Thursday, May 7, 2009

How long should I keep...

I'm a stickler for expiration dates. Just ask my dad how annoyed he was when I threw out three large black garbage bags full of expired food from my parents' kitchen! What do you do about the items that don't have expiration dates on their packaging? (ie. soda, Windex, lipstick) I refer to an article from the March 2004 issue of Real Simple magazine titled "The Shelf-Life Periodic Table." This table lists common food, household products and beauty products and their expiration dates for opened and unopened containers. This weekend I plan on doing a lot of spring cleaning around the house that includes getting rid of old paper (see below), household items and of course, cleaning my closets to make room for light, summery clothes.

I looked on Real Simple's website and couldn't find the article for you anywhere so I thought I'd post a scanned in copy here for you. (hopefully I'm not infringing on any copyright issues) Click the graphics for larger images that you can print. (one of the household products is missing since I ripped my copy when removing it from the magazine apparently)

Now, for paper files. I have a sick relationship with my shredder - I love it more than a person should love an appliance. However, you shouldn't get too shredder-happy since some documents that are cluttering up your home should be kept for future reference. Refer to this list (from Real Simple - February 2004 issue and another site that I can't recall since I printed this list a while ago) to determine if you should save or shred your docs:

Shred Now:

  • Credit card applications
  • Any piece of unwanted paper that contains: addresses, account numbers or access information, birth dates, budgets, photocopies of “never shred” documents listed below, drivers license numbers, employment information, envelopes and address labels, estimates, legal papers, luggage tags, medical information, passwords, report cards, signatures, social security numbers, transcripts, travel itineraries, used airline tickets, and anything you wouldn’t feel comfortable having a stranger read
  • Expired credit cards, bank cards, passports, visas, and identification cards (college, military, employee badges, etc.)
  • Credit checks on tenants or other home employees (contractors, nannies, etc.) immediately after evaluating the information

Shred monthly:

  • Credit card receipts (except for those that are needed for tax purposes or warranties)
  • Sales receipts for minor purchases
  • Withdrawal & deposit slips and cancelled checks after you've checked them against your monthly bank statement (except for those that are needed for tax purposes or warranties)

Shred yearly:

  • Paycheck stubs after reconciled with annual W-2 statement or 1099 equivalents
  • Monthly bank, credit-card, brokerage, mutual-fund and retirement account statements after reconciled with year-end statement
  • Bills as the months repeat unless necessary for tax purposes (For example, when the Jan. water bill arrives, compare your consumption to the previous month and Jan. of the previous year to make sure that you don’t have an unknown leak. Then, shred last Jan.’s bill.)

Shred on 7 or 10 year basis:

  • Year-end bank statements (if not necessary for tax purposes)
  • Titles, deeds, and surveys to cars and property you haven’t owned in seven years

Keep indefinitely:

  • Tax returns and associated financial documentation (1040 forms)
  • Receipts for major purchases
  • Real estate and residence records including loan and mortgage paid-in-full documentation
  • Wills and trusts
  • Marriage, birth, divorce, and death certificates
  • Military service records
  • Insurance policies and claims
  • Power of attorney documents
  • Social security reports
  • Year-end retirement and investment account statements and policies
  • Diplomas and transcripts
  • Medical records
  • Current resume
  • Securities and trade confirmations

Shred only after they expire:

  • Titles, deeds and surveys to cars and property you own (only shred seven years after you get rid of the property)
  • Leases and/or rental contracts on current properties
  • Loan contracts until paid-in-full
  • Maintenance records for home and auto (pass onto next owner of property)
  • Warranties on products you currently own
  • Active membership documentation (gyms, clubs, etc.)
  • Benefits package from current employer
  • Service contracts (cable, water, etc.)
  • Pet records
  • Current personal credit history report

Keep in safe-deposit boxes:

  • Birth and death certificates
  • Marriage licenses
  • Insurance policies

Note that this list is just for reference - don't shred anything you aren't comfortable shredding. Also, if a lawyer, accountant, or special circumstance directs you to retain more information or paperwork for a longer period of time, you need to follow that advice.

I highly recommend a shredder that does cross-cuts since it makes it incredibly hard to put the pieces back together. When I cut up a credit card I do not put the pieces into the same trash - I generally put some in the trash one week and other pieces in the trash the next week. Just not having them in the same trashbag makes me feel better since I know it is much harder for someone to figure out my old credit card number this way.

Happy de-cluttering your home.


  1. you can use your paper shreds as mulch or in your compost. we added the shreds to our tomato bed and it took the acidity they were very happy plants (although I think people did wonder why our paper shreds were there!).

  2. Guess what I'm doing today? (or maybe tomorrow) Assembling a compost bin :) Thanks for the inspiration - I have been drooling over the $200+ versions in my gardening catalogs, but an empty rubbermaid (that I already have) will work just as well!


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