but does this still hold true with the easy access we have to all records digital?  What are your thoughts?  How long should such things be kept?  


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2 responses to “The Futility of Paper Filing in a Digital World

  1. Rob

    I keep way too much myself – and this came up recently as I just moved in with my girlfriend. Thanks for the Yahoo tips – I need to go back through old bills and have a shredding party.

    Digitization certainly helps, but only with powerful search tools – otherwise, you’re just back where you started, except with a few more trees still standing. I started using HealthVault a while back to see if that would make as much sense as online banking (which changed my life for the better). So far so good, though I think my doctor still has a pile of dead trees with my info scribbled all over, so hopefully one day he’ll be online as well.

    • fragmintz

      I just have problems knowing what to keep and then how to organize it once it’s kept. As I go through the mess that is my office (including personal and work files) I’ll hopefully come up with a system I can share. Thanks for commenting!

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