• Project Adulthood

How to Organize and Store Important Documents as an Adult

We’ve all got ‘em. Tax returns, medical records, birth certificates, certifications/diplomas, car registration, and other important documents that should be kept safe. So what do you do with them and where do you put them?

1. Get organized

First things first: gather all the documents cluttered around your home, put them in a big pile, and sort through them, throwing away anything you don’t need and keeping only the important stuff.

Tip: Not sure what the "important" stuff is? Good Housekeeping lists the important documents and how long you should hold onto each for. Here’s the US version and the UK version. If you live in a different country, Google “how long to keep documents in x country.”

2. Go paperless

To reduce the paper clutter, go paperless wherever possible. When it comes to things like bills, bank statements, etc., often a digital equivalent is available.

For owners' manuals, consider keeping them only until you find a downloadable version (with the exception of manuals for cars). Just make sure to verify the digital version is the same as the physical version.

3. Where should I put these documents?

You should keep all your important documents in one place.

Apart from being able to just grab them in a few seconds in the event that your home is on fire or if you have an hour warning for a tornado, keeping all your documents in one place is a great idea. For one, with all your documents in one spot, you won't ever have to run around the house trying to remember where you’ve put your birth certificate or your passport when you desperately need it.

Where should I keep physical copies of my documents?

Any of the below:

  • An accordion file

  • Stackable file boxes (consider labeling these by date)

  • A filing cabinet

  • A4 envelopes

  • Ring binders with dividers for all the family members (including pets) and specific tabs (like medical, household, etc.)

  • A shoe box.

Should I get a safe?

Yes, for documents that would be a pain in the ass to replace (i.e., birth certificates, marriage licenses, passports, health cards, and similar), a safe is a good idea. Portable fireproof safes are typically the size of a shoebox, which means that you could take one with you in an emergency. Just make sure to keep your safe in as low a place as possible, i.e., on the first floor in a cabinet or closet, to prevent smoke damage if the safe isn't directly affected by the fire. Also, remember that most fireproof safes are not also floodproof, so put your documents in a Ziploc bag before you put them in a safe. If even a small safe is too big, consider getting a fireproof document wallet. Some people also swear by getting a safety deposit box at a major bank, although banks that offer this service for an affordable fee are getting increasingly difficult to find.

What's this I hear about keeping digital copies of documents?

You’ll want to back up all your important documents, such as medical records, digitally. There is no need to get a scanner -- if you have a smartphone, a scanner app, which you can download from your app store, will do the job. Although it may sound extreme, the 3-2-1 backup rule (three copies of your data on two different storage media, like a hard drive and external drive, and a copy offsite, like on the cloud or better yet, on your own NAS server not accessible from the internet) exists for a reason.

4. Declutter

Don’t forget to periodically go through all your documents — both physical and digital — to see what can be tossed and what has to stay.

For documents you're no longer keeping, get a shredder to avoid identity theft. The Spruce has a list of documents you should always shred.

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