Rip it to shreds

OK, I admit it: I am a type-A, large scale, major league worrier.

I’m not to the level where I’m afraid to leave my house, or anything along those lines. But I do worry. My worrying tends to be along the lines of playing out different scenarios in my head, and minimizing risk or error. (That comes from a decade of working at jobs where minimizing risk and error was my main task.)

One thing I’ve always been a worrier about? Making sure that any of my personal documents are properly trashed once I no longer need them. That may seem a little OCD, but I’ve had at least a half dozen friends who have experienced identity theft.

I’d had a couple years of documents (old credit card bills and bank statements) that had accumulated on (and under) my desk. So I was happy to learn about a place where I could take those documents and have them shredded for free.

A few Saturdays ago, my partner and I drove to the Wicker Park neighborhood, where Secure EcoShred had an on-site shredding event in the parking lot of a store there. The Wicker Park/Bucktown Chamber of Commerce had partnered with Secure EcoShred to provide this service a few times a year.

I talked for a few minutes with one of the people from Secure EcoShred. It’s a woman-owned business that’s based here in Chicago. I was impressed at their commitment to the environment (all documents are recycled once shredded, and when possible, the shredding trucks are fueled with biodiesel fuel).

Mostly, I was just happy to have all those documents out of my house – and satisfied that I could watch it being shredded. I’m going to try to talk to the condo associations in my building and neighboring buildings (I live in a “condo alley”) and see if there’s any interest in setting up a shredding event in my neighborhood.

Since you probably don’t worry about these things, let me give you the Worrier’s Checklist on how to avoid identity theft and sensibly dispose of those important personal documents. This may seem like common sense, but when we get super-busy and overbooked, this is the kind of self-care and awareness that’s first to go.

Mail. Most people have secure mailboxes, but be concerned if your mailboxes aren’t locked, or if they’re easily accessible to anyone who enters the building. I’ve lived in a few old buildings (like the traditional Andersonville third-story walkup) where even if a security door existed, the mailboxes were on the public side. If you get a credit card offer or a bank statement that you don’t want to keep, NEVER just tear it up and toss it in the hallway trash. That’s exactly how one friend of mine had someone start a credit card in her name.

Bank accounts. I won’t pull a Suze Orman on you here and ask why you aren’t paying closer attention to your bank statements. But bank statements should be kept for several years – the IRS suggests three. I hate having them lay around, so I got a three ring binder and just punch ’em and throw them in the binder once I get them.

You can ALSO choose to have a paper-free statement if you have online access at your bank, but generally the bank only keeps a year to 18 months online. It’s also important to make sure any other bank-related items (your checkbook register, an NSF notice) are properly shredded as well.

Credit cards. The easiest way to think about credit card bills and correspondence is this: Anything you receive in the mail from your credit card company? Is like another copy of your card floating around. Make sure you retain or shred anything from them. One common mistake people make when receiving a new card is to take the document it’s attached to – you know, the one with your account number and credit limit – and just leave it on a desk or toss it into the trash. We’re so happy and pumped to have that shiny new card that we forget all about everything else! That document needs to be shredded, too.

Where to shred. If you work in an office, chances are you have a shred bin or a shredder. Your company might not mind your use of those resources on a one-off basis, but I’d be reluctant to suggest you use it all the time, since that may be considered a misuse of company resources. Some banks, particularly smaller, community based banks or credit unions, may offer shredding as a service to its customers. And of course, you can buy a shredder, though in this economy, spending anywhere from $50 to $150 for something that’s used only occasionally doesn’t seem like a great idea.

Keeping it together. Many of us are disorganized and lose track of our money because we’re so scattered. I’ve helped a few of my friends get organized by setting up two things: a filing cabinet, and an “inbox.”

The inbox is a single spot where you can keep all their mail and bills until you have a chance to sit down and take a closer look. Managing money and paying bills is usually easier when you can sit down and look at the big picture all at once, rather than in 30-second increments as you’re running out the door or coming home after a long day.

The filing cabinet sounds more complicated than it is, but it’s simple and cheap. You don’t need to buy a whole metal filing cabinet (which can run at least $100), especially if you’re a single person. Places like Target, Staples and Wal-mart will have plastic storage boxes (usually for under $10) and a box of 20 hanging files is maybe another $5.

Take ten or fifteen minutes to set it up – again, very simple: Just set up a folder for every bill you pay. Credit cards, cell phone, cable, car payment, rent or mortgage. I’d recommend a couple others if you really want to be organized (receipts, medical information, insurance, one related to documents from your employer). And you’re done. It becomes super-easy to keep documents organized and out of the way.

Do you have any suggestions for storing and managing your personal documents, or ripping them to shreds?


  1. Great suggestions, Patrick. I bought a small shredder from Target a few years ago for about $30. It’s not huge and you can’t shred multiple pages at the same time, but it’s great for occasional shredding of personal documents.

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