Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Pack Rat Solutions -- Financial Advisors vs. Genealogists

Because I am "into genealogy," I am also more than a bit of a pack rat.  Or is it that I am a natural-born pack rat and so I am attracted to genealogy like a moth to a flame because it provides a somewhat socially acceptable excuse for saving everything?  Who knows?  I know a pack rat is usually defined as "a person who stores anything they acquire and will discard none of it."  In more ways than my family would like, I qualify.  I have years of TIME magazines, Scouting patch collections, wine bottle cork collections that have been waiting years to be made into bulletin boards and other creative projects, shelves overflowing with books, an ever-growing collection of family photographs and genealogical artifacts, AND the financial records of my immediate family going back -- well more years than I care to admit on a public blog!  I mean these records include years of canceled checks, bank statements, credit card statements with receipts, various utility bills, investment records of all description, and on and on.  If it isn't a disease, it is at least an embarrassment.  
A year or so ago, I devoted an entire weekend to organizing our investment and and other asset documents in numerous three-ring binders that now live neatly in a two-shelf credenza.  It is truly a thing of beauty and I periodically just open the doors to gaze at the organized and labeled wonder of it all.  

By contrast, this past weekend I finally looked at the bulging lateral file drawers filled with all the paperwork on the spending side and had a talk with myself.  "Enough is enough," I said to myself.  "You cannot stuff anymore into these 3-foot long drawers and there is no room for another four-drawer lateral file.  You have got to get a grip and do something!"

And so, I started where everything starts these days.  I sat at the computer and Googled . . . "How long should financial records be saved?"  From the myriad results, I chose one that provided easy-to-digest bullet lists of items under such useful and direct headings as What To Keep For 1 Month: What To Keep For 1 Year; What To Keep For 3 Years; What To Keep For 7 Years; What To Hold "While Active"; and (now we're talking) WHAT TO KEEP FOREVER. 

The FOREVER list was no surprise.  Unlike the folks in our Congress, I saw immediately that financial advisors and genealogists really had some common ground.  They were sympatico when it came to the critically important documents that should be saved FOREVER: marriage license(s), birth certificates, wills, adoption papers, death certificates, and records of paid-off mortgages.  

And then things began to get dicey.  My pack rat genes started to send panic messages to my breathing and stress control centers when I looked at the financial advisor's time limit rules on the existence of all the other stuff -- the document treasures I had that I was being told should be discarded after a mere month or 1, 3 or 7 years.  For example, I was told that the twenty-five year old records I had of the sale of our first house should have been destroyed 22 years ago!  [Say what!?]  And the years of various utility bills, paycheck stubs, credit card statements, and canceled checks should not even exist after a mere 365 days or 1 year!   I simply could not believe what I was reading.  These records are genealogical gold I thought.  Financial advisors are Philistines!

I mean really, wouldn't you like to know how much your grandfather or great grandfather actually made per year?  And would it interest you to know what your ancestors actually paid for things like shoes, their car or buggy, their home, heating oil or coal, food, insurance and sundry other costs of everyday living "back in the day?"  I would too!  AND I expect that at least some of my descendants will be bitten by the genealogy bug and be curious 100 or more years from now about what Molly and I earned and spent on various items important to our lives.

I know, I know.  There are sources where one can find out what various items cost at given points in the past, but most of those are averaged costs and not necessarily specific to a given region, state, or county let alone what one's particular ancestor actually paid to procure the necessities and luxuries of living.

So all of this musing still left me with the task of weeding out drawers full of years of financial records without sending my genealogical pack rat proclivities into panicked overdrive.  I paused to think.  I decided I would construct some common ground, design some compromise between the advice of financial advisors and the need and desire to save things of interest to the future genealogist in our family.  I thought of how cool I thought it was to have the 1864 - 1865 Internal Revenue License issued to my 2x great grandfather, Mason Freeman, for the general store he owned and ran.  It was invalid after one year and surely any financial advisor would have told him to burn it or throw it away once it was ineffective.  I am certainly glad he did not do that because I now have the original license in my collection 148 years later!

I examined 12 linear feet of lateral file space stuffed with years of financial records and decided there was a way to save some documents and discard the rest.  I decided I could reduce to perhaps three or four binders a nice treasure trove from the 12 linear feet of financial paper and set about the task --which is still underway, of course, because no pack rat worth his or her title moves quickly or precipitately when deciding to part with valuable stuff!

Here are just a few examples of the plan I am formulating and implementing . . .

>  Canceled checks show a history of where we have lived over the years, our autographs, the banks we used, etc.  I decided to get archive quality pocket pages and save at least one check from each bank and location we have lived in with samples of my writing and Molly's writing included among them.
>  I will save a sample of various utility bills (electric, cable/ISP, heating fuel, etc.) to show what these items actually cost us and save perhaps one a year over many years to show how such costs varied for us.
>  Some of our credit cards provide year-end summaries of purchases divided into categories so at a glance we can see how much we spent on dining out, hotel stays and other expenditures.  I will save these from various years to show the institutions we did business with and how we spent our disposable income.  All the individual monthly statements and receipts will be destroyed.
>  I will save the basic purchase documents for the cars we have owned to show descendants the make, model and cost.  I will save the basic home purchase documents showing the cost of the home, how much was financed, what interest rate was paid, etc.
>  I will save the last pay statements of each year that will show how much we made, the taxes we paid on that earned income, the deductions that were had taken out, our net pay, etc.  Showing these over the years will show how our income grew or fluctuated and give some idea of how we provided for such items as health insurance, life insurance, retirement investments, charitable donations, and taxes.
>  The investment binders are already organized, but they too will be winnowed down to save a representative sample of investments over the years.  My annual investment and asset summaries will all be saved and show how our investments performed over time -- the good, the bad, and the ugly!

I think I have a plan to find a compromise between what all the financial advisors say should be a gradual destruction of all but a very few important documents and the wishes of a genealogist to have a trove of materials that will tell as complete a story as possible about how an ancestor actually lived day-to-day.  What do you think?  

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Image of "Prunella the Packrat" from Season 15, Episode 6A of the PBS animated children's series  Arthur and found at http://arthur.wikia.com/wiki/Prunella_the_Packrat.

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Copyright 2013, John D. Tew
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  1. I never had the luxury to save 'everything'. And I never lived in one place for more than 6 or 7 years; for the past 32 years after my divorce, I moved every 2-4 years. Boxes and boxes of books and other memorabilia simply had to go. But in a fire, I still know what to grab first as I run out the door or window - that personal photo album, that great-grandfather's souvenir album, that insurance file & those precious docs in one folder... Most things have been scanned or photographed and are in the cloud. And, today I looked up ads in newspapers for my grandparents [1911, 1914] and parents [1922, 1941]to see what various things cost, the images of cars and clothing, etc. Fascinating.
    You are leaving a true treasure of records on you and your family, and in a way I envy you the ability to do so. Cheers.

  2. Sounds like a good plan. I'm the same way. I've scanned some receipts so I at least have a digital copy. Doesn't take up space that way ��. Good luck!

  3. What a treasure trove! I feel your pain. I had to sort through my Dad's papers, and he was quite a pack rat, too. I kept some gems, like the bill for my wedding ($8.50 a person, including wine in 1983- that was a good one to show my daughter when she was married last May), or the Dr. bill from my birth ($50 in 1961), or his fifth grade report card. I kept one folder, and the rest we shredded. It was difficult, but I live in a condo and had no space to keep it all.

  4. Those are great keepers! I love the fact that you have the bills for your wedding and your birth. These are records that I suspect are very, very rare in family genealogy documents because they are usually seen as so "of the moment" and get destroyed (or they are seen as personal financial info that should not be seen outside those responsible for the payments). These kind of records go to the heart of my post about saving records that show what our ancestors and families ACTUALLY made and spent. People are really curious about those things and yet they so rarely exist for us. Thanks for sharing the fact of these "treasure" records.

  5. Before I began working on my family history, it was easy to throw out papers -- not just ours, but many of my parents' papers, too. Now that I'm working on family history, I regret not saving the deeds to several of my parents' homes, cancelled checks, paystubs, etc., and some of my husband's and my early financial papers. But now I'm a packrat like you. Still, there's not space to save it all so I'll be acting on a plan similar to yours. Let's hope some descendant will appreciate the effort (if my daughters don't throw it all out!). Thanks for sharing your thoughts and experiences.