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I have years of clutter that I keep around for that mythical "just-in-case" scenario that never happens. Even when I physically put the papers out of sight, I can FEEL them through the closet door, and it's distracting. So I'm scanning everything in and throwing out as much as I can. I'd like to know what I should keep and what I shouldn't keep. Some things like a random plane ticket stub from years ago are obvious, but some things are questionable.

For example, the scanner I bought from Amazon to do this clean-up project came with a warranty certification slip, that says the item name, and my serial number for it, and all the contact information for repairs. It clearly says on it, "save this for your records." Okay, great. But does it become void/invalid if I only have it digitally? What if I have to get it repaired and they say, "include the warranty certification in the box when you ship it to us"...Would a printout of my scanned copy be okay? This is exactly the kind of "just-in-case" scenario that has led me to keep so many documents over time --- it IS unlikely I'll need it, but I know the one time I DO take the leap of faith, the scanner will start smoking, I'll have to send it in, and they won't take it because I don't have the physical original.

I just can't really seem to find any good kind of guide for dealing with these grey zones. Like I said, some things are obviously garbage, and some things obviously must be kept, but so much of it could go either way...

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This is essentially a legal question concerning customer relationship. Some documents may have legal provision whereas others may be described in the purchase contract. This answer assumes you are from the United States but keep in mind laws changes frequently and this answer should not be used as legal reference.

Is my digitized warranty valid?

You mentioned the case of your scanner's warranty. Given that you have a unique serial number for the warranty, this should be enough to confirm a legit purchase but can you be sure they have the records as of when you've bought it? In this case you have the purchase history but you can also use the credit card's or a receipt in other cases. That's enough for standard legal warranties but specific legislation may apply for extended warranties.

How long do I have to keep important documents?

This should be enough to cover the grey areas.

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Both of the references you made only classify into "keep" and "throw out." They really aren't at all clear which paper you need to keep if you are able to make a high-quality scan of it. – Larry Gritz Feb 4 '12 at 2:31
@Larry Make my job easier and try to find a concrete example not covered by the sources. I'll improve my answer if relevant. – Renan Feb 4 '12 at 6:00

My approach is that everything that could possibly be used in future gets scanned and sent to evernote. I put the physical piece of paper into a box marked (for the sake of argument) 'Archive Jan' and the Evernote files are placed in a folder marked 'Archive Jan'. At the end of the month I ship the box to my family home for storage (you could just put it in the loft) and start a new box and a new folder in evernote.

This means I don't have any paperwork laying around (well literally one box in the house), it's all searchable from my computer or iPhone anyway, physical things from the same month are available (and I can work out were they are in the pile by looking at the timestamp in evernote) and older things can be asked for and sent up to me quickly.

Couple of added notes

1) obviously things that will definitely be important (passports, deeds, ect) are kept separately

2) I've been taking this approach for about two years now. I find I need to search evernote about once a week (yesterday for my glasses prescription) and I've not yet needed to send home for the physical copy of any document at all.
3)I plan to start having the boxes destroyed when they reach about three and half years old, but haven't reached this point yet.
4) I have the paid subscription to evernote so it will OCR pdfs - this was particularly useful when I used the work photocopier, which could scan hundreds of pages and then email you the pdf.

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At home I do something vaguely similar, but my routine is as follows:

  • Keep ALL paper for 1 year
  • After 1 year, keep all bank statements, receipts for work, pension plans etc for a further 2 years but scan all the items that are shredded.
  • After 3 years, keep mortgage documents for a further 4 years, but again, scan all shredded items
  • Then scan everything and destroy it.

This makes sure I cover off all tax requirements, and warranties, but prevents my store of paper going beyond one filing cabinet.

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If a paper document doesn't contain any seals or original signatures, and you could print an essentially identical copy at any time if you really need it, why bother keeping paper 1-3 years instead of scanning it and shredding immediately? (Presuming you have a solid plan for backing up your data once it's digitized.) – Larry Gritz Feb 4 '12 at 2:25
It just makes things really easy - I may be a grumpy old man, but I like paper, and find it much easier to search for a particular document in this form than as pdf/photo – Rory Alsop Feb 4 '12 at 10:09

Total Recall: How the E-Memory Revolution Will Change Everything, a book by Gordon Bell and Jim Gemmell provides a good background into electronic record keeping and guidelines for what you should keep. There are also YouTube videos of Gordon and Jim talking about electronic record keeping, eg.,

Essentially they recommend you convert everything into digital form and retain it - on the basis that you never know when you might need the information and/or it also provides a way of looking back at what you have done in the past.

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So I tried to watch this a couple weeks back, but I found it difficult to watch with the volume issues and how dry it was. Does anyone have any other talks of a similar nature that I could check out? – Raystafarian Dec 26 '13 at 13:56

My rule of thumb is: If it doesn't have original seals or signatures (or is on special safety paper, or otherwise clearly distinguishable from a later laser printout), scan it and recycle/shred the paper immediately. Why keep what is essentially a printout, if you could always print another identical copy later if you need it?

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Answering your question, contracts may have it's contents changed and you need to refer to the version as of when you've bought the product. Whatever is added or removed afterwards only concerns future customers. – Renan May 26 '12 at 14:11

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