JUST IN CASE. That's a solid reason to keep every single molecule you've ever touched or breathed in your entire life. YOU NEVER KNOW. It's true. YOU MIGHT NEED IT LATER. Most of us spend time sitting in this feeling, this sense that keeping things provides security in life. Some of us eventually realize that this emotion is a phase. It can go away. As for me, the dominant feeling in my life is curiosity. I can't stop at BECAUSE as an answer to anything. Why exactly am I supposed to keep certain papers "indefinitely"? Can't I just scan them and keep digital copies?
The obvious question raised by this imprimatur to keep particular papers is, what if I can't? What if:
Burst water main
I'm an historian. It's a sad fact of the field that priceless relics and invaluable archival material are often lost to the sands of time. All sorts of buildings containing public records burned down in the 19th century because everything was made of wood and the available technology for light and heat was dangerous. There's no viable way to demand that anyone keep a piece of paper unto eternity, because there's no physical way to guarantee its continued existence on the material plane.
The real questions for me are twofold: 1. Do I need to keep it at all? 2. Do I need to keep a hard copy?
I have a fireproof safe. It cost about $120 and I got it at Harbor Freight. "Fireproof" means the papers inside won't spontaneously combust for an hour in a burning building. That's 60 minutes. The safe is more of a sunblock for documents.
What papers need to remain as paper? (As opposed to vellum, papyrus, stone tablet, or other medium of codex?) The stuff we use most often, such as a passport, is more convenient to keep on paper. Never irk a border control agent. Most of our important "papers" are really plastic now. Drivers license, debit and credit cards, various forms of identification. I really want to access these accounts with my fingerprint, or an intense stare, but for now they're plastic. I get why it makes life easier to keep these things, but I'm awaiting the day when they'll become obsolete.
We each have a sheaf of photocopies in our go bag. These are documents suggested by various preparedness websites, including ready.gov. The purpose is to prove who we are in the event that we lose our wallets and there's no phone or grid up for a few days. Plan B, if we have to evacuate our house, is to have basic supplies if we need to go to an emergency shelter. Passport, drivers license, medical and dental insurance cards, AAA card, marriage certificate, and a list of emergency contacts since I stopped memorizing phone numbers around 1993. I sincerely hope we never need these papers. This is the only scenario I can think of when actual, bona fide compressed tree parts would be truly necessary.
Our wedding certificate is in the safe. It makes me feel all gooey when I look at it. We've needed photocopies of it at various times over the years, mostly for health insurance and HR stuff.
The reason I started to delve into the reasoning behind keeping certain papers 'indefinitely' is that I want to get rid of my divorce paperwork. I kept seeing a line item putting these papers in the 'permanent storage' category. I don't want that to be the answer. So I did some research. It turns out that the main reason to hang onto divorce papers is that it can be inconvenient to get copies from the courthouse. If you were married at least ten years before the divorce, you can apply for social security benefits under your former spouse, and you'd need those papers then. That doesn't apply to me. You also might need a copy of your divorce decree if you want to legally change your name. I remarried and changed my name, so that also doesn't apply to me. The only other circumstances would be if you had children or property together, and there were ongoing legal issues affecting them. That doesn't apply to me either. I was divorced 16 years ago, and I haven't heard a peep out of my ex in over a decade. I've started to realize that that part of my life is over-over. Further, I'm pretty sure that what I have on hand is not an official copy of the divorce decree anyway, but merely a photocopy. First I'm going to burn these papers, and then I'm going to rip the tags off my mattress. Go big or go home!
Tax returns - keep them, but you don't need the backup papers after 7 years. Be nice to the IRS because they can pursue you into the afterlife.
Deeds, titles, bonds, other super-official stuff. Keep them too, and if you have a lot of this kind of thing, consider a safe deposit box and/or fireproof safe.
Everything else is optional.
How much are you keeping out of fear?
How much are you keeping out of confusion and lack of information?
How much are you keeping because sorting your stuff would be time-consuming and boring?
How much are you keeping because paper is the least of your worries, and you're clearing other categories of stuff first?
How much are you keeping because you believe memories are solid?
How much are you keeping because it symbolizes a part of your identity?
How much paper is in your home, covering surfaces, because you just don't want to deal with it? How much of that is junk mail, catalogues, expired coupons, and obsolete invitations?
'Getting organized' is about making sure your life runs smoothly. You're trying to take care of problems in the present and not pass the buck to Future Self. Part of the work of getting organized involves physical objects, but almost all of it is about mental bandwidth. It's much more important to be on top of your financial, legal, and career world than it is to have a clean desk. That being said, PAPERS ARE THOUGHTS and releasing them can be a very effective way of liberating your powers of focus and awareness.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.