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The Paper Sorting Hat: Keep, Shred, or Toss?

Lauren Kreps

The Paper Sorting Hat: Keep, Shred, or Toss?

There was a strict edict in my house that any piece of paper containing a first and last name — whether a receipt or the title page of an essay — was sentenced to the shredder.

I used to attribute this rule to parental paranoia, but a closer look at document retention guidelines reveals that Mother really does know best.

In 1988, the Supreme Court ruled that anyone — police or otherwise — is legally permitted to search through your trash once it makes it to a public space (including your curb). This means that merely taking out the garbage could put you and your clients at risk for identity fraud.

So how do you make sure you’re protecting personal information in your home and office? What should you keep, what should you toss, and what should you ensure the total annihilation of? We’ve divided it into three neat piles.


Not all documents are created equal. At the top of the hierarchy are documents you must keep physical copies of forever. These generally include anything related to state or federal matters, like birth certificates, social security cards, marriage and business licenses, wills, and powers of attorney. You might even want to consider keeping original copies of these in a safe deposit box, and storing copies in a fire- and water-proof “emergency kit” in your home or office.

Next are documents you should keep for a period of time. In many cases you can save space and trees by digitizing these files. They include (but are not limited to):

  • Tax records and receipts (seven years from filing date)
  • Paycheck stubs and bank statements (one year)
  • Home purchase, sell, or improvement documents (the US government’s website recommends you keep these as long as you own the property, but in case you get audited a safer rule of thumb is to store them for at least six years after you sell)
  • Medical records (one year after payment)
  • Social Security statement (most recent version)
  • Insurance policy statements (most recent version)

Contracts also fall within the category of documents you should keep for some period of time. Generally you’ll want to keep a contract at least until the transaction is completed. However, if there is a possibility that the terms of a contract may be disputed after the fact, it may be a good idea to keep it around for a few years longer. Luckily, it’s easy these days to keep your contracts indefinitely in electronic form, thanks to scanners and online tools like Shake.


Hopefully it goes without saying that once the retention timeline has expired on any of the above documents, physical copies of them should be shredded — not simply thrown in the trash. The same goes for any documents that contain account information and social security numbers.

Less obvious, perhaps, is the fact that really anything that contains your or your clients’ or employees’ personal information — full name, address, phone number, etc. — should probably hit the shredder. If you want to be more safe, less sorry, destroy:

  • Any mailings from your financial institution, whether or not they include account information
  • Credit card offers and applications
  • Courtesy checks from banks
  • Expired credit cards, visas, passports, and IDs
  • Used airline tickets
  • Receipts with your signature
  • ATM receipts

Finally, if you’re a small business owner it’s good to keep in mind that there are certain state regulations that govern the compliant disposal of sensitive information. You can find information about these with a quick Google search, but if finding the appropriate information seems too overwhelming or time-consuming there are document destruction services that will not only advise you in compliant shredding policies, but also do the shredding for you.


After all this storing and shredding, what’s left for the regular ‘ol bin? The answer is… not much.

Some say it’s okay to throw away receipts that only show the last four digits of your credit card numbers, so long as the receipts aren’t signed and the items purchased are not of particularly high value. Depending on your level of concern, you might also feel comfortable throwing away non-financial catalogs or advertisements that contain your name and address (especially if that information is listed online and already available to the public).

You might be able to guess that in my house, we shred all of this anyway — and we do it with a cross-cut shredder (which creates confetti-like pieces, instead of strips) to be 100% sure that our highly confidential grocery receipts are never pieced back together.

Lauren optimizes Shake’s email marketing and engagement efforts. Prior to working with Shake, Lauren analyzed new user engagement for and worked for startups and social enterprises in Hong Kong. Lauren holds a degree in Philosophy from the University of Pennsylvania, where she wrote her senior thesis on the ethics of the death penalty and watched all sixteen seasons of Law & Order: SVU.