How to store important documents at home: 23 documents to keep

Did you know that fraud doesn’t only happen online? The Federal Trade Commission reported that almost $188 million had been lost to fraud using cash payment methods.

Fraud can also happen offline, and sometimes, it starts at home.

Have you ever experienced looking for an important document, and it took you hours to find it?

If you keep physical copies of your documents at home, there’s always a risk of losing them and other people gaining access to them and your personal information. That’s why it’s crucial to ensure that your important papers are stored securely.

We scoured the internet and asked security experts for valuable tips on keeping documents at home. We also read stories from others who got their home documents and personal information compromised and the lessons they’ve learned.

In this article, we’ll help you have a systematic way of keeping important documents safe at home. So keep reading until the end and discover what we think is the best tip for keeping essential records secure at home and avoid doing all the wrong things in storing papers with sensitive information.

How can you keep documents safely at home

Stacking your files in different parts of your house or office can be tempting due to immediate convenience. However, you’ll soon realize it’s safer and more practical to keep your documents in one place.

Here are some tips for storing your documents safely at home:

Use a filing cabinet

Almost all filing cabinets can be locked, allowing you to protect yourself from document theft. Most of them are also heat resistant in case of fire. Also, small animals can’t destroy your files when they’re placed here.

We recommend placing your hard-to-replace documents, such as legal and financial ones, in a filing cabinet. Aside from its security features, this storage is also excellent for homes with limited space.

Put them in a safe

A home safe can safeguard your documents from fire, floods, and small animals. It also comes with a combination of a dial and an electric lock.

Safes are made from heavy-grade steel with varying wall thickness. You can store pieces of jewelry, documents, and large sums of cash inside it.

However, it’s usually for commercial purposes. If you’re looking for a smaller safe, the equivalent of it is a lockbox, which has the same quality.

Use a Lockbox

As its name suggests, it comes with a lock and key, and sometimes, with a password. You can protect your files from fire and water by keeping them in a home lockbox. 

A small box would be enough for the highest-priority documents that must be stored here, like birth certificates, passports, and Social Security forms.

Store your document storage out of sight

You can store them in a place that’s out of sight yet easy to access in emergencies. We recommend putting the lockbox and filing cabinet in the bedroom closet or coat closet so burglars can’t find them easily. 

Shred old documents

You can also shred old documents, which we will discuss in the later sections. This practice can help prevent identity theft because the information in such papers can’t be accessed by anyone.

Don’t store them in the freezer

We found out that some people store important documents in the freezer, but moisture levels can damage papers. In the end, they needed to request replacement documents. It also requires you to check on them often to ensure they’re properly sealed.

Digitize your documents

This is what we found is the most effective way to keep your documents safe at home.

Amy Shunick, an expert in organizational processes and measurement systems of Bennett Packaging Company, recommends creating a digital version of your documents and keeping them on an external harddrive. You should also keep the harddrive and original files inside your lockbox.

Alternatively, you can put the digitized version in a password-protected folder on your computer or secure cloud storage. Once you have the digitized version, you can dispose of the physical documents that you no longer need.

Again, always keep your documents out of sight inside your home. You can never be sure even with the visitors you welcome in your home.

How to set up a good home filing system

Organizing personal files can also help you keep them safe, away from prying eyes. Here are a few tips:

  1. Collect documents

Gather all of your papers in one place. We recommend checking your bags and drawers because these are the places where papers can accumulate.

  1. Create categories

Categorizing your documents makes it easier to find them when you need them. You can use general categories, such as:

  • High-priority
  • Household
  • Archive
  • Recycle
  • Shred

It’s alright not to be specific during this step because you can further categorize the documents later.

  1. Make subcategories

For example, you can organize medical records per family member and year of issuance. This will also make it easier to go through them when you review your files and need to discard the old ones.

  1. Label your folders

You need to move from general to specific when creating labels. For example, write first “Finances” before “Credit cards” and “Debit cards.” Under “Credit Cards,” you can categorize according to banks.

  1. Dispose of old documents

When you have old documents that you no longer need, it’s best to shred them, especially if they contain your PII.

What do you need to shred, and what not to shred? This category includes:

  • Old bills and ATM receipts
  • Old bank statements
  • Credit reports
  • Cancelled checks
  1. Fill your lockbox and cabinet.

This is when you need to decide where to store legal documents and other paperwork.

It’s best to arrange the general labels alphabetically for convenience. We also recommend putting legal documents in a lockbox. On the other hand, you can keep your paperwork inside a filing cabinet.

An organized document filing system prevents you from misplacing important files with your personal details. Try to make it a habit to improve your personal security.

Physical vs. digital document storage

For centuries, people have preserved documents through physical formats. 

When done right, physical document storage is still a good way of keeping your essential files. It will be difficult for criminals to access your private files remotely, which is an easy thing to do for online hackers.

Here’s a list of advantages and disadvantages of physical document storage:

PROSCONS
Safe from computer viruses and online hackersProne to physical damage by natural calamities and small animals
Can’t be obsolete, unlike floppy discs and other digital formsLack of space for tiny houses and offices
Can be destroyed permanently by shreddingDifficulty in editing important documents

Some of these problems are solved by the digital document storage, but it also has pros and cons:

PROSCONS
Almost all websites and internet service providers employ high-end security measuresStill vulnerable to online viruses, malware, and hackers
All documents are stored in the cloud, so there’s no need for additional space in your homesNo assurance of complete destruction
Can be easily accessed by using the search barDifficulty accessing the digital paperwork due to internet connectivity problems

In storing physical papers, only you have access to the documents, unlike in digital document storage, where even cloud service providers, such as Google Cloud Platform and Microsoft Azure, can monitor your files.

What are the effects of not storing important documents?

Some consequences when you don’t store important documents properly:

Identity theft

Burglars can easily get your essential documents for the purpose of identity theft or fraud. Identity theft happens when someone uses your information to commit a crime, apply for a loan, or get medical services. That means you could be implicated in a crime or involved in a loan agreement you’re not a part of.

Missing papers

You’ll have a difficult time finding important paperwork when you need it. For example, you must present a birth certificate when applying for a loan. But if you don’t have an efficient filing system, you will be compelled to pay for another copy.

Ruined documents

Your documents will be destroyed quickly in case of fire, floods, and other unfortunate events.

There’s also a chance that rodents and other small animals will ruin your paperwork because they’re not in a protected place.

What documents should you keep at home?

Here are the top five documents you need to store inside your lockbox:

DocumentsImportance
Birth certificateIt authenticates your identity and nationality so you can receive benefits and request other documents.
Social Security cardIt identifies your businesses and lets government offices track your financial information. Scammers can use it to apply for a loan under your name.
PassportIt verifies your identity, especially when traveling. A passport is also a widely-accepted ID card that scammers can present to companies and government agencies.
Annual tax returnsThey contain your income, expenses, and other relevant information that fraudsters can use for tax identity theft fraud.
Health insurance policiesThey include your medical benefits and covered treatments that scammers can use to commit medical identity theft. 

What else should you include in your family document organizer? You can check out this important documents checklist.

Legal identification documents

  • Marriage licenses
  • Adoption papers
  • Veterans benefits

Property records

  • Vehicle titles
  • House deeds
  • Mortgage documents
  • Insurance policies

Tax documents

  • Tax-related records

Education records

  • Diplomas
  • Professional certificates and licenses

Medical records

  • Wills, living wills, and powers of attorney
  • Burial instructions
  • Current medical bills

Financial records

  • Current credit and debit card statements
  • Business licenses, if any
  • Investment statements
  • Retirement plan records
  • Disability or unemployment records

You can dispose of other papers or reuse them for a good cause.

But did you know you can store documents away from home by keeping them in a safe deposit box?

Banks and financial institutions offer rentals of safe deposit boxes for $15 to $150 a year. You can put coin collections, jewelry pieces, rare collectibles, and business contracts here.

However, we recommend not putting the top five documents inside a deposit box because you always need those papers.

You can contact reputable banks and financial institutions to inquire regarding the process of renting a deposit box.

How long should you keep documents?

You don’t need to keep all the papers forever. Here’s a table to show you how long to keep certain documents:

DocumentsHow long to keep it
Legal identificationForever
Education recordsForever
WillsForever
Bank records3 to 6 years
Tax records7 years
Credit card records3 to 6 years or until canceled
Current billsUntil payment is documented
Property recordsDuring ownership plus 3 to 6 years after disposition

When you declutter, you can also feel a sense of relief because disposing of old documents means you have one less thing to worry about. 

Since the destruction of physical papers is permanent, no one can access your personal information contained in the old files.

Should you store your documents at home?

Despite the presence of computers and cloud services, keeping essential papers in your home is still necessary. But you need an efficient and safe filing system, which includes categorizing and labeling each folder and using robust storage.

You can use a lock box to store legal identification documents, while a filing cabinet is best for other paperwork. A good home filing system can help prevent identity theft, fraud, and loss of money.

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