January tune-up: Your paperwork

iStock_000015900242LargeIs anyone else drowning in paperwork? I try to “prevent, prune and process,” but paper has a way of multiplying on its own.

Here’s my game plan for reducing paper clutter:

Prevent. I’ve signed up for the Direct Marketing Association’s opt out list to reduce junk mail and I use Catalog Choice to cut down on catalogs. Unfortunately, some retailers ignore these requests, so I keep a recycling bin handy. Unwanted mail goes straight to the bin so it can’t make its way any farther into our house.

Another way to prevent paper from proliferating is to sign up for electronic delivery. You can download statements or, in many cases, just let the financial institution store those for you. (Check to find out how long they do so; seven years should be as long as you’d need most statements.*) Every time I handle a piece of paper this week, I’ll be checking to see if there’s a way to receive it electronically instead.

One caveat: Going electronic doesn’t mean ignoring your accounts. I regularly check the balances and transactions of all our accounts. An account aggregator such as Mint can be a big help with this process. If receiving a paper statement is the only way you’ll remember to check your accounts, then use the scan-and-shred method as follows:

Prune. Most of our remaining paperwork can be scanned into my computer and then shredded. The IRS accepts electronic documents so there’s typically no reason to hang on to the paper version. The exceptions are paperwork that would be a pain to replace: birth, marriage and death certificates, military discharge papers and so on. Two tools that really help: my ScanSnap scanner and a heavy-duty shredded that can handle up to 15 sheets at a time.

Process. This tends to be my Achilles heel. I can think of so many better things to do than deal with that pile of paperwork on my desk. I’ve tried weekly process sessions but am coming around to the idea that it’s better not to let it pile up even that long.

*You’re likely to get different answers from different providers, which is why you need to ask. Banks and brokerages typically keep statements for 7 years (Schwab keeps them for 10) but may limit free online access to just a few years. Credit card companies are all over the map on this one. For instance, Capital One has access for four years (although you can order older statements) while Amex keeps them available for seven.

While cars no longer require traditional tune-ups, your finances still do. This month I’ll be reviewing some areas of your money that deserve some extra scrutiny and offering suggestions for the best moves now. Stay tuned for more posts–and to make sure you don’t miss any, you can sign up for my newsletter using the link on my home page.

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