Reader Volker submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:
I have all my papers (bills, documents etc.) digital, so its no physical clutter. But I’m not sure how long to keep digital files like itemized bills, phone bills, electricity bills, etc.?
The answer to this question, unfortunately, can be found in your responses to a few more questions:
- How much space do have available on a hard drive?
- How often do you reference your paperwork after you have scanned it?
- How distracting do you find digital files?
If you aren’t pressed for space on your hard drive and you aren’t distracted in any way by the digital files, I recommend keeping them. The act of sorting through each one and expending mental energy deciding which documents to save and which ones to delete can clutter up your time. Simply put, they may not be clutter.
However, if you need to free up some room on your hard drive, I’d take the following steps:
- Keep all digital copies of bills from the past 13 months. When your new bills arrive, it’s always a good idea to check the new ones against the previous year to see if there are any strange fluctuations.
- If the bill was used as a deduction for tax purposes, hold onto it for whatever amount of time your accountant recommends. This time period is usually however long a federal tax agent can go back in time for an audit. Based on the laws in your country, you may actually need these bills in physical form. Again, check with your accountant.
- If the bill wasn’t used for a tax deduction, I recommend keeping all annual statements for as long as the account is open.
- If you have closed an account, I recommend keeping the statement from the billing institution that says your account was closed in good standing. I actually recommend keeping this in physical form and not in digital form — but if you’ve already scanned it, the digital copy is better than nothing.
Unlike many of our readers, I don’t see digital data as really being clutter. At least for me, it doesn’t distract me from pursuing the life I desire or keep me from focusing on what matters most. I use Google Desktop to easily search my computer for any documents I’m seeking. Honestly, I have files on my computer from 1998 and have no plan to delete them. I also have an onsite backup and an online backup, so if my hard drive fails I won’t lose everything.
Thank you, Volker, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column. Good luck to you on your digital data project.
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