Paper clutter is one of the most common contributors to disorganization. In part, it develops because most people have difficulty discerning what they need to keep vs. what they can discard. However, knowing you can let go of something isn’t the same as having confidence in how you can dispose of it. Some paperwork can be tossed in the trash or recycled, while other documents require shredding.
It’s essential to destroy any papers that include information that might be used by identity thieves to set up false accounts in your name. Identity theft can destroy your credit record, medical insurance history or even your career. It can take a great deal of time and money to restore your good name, once tarnished, so protecting your privacy and securing personal and financial documents should be a high priority.
SELECT THE RIGHT SHREDDER
Not all shredders are created equal. Be a wise consumer, do your research, and purchase a shredder that:
- Has a cross-cut design to ensure the smallest “shreds”, preventing reconstitution of data by dumpster-diving identity thieves.
- Destroys credit cards & CDs as well as paper documents.
- Opens & empties “drawer-style” from the front of the machine so that you don’t have to lift the shredding mechanism up and away from the receptacle. Selecting this style prevents much of the mess that leads people to procrastinate on their backlogs of shredding.
Shredders with the above features can be purchased at Sam’s Club, Target, Staples and similar “Big Box” office supply stores.
If you are unable to purchase or access a shredder, make the effort to tear your papers into small shreds and throw them in multiple wastebaskets. You can further deter identity thieves by adding used kitty litter or damp coffee grounds to your trash.
WHAT TO SHRED
Always check with your attorney and/or accountant before shredding tax or legal papers.
In general, shred any old or outdated papers that are no longer useful and which bear personally-identifying information, as these could help identity thieves fraudulently gain access to your data. Such information and documents might include:
- Account numbers on ATM receipts and deposit slips, bank statements, and utility bills
- Addresses of prior residences
- Applications for old loans or employment
- Credit reports and credit scores
- Credit card pre-approval offers and convenience checks
- Drivers license numbers
- Employment information
- Estimates for repairs or remodeling
- Explanation of benefits forms from health insurance companies (once accounts are fully paid and no longer in question)
- Luggage tags
- Passport numbers
- Report cards
- Travel itineraries
WHAT TO TRASH OR RECYCLE
It’s fine to toss or recycle papers that have no personally-identifying information. Make a point of periodically letting go of papers that no longer serve a useful purpose, like:
- Bad photos – If you don’t like how you look or can’t recognize the people in snapshots, it’s OK to let those photos go.
- Business cards from people whose name you don’t recognize
- Charity solicitations to non-profits to which you aren’t going to donate
- Expired coupons
- Greeting cards
- Junk mail
- Magazines older than two months
- Old newspapers
- Paperback books that you will never reread
- Receipts for grocery store or fast food purchases or for other small items for which you paid cash
- Recipes that are too difficult, time consuming or expensive to prepare
- Schedules and invitations to past events
- Tourism brochures
- Warranties on products you no longer own
WHAT TO FILE & KEEP UNTIL RENEWED OR REPLACED
- Appraisals of artwork, jewelry, and other luxury items
- Certificates of birth, marriage, divorce, and death
- Credit reports and scores (reflecting current status)
- Documents regarding loans and mortgages, including paid-in-full statements
- Insurance policies, statements and claims records
- Power of Attorney documents
- Records of military service, medical history, diplomas, and transcripts
- Social Security annual statements
- Stock, bond and investment trade confirmations
- Tax returns and associated financial documentation
- Trust documents
- Year-end summary statements for retirement and other investment accounts
An overwhelming portion of paper clutter is the result of junk mail. Eliminating the influx of unwanted marketing materials at the source prevents it from getting to your mailbox, and thus your desktop or kitchen counter. These resources include free and low-fee options for opting out of unwanted marketing solicitations.
- 41pounds.org – Eliminate the approximately 41 pounds of junk mail the average adult receives each year.
- Catalogchoice.org – Control the catalogs, coupons, credit offers, phone books, fliers, circulars, newsletters, and other unsolicited mail you receive.
- DMAchoice.org – Manage mail solicitation preferences via the Direct Marketing Association.
- DoNotCall.gov – Prevent telemarketers from contacting you by phone by signing up with the National Do Not Call Registry.
- Optoutprescreen.com – Opt out of credit card and insurance solicitations.
- Precycle.tonic.com – The Precycle Mailstopper service (formerly Greendimes) reduces waste by eliminating junk mail and improves the environment by planting five trees for every account registered.
- Stopthejunkmail.com – Automates mail list removals from catalog companies, magazines, non-profits and credit card solicitations.
- Yellowpagesgoesgreen.org – Allows you to stop residential delivery of printed Yellow Page telephone directories.