Minimalist in DC

The Quest for Less "Stuff" & More Time

Clean the File Cabinet: What to Throw Away (Weekend Project)

Last weekend, I cleaned out our four-drawer file cabinet. I do this every year according to advice from David Allen’s book Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity. It’s no fun to have drawers filled to the brim that won’t fit new files. With no room for more forms, papers pile up elsewhere.

Project: Clean the file cabinet

Time Needed: 2-4 hours (sometimes longer depending on your cabinet)

Prep: Get your shredder ready or find a place to drop off papers that should be shredded. Grab at least two bags: one for papers that must be shredded and one for recyclables. Read below for tips on what to throw out.

This year, I did some research on how long to keep certain household files, so I could maximize the cleaning. Here’s what I discovered.

 File Cabinets: What to Throw Away

There are a few great sites with lists for how long to keep records. Check out, Good Housekeeping, or Consumer Reports if you don’t find what you’re looking for below.

One Year or Less

In general, keep the following items one year or less.

Pay Stubs Throw away after reconciling with your W2
Credit Card Records/Statements Until paid, then shred (major source for stolen identities)
Credit Card Receipts One year
Bank statements One year, keep your annual statement with taxes
Home, Rental, & Car Insurance Policies Keep until you renew
Retirement Plan Statements One year, or keep your annual statement with taxes
Bills One year
Social Security Statements Shred the old one once you get a new one and have double-checked the math

Seven Years

Tax Returns Seven years – more information here


Birth/Death Certificates Forever
Marriage License Forever
Passports Forever
Household Inventory Forever – Many recommend taking a video of your possessions once a year for insurance purposes
Life Insurance Policies Forever
Roth IRA Statements Forever – To prove you’ve paid the taxes


Home Improvement Receipts As long as you own the property
Investment Statements Keep annual statements as long as you own the investment / shred monthly statements
Receipts for large purchases/warranties As long as your own the item
W2 Until you start claiming social security since this is the best estimate of your entitlements
Medical Insurance Papers / Explanation of Benefits If you’re healthy or for routine check-ups, you can discard these after they are paid and a year has gone by. If you have a serious medical condition, keep the papers as long as the condition persists.
Supporting Patent Documents Keep these for the life of the patent, which in most cases is 20 years

By the end of the weekend, I completely emptied 52 files.

clean the file cabinet

I sent a huge stack of papers to the shredder and another one to the recycling bin.

paper clutter

My horribly-crammed top drawer went from this:

clean the file cabinet

to this:

clean the file cabinet

and the whole process probably took 3-4 hours spread over three days. What are your tips for cleaning out the file cabinet?


  1. How about getting rid of the file cabinet completely? Since we moved (about 2 1\2 years) I dont keep any papers except things that have a notary stamp or other legal papers (wills, house or car title, etc). Routine paperwork (bills, statements, etc) are all either received electronically or else scanned into .pdf and shredded immediately. No more file cabinets to cleans cuz I don’t have one.!

    • amberrking

      January 17, 2015 at 4:10 pm

      That is a BRILLIANT idea. I think I need to do that soon. I guess you would still want to go through and clean-up the digital files, but that would be way easier. You could just keep a “2014” file and delete the whole thing after a year. I love it!

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