How to Dispose of Documents Properly

Did you know that collectively, 4 million tons of junk mail is received by adults in the United States, every year?

That’s a lot of junk, and the first instinct of most people is to throw it in the trash. 

Junk mail and other documents make up a huge part of the garbage that makes its way to landfills every year, but they almost all make one particular stop first: your trash can or recycling bin.

With the advent of the internet, scammers and fraudsters of all sorts have evolved their game plans with a plethora of new techniques designed to extort money out of unwitting victims. However, one tried and true tactic has remained consistent across decades, even centuries of fraud: dumpster diving.

As the saying goes: “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure” and this applies even for those with impure intentions. All of that junk mail and documentation is a burden on you, but a boon to anyone who happens to go through your trash and take it.

This type of information gathering is a dirty business but it doesn’t stop those trying to make a quick buck, and is more common in places where people have access to many peoples’ trash at once with relative impunity, meaning for the most part your worries are going to be rooted in city living, particularly in apartments with dumpsters anyone can gain access to or public access dumps and recycling centers.

As a result, if you want to protect your identity the best thing you can do is ensure that you don’t just trash any documents you have, but instead ensure that they are completely destroyed to the point the average scammer isn’t going to be making any use of it.

And for most people, that means shredding.

What Documents Should You Shred?

There are two main schools of thought when it comes to shredding: the “surgical” style and the “nuclear” one.

The more focused surgical style would have you prioritize your documents and shred anything with any of the more sensitive types of information on it.

This means you would shred anything with your:

  • Home address
  • Bank information
  • Social security number
  • Credit or debit card number
  • Phone number
  • Email address

Or other types of sensitive, non-public information.

This should cover anything important and keep your shred load low. This is good if you have a small shredder (as it cuts down on the tedium) or have to go to a place that charges by the pound for shredding.

In that case you would sort of prioritize and apply basic risk management to what you want to shred, dividing it into two categories.

High Priority

  • Credit and debit cards
  • Bills
  • Pre-approved credit card offers
  • Anything with vehicle information on it

Low Priority

  • Receipts
  • Sale papers
  • Anything with minimal info (only address, for example)

Of course, the “nuclear option” is the opposite: shred anything and everything. This is a good option if you have a fast, high-powered shredder at home that you can casually drop all these documents into as quickly as you’d be able to drop them in the trash anyway.

Tip!

When taking the “nuclear option”, burning the documents is also a good alternative to shredding if you have the space and ability to do so safely (without violating city ordinances and the like).

When Should You Shred Documents?

Whether you choose to be surgical or extra thorough, the hard part is deciding how long you should keep documents before you start shredding them in the first place.

This is where another tier of categorization comes in, as there are documents that need to be kept for a while, a number of years in fact, before shredding. Some important documents should never be discarded at all, of course.

Keep Forever/Never Destroy

You should never get rid of any important identifying document that you’ll need later. This includes a lot of very important personal information:

  • Social security card
  • Tax returns
  • Passport
  • Proof of citizenship
  • Marriage licenses and divorce papers
  • Birth certificates (or adoption papers)
  • Death certificates in your care

These are the most common, but not necessarily the only things you should keep forever. As a general rule anything you might need to do important necessary tasks like take out a loan, renew a driver’s license, gain a new certification, or anything of that nature should be kept around – safely.

This category also includes things like the deed to any property you own and your car’s title, as well as any receipts for improvements to those properties, at least up until you no longer own the property or vehicle.

Keep For a While

Many documents can be discarded eventually, but need to be kept for a while until they fall off your credit report or for some other reason.

These things vary in time, so you’ll need to keep a close eye on what matters and if you’re not sure when the usefulness of these documents expire you can always safely move them to the “keep forever” pile just to be safe until you are sure.

These types of things include:

  • Tax receipts (up to 7 years)
  • Cancelled checks (up to 7 years)
  • Bank statements (after a year)
  • Pay stubs (after a year)
  • Medical bills (up to a year after bills are paid and insurance disputes settled)

Shred Quickly

Everything in this category involves things you don’t need to prove you have any more. This includes:

  • Sales receipts (immediately)
  • Debt statements (eg credit card, utility bills; about a month after paying off completely)
  • Junk mail
  • Envelopes with your address listed

Wrap Up

Shredding or otherwise destroying documents you have is a good habit to get into. While you might be tempted to keep everything forever in case you need it, for most things you won’t, and it just opens you up to danger from people gaining access to your stored documents. This is an unnecessary and very real risk.

Use discretion when shredding documents, but don’t be too skittish about it.

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