Not everyone is blessed with an abundance of organizational skills. Studies have shown that 1 in 4 Americans admit they have a problem with clutter. And recent research indicates that 84 percent of Americans worry their homes are disorganized or unclean. Of those people, 55 percent admit that too much clutter causes them to feel stressed and anxious. One major source of clutter? Paperwork.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- Establishing an Organizational System
- Gas, Heat, and Electric Bills
- Phone, Cable, and Internet Bills
- Water, Sewer, and Trash Bills
There is a delicate balance when it comes to holding onto paperwork. Certain documents need to be kept for a long time, while others don’t need to be kept at all. Keeping documents for an unnecessarily long time can be a stressor.
This article breaks down some of the most common types of paperwork people hold onto. And it answers the question: just how long you need to keep things? It will also discuss when it’s okay to just let something go.
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Gas, Heat, and Electric Bills
Utility bills serve important purposes. For starters, they’re an excellent way to prove your residency. This proof is important when you need to apply for a driver’s license or even get a library card. If you work from home, you can also write off part of your utility bills for tax purposes.
Here's what's generally recommended:
- Electric bill: Keep bills for one year. Electric bills can help you establish your residency at a particular address. If you need to update your driver’s license, a utility bill is an easy way to provide proof that you live at a given address. Holding onto past bills can also help you compare electricity usage in a given month.
- Gas bill: Hold onto bills for a year to compare your gas usage over time. Gas bills are more common in the northern part of the United States, where people use gas to heat their homes. Gas bills are often paid quarterly instead of monthly. If you don’t use it much in the summer, last winter’s bill can remind you how much you should budget.
If you’re including some of your utilities in your taxes keep them for a year. But if you don’t include any of your utilities on your taxes, you don’t even have to hold onto them for that long. Keeping just the most recent bill is enough. Your account information will always be included on your bill, so having a copy on file means your next of kin can quickly locate it if necessary.
It’s best to shred old physical copies once the new ones arrive. And try to delete any digital copies once the current one is saved. An exception could be made if you want to compare your utility usage to bills from the previous year. If your electricity usage spikes in the summer because of your air conditioning, you can reference bills from the previous year. This practice can help you remember if higher bills are typical for that time of year or if there may be an underlying issue.
Phone, Cable, and Internet Bills
Most cable and phone bills can be received electronically. You can create a digital or physical filing system similar to the utility bill setup suggested above.
- Cable or internet bills: Because these bills are generally the same amount month to month, you don’t have to keep them for more than a month or two. Just make sure to check new bills against the prior one before shredding. These days, most cable companies also provide internet services. As a result, the two are usually bundled together. If this is the case with your provider, be sure that’s recorded.
- Cell phone bill: f you have an unlimited plan, keeping one recent bill should be sufficient. Just check the new one against the older one before you dispose of it. If you don’t have an unlimited plan and your text, call, and data usage vary, keep bills for six months. This will give you a better idea of your usage and help you decide if you need to switch to a different plan.
Water, Sewer, and Trash Bills
Depending on where you live, you may not need to establish a water, sewer, or trash bill. If you’re in an apartment complex, these services are often included in the rent. If that’s the case, include those details in your files. It will save your loved ones some worry if they can’t find any record of your accounts.
- Water bill: These are worth holding onto for a year to compare usage month to month. You may find you use your water more in the summer months than in the winter. And undetectable water leaks do happen. Keeping an eye on your usage from month to month can be a red flag that something isn’t working properly.
- Trash bill: A lot of people opt to pay their garbage upfront for the year. If you do this, keep a printout or digital record. You can refer to it to remind you when you’ll need to pay again. Keeping the most recent bill is enough to help you remember whether you pay monthly, quarterly, or annually.
Learning to Let Go of Unnecessary Clutter
While clearing out your paperwork stash can be a big task, the effort is well worth it. Implementing an intuitive organizational system requires physical and emotional energy. But once you have a system in place, maintaining it is relatively easy. You’ll enjoy feeling relief from the clutter that was threatening to overtake your life.
You can also rest easy knowing that if something happens to you, your next-of-kin will be able to find what they need with ease. Planning and organizing paperwork should be part of your end-of-life planning checklist. Even though it can be tedious, the result is well worth the time.
Post-planning tip: If you are the executor for a deceased loved one, it's tough to handle both the emotional and technical aspects of their unfinished business without a way to organize your process. We have a post-loss checklist that will help you ensure that your loved one's family, estate, and other affairs are taken care of.
- Schifferle, Lisa Weintraub “A Pack Rat’s Guide to Shredding.” Consumer.ftc.com, Federal Trade Commission, 1 May 2015, www.consumer.ftc.gov/blog/2015/05/pack-rats-guide-shredding.