When it comes to your important documents, keeping them organized can be a struggle. But when a natural disaster, pandemic, home evacuation, or other unexpected life events occur, you need to know they are protected. And your family should know where they are. So, I’m sharing how to organize your important documents so that they are safe and accessible at a moment’s notice.
But first, here’s something you should know about me…
I’m one of those people who believes that a zombie apocalypse could actually occur. And I’ve spent an embarrassing amount of time thinking through scenarios of how to escape, where to go and why my family still won’t survive in the end ?! That said, I’ve spent time thinking about how to make a fast escape and why the typical system using a safe or filing cabinet are good options, but not the best way to organize your important documents.
- If you have a small home safe, a thief could just carry out with all of your other stuff. And unless you’re spending quite a bit, the average home safe is not that hard for a thief to get into (since that is what they actually do for a living).
- If there’s a fire or you have to evacuate in a hurry (or the zombies are coming), you don’t have time to go through a filing cabinet to gather your papers. And you may not have time (or space) to grab the safe.
- If you keep your papers in a box in the basement and there’s water damage, there’s a good chance they will be damaged.
While in all of these cases most of what was destroyed can be replaced, recovering important documents can be extremely difficult.
How To Organize Your Important Documents
Separate your documents into categories
- Insurance policies
- Financial information (banking, investments, retirement fund, etc.)
- Personal (birth certificates, marriage certificate, social security cards, passports, wills, health directives, etc.)
- Loans (mortage, auto, school, etc.)
- Documents to shred
There are some things you should get rid of and some documents you should always keep. Not sure which pile a document belongs in? Here’s a list of what you should keep and for how long…
- Personal important documents like (birth certificates, marriage certificate, social security cards, passports, wills, health directives, etc.) – Keep FOREVER
- Tax returns – Keep for 3 years from the date you filed your original return or 2 years from the date you paid the tax, whichever is later.
- Credit card statements – Keep for 1 year. Documents received when opening your account should be kept as long as the account is open and active.
- Insurance policies – Keep as long as they are active.
- Mortgage papers – Keep for the life of the loan or as long as you own the house. 3 years after selling. Billing and financial statements can be tossed after a year.
- Bills – Keep for 1 year.
- Financial Statements – Keep for 1 year. Documents received when opening your account should be kept as long as the account is open and active.
- Medical and health files – Keep FOREVER
- Auto paperwork – Keep for the life of the loan or as long as you own the car.
- Loan paperwork – Keep for the life of the loan and up to 3 years after it has been paid off. Billing statements can be tossed after a year.
- Warranties – Keep as long as it is valid.
- Receipts – Keep for 30 days after purchase (for general items) in case you decide to return. For large purchases, keep until sold or discarded.
- Home improvements and repairs – Keep as long as you own the property.
Use this inventory sheet I created to keep track of all of our big-ticket items like TV’s, large appliances, computers, etc. Go through your house and write down the model and serial numbers along with the purchase price of each item. Then take a picture of each item. Keep the receipts in a document sleeve along with the inventory sheet. Receipts fade so be sure to scan or include a copy with the original. This will serve as proof of loss to your insurance company should you ever need to file a claim.
Once you’ve separated your paperwork, you can decide how many binders and binder pockets you will need. I use these waterproof sleeves to store each document in a category and several 1” binders to hold the sleeves. You can find the binders anywhere you find office supplies. This set of fireproof and waterproof bags, or what prefer to call a “safe bag” is where I store the binders. I chose this bag because you can neatly store and protect your documents and it’s easy to grab and go. It’s also more discreet than a filing cabinet or a safe.
Although the bag is easy grab, there may be a situation where you just can’t get to it. In case of a fire or natural disaster, it could take a while to find it amidst the rubble. So before you put your documents in your safe bag, be sure to make copies of everything. Store the copies in a large sealed envelope in a safe place outside of your house. Perhaps with a close relative you can trust or in a safe deposit box. Or you can scan the documents and store using a cloud storage provider like Box, Dropbox or Google Drive. You can also save them to an external drive that you store outside of your home.
Organize your binders
Shred any sensitive documents that you no longer want or need and add the rest to documents sleeves based on the categories above. Depending on the number of sleeves you have, you may need several binders. I have three: insurance policies; financial information; and wills and health information/miscellaneous. Add a label to the binder so you immediately know what’s in it. You can also add a label to the sleeves so you know exactly what’s inside without opening. Since the set comes with 3 bags, I use the envelope bag to store certificates and the small envelope for passports. Then everything is goes in the big bag. Be sure to store in a safe place that you can easily get to in case of emergency.
Use these tips on how to organize your important documents and take time to review the contents of your safe bag once a year to make sure everything is up to date.