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Michelle Singletary: The season of the purge

For the past two weeks, I've pulled out all the financial folders in my home-office file cabinet to see what I need to keep.
For the past two weeks, I've pulled out all the financial folders in my home-office file cabinet to see what I need to keep.
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WASHINGTON — Only two boxes left.

Every spring, I purge.

It's a ritual I learned from my grandmother Big Mama. Around late March, she would begin her spring cleaning, starting with taking down the heavy winter curtains. She would make us sort through our closets to get rid of clothes that no longer fit. We had to clean out the drawers in the house to get rid of school papers and other things we didn't need. It was a weekend-long project that, frankly, I hated.

I wanted to be outside with my friends. Shaking out the dust from the area rugs on the back porch would leave me in a sneezing fit. And all the white sheer curtains that needed to be hung had to be ironed. Any wrinkles, and back down they came for another round.

But as Big Mama promised, I would one day thank her for instilling in me some things that will forever make my life better.

I take her advice every spring to also clean up my financial life. For the past two weeks, I've pulled out all the folders in my home-office file cabinet to see what I need to keep. And I went through the stacks of files that never even made it in. As I've done in the past, I'm encouraging you to join me in this seasonal practice. Think of me as Big Mama 2.0.

"Spring cleaning is important because it forces you to engage with your information," said Eleanor Blayney, consumer advocate for the Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards.

It's also a great way to assess where you are financially, Blayney told me in an interview.

There's no telling what you may find. I'll make a confession: I found a check that I didn't even know I had. My kids, who bring in the mail, had put it in a pile in my office. Thank goodness it was still good. In general, personal checks have a lifespan of six months, after which you have to get them reissued. Now, as a result of the cleaning, we have designated a box for all incoming mail.

Here are three spring-cleaning categories to use as you sort through your financial files.

Shred: If you have documents with account numbers or other sensitive information, don't just toss them into the recycling bin. Be sure to shred them.

So much of what you need financially you can get online. If you haven't already, set up online accounts for your various financial relationships. And when you do, please use complicated passwords, not just your name or birthdate. Sign up to have the statements delivered electronically. And if you're worried about missing something, set up alerts. I get beeped all day with alerts I've set up, but I'm glad to have them. They remind me to pay attention to my accounts.

Save: Of course, you'll need to keep birth certificates, military records and other vital documents. But take a step to protect them further. Get a fire- and water-resistant safe. For tips, go to and search for "Choosing and using a home safe."

Scrap: Be brutal.

I tend to keep a lot of paper. Even though so much of our financial lives is online, I just can't seem to throw anything away. So lots of stuff gets shoved into folders with a promise to myself that I'll go through them one day.

When that day came, I was ruthless. Receipts from a West African fellowship I took 22 years ago? Trashed. I had kept them as keepsakes.

Receipts with proof that I made certain co-payments in the years before 2014? Gone. I could get rid of them because I had already submitted my claims for reimbursement for my health care spending account. Once I file the report for this year, the receipts for 2015 will also be shredded.

If I hadn't touched a particular nonsensitive document in more than a year, I placed it in the recycling bin, which is now situated next to my desk so that I don't create more folders in the future.

I'm also in the process of researching online services that will fully copy and back up my files and software. An external hard drive attached to my computer backs up my data regularly but it's still vulnerable, according to security experts. Hackers can hijack it along with your computer files.

There is something so soothing about clearing out the clutter. So empower yourself. Face your finances. Go purge.

Readers can write to Michelle Singletary c/o The Washington Post, 1150 15th St., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20071. Her email address is Follow her on Twitter at SingletaryM or Facebook at