The Perils of Outdated Papers

When clients contact me for help with managing papers, I always ask them, “Do you have a file cabinet?” The answer almost always is, “Yes, but it’s full.”

Usually their file cabinet is full with outdated papers that haven’t been reviewed in a long time. One of the first things I’ll do when I work with these clients is go through the old files and get rid of anything that is no longer relevant. Going through old papers is time-consuming, but it’s worth doing for several reasons.

The obvious reason is that if you don’t ever remove old, outdated papers from your file cabinet, there will be no room for new, current papers. But another important reason is that the outdated papers can cause a lot of confusion.

When I first became a Professional Organizer, I arranged with my elderly parents to spend a day with them organizing their papers so that I would be aware of anything I needed to know if they should become incapacitated. My mother had only a few papers in her desk relating to her financial accounts and her retirement from her government job. Those were well organized and clearly labeled.

My father, who did all the bill paying and management of their joint accounts, was another story. His desk was piled with interlocking desk trays stacked several levels high. We started going through each layer. The further down we got, the older the papers were. It was like an archaeological dig. I would pick up a bank statement and ask, “What about this account?” His reply would often be, “Oh, I closed that account years ago.”

My organized file cabinet

It was so helpful to be reviewing these papers with him while he was still alive and mentally sharp. Imagine if I were trying to piece together his financial picture after he passed away. I wouldn’t know what papers were relevant and which could just be shredded.

I was reminded of this a couple of weeks ago when working with a long-time client. He has several files that pre-date his work with me. He decided to review some of them and found financial account statements from a long time ago. He no longer remembered if these accounts still were active. This required him to make phone calls to each of the financial companies. Not surprisingly, none of the accounts were active, and there was no money there. The statements could be shredded.

I manage the finances and other details for my family. I try to be meticulous in documenting what my family would need to know if I should become incapacitated. Having a process for reviewing, replacing, and recycling or shredding old papers is key to making sure that there are no questions if I’m not here to explain.

If your papers represent an archaeological site rather than a well-organized and up-to-date collection of carefully curated papers, then I suggest you take advantage of all the stay-at-home time we are experiencing now and start reviewing! Should you need some help, contact me or visit the National Association of Productivity and Organizing Professionals to find a Professional Organizer near you.


  1. Janet Schiesl on August 12, 2020 at 7:12 am

    Cleaning out a file cabinet is not always to the top of a to-do list, but it is important, as you said to stay current. I suggest that you do a review once a year, after you pay your taxes.

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