When previous uncluttering can come back to haunt you

Once upon a time, my husband and I were filling out forms for a background check and the forms required that we list all of our previous addresses. My husband can count the number of his residences on his fingers and recite all of them from memory. It took him about two minutes to complete his portion of the forms.

It took me about an hour to remember all of my previous places of residence, and then another two hours to track down the information. To count my addresses I need to use my fingers, toes, and maybe an elbow, knee, and ear. For example, during the decade of the 1990s, I had 10 different residences. In the year 2000, I had three residences. It was my first year living in D.C. and I moved three times in a single year. In my defense, though, my first apartment that year had snakes in the ceiling. SNAKES!

I have purged all of my pay stubs and tax documents from before 1998, so the years from 1991 to 1998 were the most difficult for me to obtain. And, of course, these were the years I was in college when every fall meant a new dorm room or apartment. I also imagine that if I did have these documents, that my parents’ address would be listed on them as my “permanent” address, anyway. I searched my home for old address books (to no avail), emailed former roommates (one address was found this way), and called my mom (she produced another one). I even discovered an address on a ski lift receipt I had pasted to a page in a scrapbook.

I eventually found the remainder of my previous addresses in a box of old love letters I had forgotten I had saved. My husband was laughing as I transcribed information off the fronts of the envelopes.

“You should write about this on Unclutterer,” my husband said when his laughter had subsided enough that he could speak. “Advise your readers to hold onto their old love letters so that they’ll have a record of where they used to live.”

“I think it would be easier to recommend that they keep a list of their previous addresses,” I countered.

“Yes,” he agreed, “but these letters are hysterical! This one guy talks for an entire page about how your souls are connected by invisible forces, like bungee cords.”

“Old letters from you are in that box,” I reminded him. “I could write about them on Unclutterer.”

“The list idea you mentioned sounds like a good idea to me,” he said.

“I thought you would like it.”

When purging papers from your home or office, let me recommend that you keep a list in a file in your filing cabinet or on your computer of all your previous addresses and addresses of your former places of employment. Even if you don’t have a need for them now, things could change and you might one day need the information.

Now I’m off to either scan and purge or find a more preservation-friendly storage option for my old love letters … well, after my husband and I get a few more laughs from them. Let us know in the comments if you have ever been too eager with uncluttering and what lessons you can share with our readers!


This post has been updated since its original publication in 2008.

49 Comments for “When previous uncluttering can come back to haunt you”

  1. posted by teresa on

    just pull a credit report; It should show all or most of your previous addresses if you had a reportable item like student loans. When I did mine there were a few that I hadn’t lived at so I added a fraud alert to my account and had them removed.

  2. posted by Rue on

    I think Teresa’s idea is a good one! Of course, if you’re like me and didn’t have student loans or credit cards when you were in college, that might not help.

  3. posted by justelise on

    This is definitely an argument for scanning old documents and keeping electronic copies of them before purging them.

  4. posted by Jacki Hollywood Brown on

    Being a military family we move (often!) and we must have all our previous addresses for security checks etc. I keep them on a computer file with a list of previous addresses (password protected) in the same folder with my other life history stuff such as a list of the kids schools, their friends at that age, etc etc. (a kind of digital scrapbook).

  5. posted by Peter (a different one) on

    Just a suggestion, if you pull a credit report, make sure you do it from one of the three Credit Agencies. I once looked at an “online” report, and there were addresses for places my parents or siblings had lived, but I hadn’t or my parent’s information had my addresses on it. It was really a mess.

  6. posted by Fit Bottomed Girls on

    I’ve never thrown anything too important away, but I have organized things in a manner that it makes no sense to me years later. That’s always fun. lol.

  7. posted by Springpeeper on

    Please, I’d like to hear more about that apartment with snakes in the ceiling. ๐Ÿ™‚

  8. posted by Nina on

    I have been quietly reading you for a while and I finally decided to write….good advice on keeping a list of old addresses….

    But I agree with Springpeeper…I also want to hear abut theat apartment with the snakes…..eeeeeeek!

  9. posted by Another Deb on

    Murphy’s Law about student backpacks: The day you need a student to produce a paper (of whatever vintage) is always the day directly FOLLOWING the one that the mother of said child threw it away.

  10. posted by tabitha (from single to married) on

    That’s so funny- and the exact reason why I’m often afraid to get rid of things. I like your idea if keeping a list of important information- that’s a lot morereasonable than keeping a box of everything “just in case”

  11. posted by Robert Reed on

    My most regretful purge was when we moved in 1999, I hauled all of our vinyl record albums (from 1969+) to a neighborhood yard sale and got rid of them. It was no more than 12 months later that cheap and accessible consumer software to digitally capture and clean up vinyl recordings appeared on the market. And I’m just the kind of techie that would have enjoyed that task.

    My wife was resentful and missed her old Police and Brian Ferry albums for several years, until we got a rhapsody music subscription in 2006! Now they are all available to us again.

  12. posted by DigitalNinja on

    I have a user manual for my life, as discussed on Lifehack.org.

    It lists all my old address’, when I lived there, anything of note.

    It also includes basically all the information I need to run my life, when I can’t be bothered to remember (Diagnosed Crappy Memory!).

    I got the germ of the idea, from Lifehack and just ran with it, what you put in your user manual is as individual as your are.

    It’s stored in Google Docs, shared with my Dad, and to be honest, most fraud is caused by people who know you, so who can you trust to keep it safe?

    Also what freaks me out, is that America still pays bills by cheque, the system us ‘limey brits’ use ‘direct debit’ has been in place for ages, and is an auto pay system, so we are never late with bills.
    Even our supermarkets have stopped accepting cheques, cause they are so expensive to process.

    My user manual also includes the account numbers and sort codes for friends and people who get paid, so I don’t have to remember them, or need to store them on internet banking.

  13. posted by sharon on

    I haven’t moved much in my life so I can remember all the address now. But who knows what brains cells will tomorrow? Good advice.

  14. posted by Ginger on

    Don’t forget your old phone numbers! Since I moved, I’ve been asked for my last phone number several times (primarily for discount cards). I can never remember it when I’m asked and I blanked on my old area code the last time it came up.

  15. posted by Mary Rex on

    I enjoy rereading my old love letters too much to pitch them, and have included them in my looseleaf journal in plastic protectors with 1 or 2 mementos in a very tidy efficient way. More about the snakes in the ceiling please!

  16. posted by momofthree on

    I can’t imagine having to move because of SNAKES?? Tell more please!!

    How about making up a resume? That is one sure way to have to remember a ton of information! Where you worked, for how long, responsibilities, etc. That’s a way to tax your brain. As a full time mom trying to re enter the full time work force, I was amazed to recall all the jobs I had. So many companies I worked for no longer exist, either closed doors or sold off the divisions, my past is very shadow-y. I even called the HQ of one trying to get some info. and no one there in the office had ever heard of anyone I worked with. (my employment for the midwest office goes back over 25 years ago)

    Tax returns: Forget how long we are “supposed” to keep them. We recently went thru them and shredded all the actual weekly pay slips, and kept only the W-2 forms. Oh boy, did that clear up alot of space!!

  17. posted by Toni on

    I actually laughed out loud about the snakes in the ceiling. Had to compose myself before I could finish the rest of the article.

  18. posted by Alison on

    I too can vouch for the credit report idea. That’s how I found all my addresses the last time I needed them!

  19. posted by penguinlady on

    My husband and I emigrated to Canada a few years ago for work, and in order to become permanent residents, had to produce all our addresses and work histories – with the address of the company – going back to age 18 (we’re both mid-thirties). Now, I know you always say “shred old paystubs”, but I actually keep the last one from every year, just so I can remember how much I made and where I was working. (Dot-com boom – if you worked at the same place for 2 years, it was a miracle!) That helped tremendously to track down all the addresses. According to my husband’s company, which was helping us with the perm rez process, we completed our paperwork in the fastest time ever (a little too quickly, too – we got penalized for submitting the paperwork a week too early!).

  20. posted by Linda on

    Oh, please keep your love letters. When my mother died I found her stash in a closet and my sisters and I had a wonderful time reading them and remembering Mom when she was young and in love.

  21. posted by [email protected] on

    Um, I was decluttering when we were newly married, and I threw away a live paycheck. Unfortunately, we didn’t find that out until our bank account went into the red(I thought it was a direct deposit stub, and it wasn’t!). I’m more careful about what I throw away now.

  22. posted by consumer_q on

    All my previous apartment/house leases have been scanned and digitally archived.

  23. posted by Tiffany on

    I am imagining this conversation taking place, and laughing.

  24. posted by Karen on

    It’s a good idea to keep a list of references and addresses from old workplaces as well. On an employment application, I got asked for my supervisor’s names from my previous two jobs. Well, I could remember my current supervisor’s name, but I totally blanked on the old one’s name.

  25. posted by talida on

    A list like this will also come in handy if you ever apply for Security Clearance. And there the physical addresses lived at during college are needed!

  26. posted by Tabitha in CA on

    I keep all this info in my outlook, under my name. Prior addresses and phone numbers. It’s been very helpful. And since I always have my blackberry with me, the info is always at my fingertips.

  27. posted by Jeannine on

    yes, I have run into this one, too, when applying for jobs (in the education system) that require a background check. I have started keeping a word document on my computer listing all my addresses.

    I have also experienced my “uncluttering” tendencies coming back to haunt me (having to buy something that I purged a few months previous, or deleting an e-mail that weeks later I wish I had). However, I think this happens much less frequently than more cluttered people experience losing something, etc. Plus, uncluttering gives me a peace of mind that is worth the (very) occasional regret.

  28. posted by The Mommy Blawger on

    I keep a list of prior addresses and employers, and also a list of previous medical providers, should one ever need to access those records as well.

  29. posted by Lisa on

    I keep a spreadsheet of prior addresses too. I’m an American living in the UK and in the process of getting UK visas, I’ve also kept had to provide former address and keep track of my comings and goings in/out of the country.

    So far it’s been very helpful in applying for my husband’s US visa and will surely come in handy again in the future. I can imagine this information will be interesting to descendants one day — without the hassle of a lot of scanning and filing.

    (And no, you can’t always rely on a passport stamp to show the date. Either they don’t bother stamping, it isn’t legible, they stamp a random page, or my very favorite, over another stamp)

  30. posted by Wobagi on

    Keep all the shells of peanuts you have eaten in your life. You never know when you might need them… For me, keeping anything I don’t need but maybe would need ‘someday’ is CLUTTER.
    Sorry, no offence. I don’t live in US, can you please tell me why someone would need such detailed info about you? All the addresses? What if, despite good records, you really forget or loose some info?
    I only needed my last address, when I moved to a new location.

  31. posted by Erin Doland on

    FBI and Homeland Security background checks are needed in the US to a slew of reasons. For example, if you or your company does any work for the government or consults with the government. Also, the same background checks are required to adopt a child or become a foster parent.

    @wobagi I also think you’re missing the point of the article a bit. Keeping a file on your computer of your former addresses and employer information hardly constitues clutter.

  32. posted by LWM on

    Once (years and years ago) I was going to visit my parents for Christmas. As soon as they picked me up they asked if I’d have time to fix the computer. It seems my Dad decided to “unclutter” the system folder (on a Mac). I think I ended up just repairing installation (I don’t think they lost any important info). My mom’s a pack rat, so my dad’s uncluttering tendencies have gotten stronger and stronger over the years, but I’m still not sure what possessed him to start messing with the system folder.

  33. posted by Karolina on

    Also keep a record of start date and end date for each job, especially if you’re on a work visa. I needed all of these to apply for my green card and it was really hard to track them down.

  34. posted by Wobagi on

    @Erin, ok, I’m sorry, my post might seem too offensive. I’m more a minimalist than unclutterer, so I prefer not to collect anything. I’ve never needed my old addresses, so I’m really curious. What if you loose your records or forget some of the addresses? Will they punish you for not telling the truth? How would they know you’re not telling the truth, and if they (whoever it is) can verify your data, why can’t they keep the records for you? ๐Ÿ™‚

  35. posted by HistoricStitcher on

    Ever since my first background check in 1995 I have kept a list of residences, a list of jobs (including salaries, boss, address, phone, and dates of employment), and a list of contacts for each address. That background check needed ALL the places I had EVER worked and the contact, etc. info for each, as well as every address I’d lived at (EVER) and a contact who knew me at that address. The lists are electronic, and I have updated them over the years as software changes and jobs and residences change.

    Recently I had easy access to them for a new background check and had no difficulties in filling out the information! (Yeah, I work in an industry where background checks are thorough and don’t transfer with you. Blah.)

  36. posted by E. Goldstein on

    Sad to see a discussion on how we need to keep to make sure and records so that we can facilitate government background checks on us.

    I understand this has always been “normal” for CIA analysts and military types. But jeesh, now it seems every ordinary joe is subject to background checks. The surveillance state creeps up on you …

  37. posted by Erin Doland on

    @wobagi — No need to apologize!!

    The “punishment” for having incomplete or incorrect information can be not being approved for whatever reason a person is seeking the background check — especially if the government believes that you’re purposefully trying to mislead them.

  38. posted by Leslie on

    I used to always keep a list of my old addresses and phone numbers just because I thought it was interesting. I had no idea I might actually need them all someday! I haven’t updated it in awhile though – I’d better get on that. So do they want all the addresses you’ve ever lived at (like when you were a kid living with your parents?) or just the one’s since you moved out as an adult (or college student) house?

  39. posted by spf1000000 on

    zabasearch.com can be helpful (albeit a bit frightening). I couldn’t remember an old apartment # but found it– and my old phone number!– by searching for my name there.

  40. posted by Battra92 on

    I’m sure you were sick and tired of those MF snakes in that … well you get the idea. ๐Ÿ˜‰

    Honestly, I have to admit I’m from a completely different life experience given that my parents never moved since they were married so I never moved around much. Heck, I really don’t think I’ll move more than 3 times in my life.

  41. posted by Michele on

    I think I’m bad luck, because three of my previous employers no longer exist! I could list the addresses of the buildings they used to lease, does that count?

    When applying for a bunch of jobs with tedious paper applications (like summer work during school) I finally got smart and scanned a completed application for my records. No more wracking my brain for a dozen different three-month jobs.

  42. posted by jocelyn on

    I have only gotten rid of 2 things and regretted it: a book of fairy tales (I had two collections and got rid of the wrong one by mistake) and a pair of 9″ cake pans which I afterwards needed and had to drive 50 miles to buy (Target, Michaels, NO ONE anywhere near me had 9″ cake pans).

  43. posted by Sam on

    ha ha, too funny! I sympathise with your problem – I wised up a few years ago and have kept a single page from one bank statement that has my previous addresses on them.

  44. posted by amanda on

    I discovered that a great place to find almost all of my old addresses is on Amazon.com. It keeps all the addresses that you have sent to — if you have a login. I’ve had a login there since, like, 1999? Is that possible? Anyway, it seems to go back that far.

  45. posted by JT in the Army on

    When I was in college I had 7 addresses in 5 years, then after college I moved a few times. When I had to update my addresses for a security check last week I found out I had 12 addresses since I turned 18years old.
    I lucked out that I kept a hard copy of previous background check paperwork so I only had to add 3 addresses to the list- all of which were from this year.
    You better believe I made a few copies of the updated list- for my military records and for my personal records.

  46. posted by Ladders INC on

    This is a great read.thanks..which reminds me i have to remember all my old addresses coz I always throw away things that are unimportant and dated a year ago for my de-cluterring.

  47. posted by Rebecca on

    Amanda’s tip is great – I’ve never lived anywhere and not had an Amazon package delivered! Mine also go back to 1999 or so.

  48. posted by EmmBee on

    I don’t have my former addresses, but I keep an extensive Word file of my past employment. The information is formatted from most recent to oldest as follows:

    Job Title
    Dates Worked
    Company Name
    My Supervisor’s Name
    Company Address
    Company Phone Number
    Resume style description of job duties
    Salary, including raises
    Reason for Leaving
    Misc Notes, e.g. awards won, or that the company is now closed.

    I found this encompassed pretty much every question asked on applications, so having this information prepared made filling them out a breeze. I also use it to design my resume. When a job falls off my resume because it’s too old or irrelevant, I still have the information in this document in case I need it later, like for a career change where the old experience suddenly becomes relevant.

  49. posted by Cassie Whyte on

    Hi, Thank you for doing what you do – I always enjoy your messages. Your topics go beyond the run-of-the-mill (as does real life).

    As to this topic: I’ve been slogging through a lotta old but sometimes important papers. Started to throw out some ancient financial statements, but kept one from each institution just in case. Threw them into a box, not especially organized because the likelihood of needing them was so low. Flash forward: A few months later, I find out that 2 states I used to live in really had some of my ‘unclaimed’ money in their treasuries, but I had to show something proving I’d lived at specific addresses. A few minutes of rustling thru the box netted me almost $1,700! Life is good ;’).

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