Should You Keep That Document or Shred It?


A paper shredder and a small pile of shredded paper.

Photo: Gemenacom (Shutterstock)

We all get a ton of junk in the mail, whether credit card applications, insurance packets, or a 60-page retirement fund report for the lingering 401(k) from a job you had 10 years ago. Thankfully, deciding what you need to keep and what you can safely shred is simple. And depending the type of documents you’re dealing with, you need to store some of them for certain periods of time; others you can digitize, and still others you can throw away altogether (but it’s always a good idea to shred them first).

The documents you need to keep forever

Let’s start with the documents you should keep physical copies of forever:

  • Birth and death certificates
  • Social security cards
  • Pension plan documents
  • ID cards and passports
  • Green cards
  • Marriage license
  • Business license
  • Any insurance policy (good to keep even if the insurer provides access to a digital copy, just in case a problem ever arises)
  • Wills, living wills, and powers of attorney
  • Vehicle titles and loan documents
  • House deeds and mortgage documents

In general, you want to keep physical copies of anything related to state or federal matters, including certifications, licenses, or deeds. The reasons are twofold: You want to have easy access to these in case you need them, and they’re also a pain to replace because to do so you typically need to make a direct request to the government agency in question, which takes a lot of time—and, as the ongoing pandemic has proven with the closure of many government offices, it could be an extreme hassle for unforeseen reasons.

If you’re unsure what to do with these important documents, we recommend keeping an “in case of emergency kit” so you (and your loved ones) always know where they are. You can also use a website like Get Your Sh*t Together to help you gather everything you need to keep for the long term.

Documents you need to keep for a while

The second subset of documents to hold on to relates to documents you need to keep, if only for a little while. For these, follow our guide to going paperless and scan them in if you like, or store them in a safe place if space isn’t an issue. Documents in this category include:

  • Tax records and receipts (keep for seven years)
  • Pay stubs and bank statements (keep for a year)
  • Home purchase, sale, or improvement documents (keep for at least six years after you sell)
  • Medical records and bills (keep at least a year after payment in case of disputes)
  • Warranty documents and receipts (keep as long as you own the item in question)

Finally, the last subset is the documents you need to keep at least the most recent version of:

  • Social security statements
  • Annual insurance policy statements
  • Retirement plan statements (401(k), 529, IRA, etc.)

That’s pretty much it. Once you know what to keep, organize them in a way that works for you (whether you use that old standby, the filing cabinet or something else) and you’re set.

If you still aren’t sure if you should keep it or can it, a good thing to consider is how hard the document you’re pondering would be to replace should you need it for any reason. If you need to venture down to a government office, wait in line at a hospital, or sit on the phone for an hour, it’s probably a good idea to hold onto it. If you can easily pop online and download a copy, you likely don’t need to keep a physical one on hand.

Shred everything else

Everything else you can safely shred or throw away. It’s always a good idea to shred anything that has personal information like your name, address, phone number—and especially your social security number or bank account information.

The list of to-shreds includes stuff you might not have otherwise considered sensitive, from ATM and credit card receipts, to bills and even used airline tickets. Immediately shred expired credit cards, visas, passports, and IDs—and the best way to shred documents is with a good cross-cut shredder. On the plus side, it’s kind of fun.

This article was originally published in 2013 and updated in September 2020 to refresh links, include updated information, and align the content to current Lifehacker style.



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