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COMMENTARY

Discount Diva: Spring cleaning? Here's what to do with all those papers

Samantha Christmann

When it comes to spring cleaning, give me a cluttered basement or an overstuffed garage and I'm in my glory.

Piles of papers, however, make me want to run away screaming.

I don't know what it is about us humans, but we seem to have some instinct about paper: Hang onto everything. You might need it someday. Over the years, I've been able to work through my paper anxiety. You can, too. Knowing what to keep and what to save are the first steps.

First, a tip on sorting. Don't try to organize papers around the house while you clean. You'll never get anywhere if you try to decide what to do with every letter and receipt as you come across it. Instead, set each piece of paper aside the moment you find it. Later, when you're exhausted, you can sit on the couch and go through them.

As you set the papers aside, don't be afraid to put them in a stack. I know it feels like you'll disturb their natural order if you neaten them into one big pile, but you'll be able to find papers just as easily (probably more so) if you tidy them into one place. Yes, they're probably somewhat presorted into little haphazard piles, but what's the difference if those haphazard piles are stacked on top of one another?

Kids' school drawings and other mementos. I don't even try to make a decision about what to keep and what to throw away at the end of a busy day when I'm cleaning out backpacks.

At the beginning of each school year, I get one of those computer paper boxes and write the year on it in big numbers. Anything with even the slightest crayon scribble or chicken scratch handwriting tugs at my heart, so I throw it straight into the box.

It creates a perfect job for Future Samantha, who is less emotionally attached to every little scrap. After time passes, I find I can decide what is truly meaningful to me (those Father's Day portraits) and what is not worth taking up space in the cellar (a year's worth of math practice).

What you can get rid of: Receipts, including credit card receipts (unless they're related to a tax deduction or major purchase). Outdated wills or trusts (if you have new, updated ones). Expired warranties. Outdated owners manuals and instruction manuals (even current ones can usually be found online). Old annual reports from stocks and mutual funds, old investment letters.

Keep for six years: Bank statements, income tax returns (and any papers that go with them), canceled checks and credit card statements. Keep home improvement receipts for six years after your home is sold (you'll need them for IRS calculations related to your home's tax basis).

Keep: Birth certificates, adoption papers, custody agreements, death certificates, marriage certificates and divorce papers. Property deeds, loan payoff receipts and IRA contribution records. Passports, insurance videos and photos, and any identification or papers associated with government or military employment.

How long to keep the rest: Paycheck stubs, one year (or until you can match them to your W-2 for accuracy). Mortgage records (for three years after it's paid off). Insurance papers (for four years after the policies expire). Contracts (for seven years after they expire). Hold onto brokers' confirmation slips, taxable expense records, records showing the cost basis of your home, retirement account documents, receipts for major purchases for as long as you own whatever product, account or asset they're related to. Hang onto warranties and extended service agreements until they expire.

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