How long should you keep your files?

If you run any kind of business, you accumulate files — both electronic and hard copy — in staggering numbers. It can be overwhelming to even think about what to do with your paperwork, and there is a temptation to just pitch the whole lot. Unfortunately, you need to hold onto an awful lot of it, at least in the short term.

Any financial documents, especially those relating to your taxes, need to stick around for three years according to the IRS. Since your financial paperwork, which may include receipts, bills or tax returns, are hard copy, you’re going to want to consider a couple of factors when deciding where to keep them:

  • Is flooding a regular occurrence in your area?
  • Are there any local pests likely to nibble on your paper?
  • Are you going to be able to easily access specific paperwork without too much effort?

My recommendation for storing paperwork that you may not want in your filing cabinets are the types of plastic bins typically available at office supply stores, such as this one on Amazon.

Documents related to specific projects, such as contracts or research, need to kept at least until the client has fully accepted the project, and you have received payment in full. Personally, I recommend keeping all contracts and legal paperwork for three years, just like financial documents.

Research notes, interviews, etc. should be kept indefinitely, because that information can often be re-purposed for a new article or other project. However, to save on storage and worry, keep these files electronically — scan in notes or type them up, if need be. Electronic files are also easier to search for specific key terms.

Even if you can’t reuse your notes on a given topic, do not throw them away until it’s obvious that you will not need to refer to them for a given project. For example, if you interview a person for a specific magazine article, keep your notes for at least the length of time it takes for one additional issue of the magazine to hit the stand. If there are any corrections or disputes, you can refer to your notes.

If you keep many electronic files, take the time to back up your data regularly. It’s ideal if you can back up your material at a different location than you are currently at — but that can be as simple as burning a CD and dropping it off at a relative’s house.

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