How to Manage Mail You Get from the Post Office

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Organize Your Postal Mail

The best way to avoid having disorganized and unnecessary piles of postal mail taking up space in your home office is to prevent it from amassing in the first place. This requires that you think hard about each letter and correspondence as it comes in. In general, postal mail falls into one of four categories:

  • Mail with lasting value, which should be retained indefinitely, including receipts you’ll use for taxes, proof that something you sent was delivered and received, and signed papers.
  • Mail associated with a current project or otherwise limited by a calendar date that needs to be held for a period of time and then either archived or deleted. This can include estimates for work you need done, a resume from a potential employee, or a telephone book.
  • Bills that need to be paid. After paying the bill, the information included with it should be immediately filed away.
  • Mail that can be dealt with right now and then discarded immediately. This includes junk mail and coupons, among other things.

These four categories of mail require action that you could characterize as “keep,” “hold,” or “pitch.” Each time you look at letter or correspondence, those three words should be kept in mind. Deciding what mail to keep and what to pitch is a judgment call.

Here are some pointers to keep in mind when the fate of a physical correspondence hangs in the balance:

· Is it relevant to legal or tax matters? Most tax records need to be kept for seven years. Invoices for business expenses, correspondence with your accountant, or anything you would need to either file a tax return or defend in an audit should be retained for at least those seven years.

· Does it really contain factual information? Even if a letter seems to be in a “keep” category, look closely. Does the message really contain factual information that you need to keep for the long term?

· Does it duplicate information you already have elsewhere? If the correspondence simply reiterates something you already have or know, you can throw it away.

· Could you pitch the message after appropriate, simple action? If a correspondent sends you contact information, copy it to your address book and throw away the envelope. You may consider simply cutting the return address out of the envelope and pasting the information in a physical listing of contacts. If the message is a bill, pay it and store the information in an appropriate place.

· Has time and history rendered the message useless or misleading? Messages, like bad wine, can spoil. If someone has sent you a draft of a document and then later on sends you the final copy, the draft may contain errors or omissions that can trip you up if you mistake the draft for the final item.

Use a File Shredder for Correspondence Containing Personal or Financial Data

Most people send and receive postal mail messages containing personal or financial information that could be stolen and used by an identity thief. A clever enough person can recover that information, even after you’ve thrown it out. My neighbor once commented that I should be shredding the papers I put in my trash can – implying he had gone through it! This is particularly important if you put papers in an outdoor trash receptacle that won’t be emptied for a few days.

Tip: If you’re really nervous about getting rid of postal mail, you can always consider the extra work of archiving it into physical files so that it is not irretrievably lost. Almost certainly better is to develop the discipline of just letting it go. Time is precious these days—almost no one goes back and reads old letters “just for fun.” Unless it has an objectively identifiable value for the future—financial or legal records, family history discussions, unique financial advice, or content that you can refer back to and use, things like that—steel yourself to just let it go.