First, Organize.

Let's begin by gathering up your docs. Pull out stray files, snatch the latest round of bills, and empty that overflowing kitchen or office drawer stuffed with papers you've been meaning to get to for ages. Sort everything into six piles:

  • Monthly Bills, Bank Statements, and Pay Stubs
  • Investment Statements (pension updates, 401(k) statements, brokerage and fund statements, and so forth)
  • Tax Returns and Supporting Docs
  • Policy Documents and Deeds (insurance policies, home deed, car title...)
  • Warranties and User Manuals
  • Forever Docs (things like marriage license, will, birth certificate)

Next, create a folder for each type of document (except forever docs; see next paragraph) and add new papers as they come in. Then create folders within the folders: Take ongoing bills, for example. Store all gas bills in one folder, electricity bills in another, cable bills in a third, and so on. If possible, keep all folders in a fireproof, water-resistant file cabinet or box; if not, a drawer or shelf will do.

It's an entirely different ball game for the forever docs. Because of their importance, they must be put in a portable fire- and water-resistant home safe or file container—something that you can grab at a moment's notice. Why not a bank deposit box? Because you don't have access 24/7. If, God forbid, you die or become incapacitated, your relatives may not be able to access it; besides, the maintenance fee is a waste of money compared with the onetime cost of buying a safe.

For everything you're sending to the trash, I have one word of advice: shred. The FTC estimates that up to nine million Americans each year are victims of identity theft, in which personal documents are stolen and the data is used to run up charges on existing accounts or to obtain new credit or debt. That can wreak havoc with your financial life, and low-tech Dumpster diving—where a crook rifles through your garbage to find financial data—remains a big risk. At about $150 a pop, a crosscut paper shredder is a great investment; it will make mincemeat of any important papers.

Okay, now we're ready to tackle each of the piles. (If you ever need a reminder, I also have a cheat sheet on my website, Here we go....
Please note: This is general information and is not intended to be legal advice. You should consult with your own financial advisor before making any major financial decisions, including investments or changes to your portfolio, and a qualified legal professional before executing any legal documents or taking any legal action. Harpo Productions, Inc., OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network, Discovery Communications LLC and their affiliated companies and entities are not responsible for any losses, damages or claims that may result from your financial or legal decisions.


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