How to get financial papers in order?
April 4, 2011 2:05 PM   Subscribe

How and in what form should financial documents/bills be kept at home?

My sweetie and I are finally organizing the office. We have different styles of keeping our records (one of us likes boxes of envelopes, the other prefers binders).

Beyond a useful way of keeping the records (box versus binder), what do we have to keep and for how long? Paper form or electronic? So many banks and credit card companies are pushing for "no paper" records but I have a secret "store some cash under the mattress" mentality - should I change that? Do we need to keep old (and paid) medical bills? Utility bills?

I have found some ideas using google, but would appreciate any organizing methods that you have, too.

Thanks so much!
posted by anya32 to Work & Money (10 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
I went paperless about 5 years ago and it changed my life forever. Get a good backup system (onsite and offsite). Scan. Shred. Repeat.
posted by shew at 2:09 PM on April 4, 2011

Seconding the paperless suggestion. For Macs, I live the devonthink pro office/fujitsu snap scan combo.
posted by Brian Puccio at 2:38 PM on April 4, 2011

I use the fujitsu scan snap + evernote.

Love it.

I also have a backup of my evernote documents stored externally.
posted by dfriedman at 3:00 PM on April 4, 2011

I also vote paperless plus backup. I finally got to filing my documents a few months ago in binders and oy vey, they went through a few reorganization every time I thought of a better way to categories things. It was quite a headache. They also take up a good chunk of space and I worry about losing them in case of fire and flood. Sure the important stuff is in my safe deposit box but still, the nice to haves makes me feel better.

If you really want to go the paper route, I vote hanging folders. That way you don't have to punch holes or painstakingly stick everything in a sheet protector. I also found flipping to the section or document I need in a binder isn't smooth at all even with D rings. I got sick of dealing with it and switched to hanging folders. What I did end up keeping in a small binder are documents I refer to more often. This includes my insurance policies, financial accounts information, photocopies of titles to my vehicles (and land if I own any) and photocopies of government ids. These are also important in case of emergency and my family needs to get ahold of vital information asap.

Most of the suggestions of what to keep you've probably found through googling are good (I used them too). I especially like the ones at The Simple Dollar. I wouldn't worry too much about keeping every bill and statement. Honestly, you won't look at these as often as you'd think. That being said, I like keeping track of my income, expenses and utilities history so I kept those. I also kept the leases of all my past apartments. A lot of forms ask for the last 3 to 7 addresses you've lived in and these have been handy. Lastly, keep receipts for any big purchases for your home. I've had to replace/repair a part here and there and these made it possible. It's also good to know how much all that stuff in your home is worth.
posted by vilandra at 3:09 PM on April 4, 2011

I have this paperless system bookmarked and it looks incredibly promising.
posted by kitkatcathy at 4:01 PM on April 4, 2011

+1 for paperless

+10 for ScanSnap. I own a Fujitsu ScanSnap s1500 and it's the best product I've ever purchased in my life. (I'm not kidding and I'm not making this up: when I first unpacked and used it I literally started to well up from joy. This may very well be the one and only hardware + software product in the history of such products that is actually designed exactly the way it should be AND works as advertised. If I had to choose between my wife and my ScanSnap I'd be in serious trouble :P...)

Here's what I do:

processing and storage of paperwork:

1) scan everything to PDF with OCR for searchability
2) throw 90% away (I shred everything that has names, addresses or other relevant data on it)
3) keep semi-critical stuff (loss of original would merely be a nuisance, about 8%) in metal file cabinet in hanging folders (least effort as vilandra pointed out). This includes copies of tax returns, insurance papers,e tc)
4) keep critical stuff (loss would be a major hassle or worse, about 2%) in a fire and water proof lockbox which is bolted to the floor in an appropriate place (this includes my US immigration paperwork, birth certificate, marriage certificate, title to car, etc...)

storage of digital versions:

1) store everything on my Raid 5 NAS so it's accessible from multiple computers and so it's not lost in case computers crash and burn or get infected. (I own a Synology 407e for this purpose but there's many options including USB based raided setups which are usually easier to install. For me it matters most that the data is stored outside and independent of any PC/laptop and that it is on a RAID system to protect against disk failure.)
2) back up everything from the NAS to an online storage service regularly. Actually I do my scanning of paperwork on a weekly basis and I always back up at the end of each session.

potential future issues:

At some point it may become necessary to convert from PDF to something else or at least to convert documents to a more current version of PDF. I'm not sure if and when that may become necessary but file formats in general do tend to have a limited life span. I don't really have a plan for this but I'm hoping there'll be some mass file conversion tools for this.

final thoughts:

If you do decide to go paperless and to throw away originals you should be certain to have worked out how, where and it what format you're going to store your digital copies. You don't want to jump into this and then find yourself at a loss later when you can't remember what's where, forgot to make backups and lost data or whatever else could happen. Personally I'm managing my document repository on my NAS manually but I'm sure the document management software packages recommended in this thread would be a great help to organize and keep track of everything.
posted by Hairy Lobster at 4:04 PM on April 4, 2011 [2 favorites]

Consumer Reports had a couple of great articles on this topic. Links are here and here

One thing I understood is that never throw away paper copies of anything related to the Government.
posted by theobserver at 6:18 PM on April 4, 2011

I found this AskMe thread really helpful (and still do): "Stabbing myself in the eye with a letter opener doesn't seem to be an appropriate reaction to this problem."

It has lots of great comments/advice about what to keep, what not to keep, and various methods of organizing and storing statements, receipts and other papers.
posted by rangefinder 1.4 at 8:05 PM on April 4, 2011

If you don't go paper free I would think a filing cabinet with hanging files is the organizational winner here. Easy to find, label, and add to. Much more so than either a binder or box system.
posted by saradarlin at 12:06 AM on April 5, 2011

Response by poster: i think i was secretly hoping that everyone would say "keep it in paper" ... but most of you (ok, all of you) did the opposite! thank you for the great advice. i will check out the links.
posted by anya32 at 3:15 PM on April 5, 2011

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