A: In the fervor of spring cleaning, it can be tempting to do a wholesale purge of your piled papers. In general though, it's best to err on the side of keeping, since you never know when you'll want to refer to an old receipt or statement. A whole year's worth of records can fit into a file box or an accordion folder or two.
There are some crucial documents everybody needs to keep for good. Make copies of birth certificates, Social Security cards, passports, immigration papers, marriage licenses and divorce certificates, stock and bond certificates, real-estate documents, current insurance policies and wills. Keep originals and copies separate from one another in places like a fireproof home safe, bank safe-deposit box or your lawyer's office.
Your tax returns and all supporting documentation must be kept for at least three years in case of an audit. It's better to keep them for at least seven years, and best to keep them permanently because there is no statute of limitations for IRS investigations that involve a false or fraudulent income tax return. These documents, which include statements from financial institutions and annual credit-card statements, will also come in handy if you apply for a mortgage or loan.
Hold on to receipts or canceled checks for home-improvement projects and big-ticket items for as long as you own the item. You don't need to keep bills for non-tax-deductible items and utilities for more than a year. Day-to-day receipts for credit-card purchases and ATM transactions can be discarded (shred or tear them to be safe) when the monthly credit card or bank statement arrives.
There are also reasons for keeping nonessentials. For example, referring back to your own medical documents might be easier than going through your insurer. To establish a budget, you'll need bills and receipts to track your expenditures. And on a more romantic note, receipts from hotels, restaurants and shops offer information that might otherwise be lost; an old receipt can help you find a restaurant you loved in Paris or the number of the hotel room you stayed in on your honeymoon.
Q: How should I clean my tile shower?
A: Tiles, and the grout between them, are easy to maintain. A quick cleaning after use is the key, according to Dave Gobis, executive director of the Ceramic Tile Education Foundation. Use a wet towel to wipe down the tiles after each shower or rinse them with a hand-held showerhead. Then run a dry towel over the tiles.
If you wipe down your shower every day, you'll only need to clean it once a month, or even less frequently, depending on how many people use it. When it does need a more thorough cleaning, scrub the tiles and grout with a soft-bristle brush and a pH-neutral cleaner. If mildew has built up, use a soft-bristle brush and a cleaner specifically formulated for tile and grout.
Gobis says you should avoid using acidic cleaners. A homemade remedy of vinegar and water will corrode the fixtures and etch the glaze on the tiles, as will phosphoric cleaners.
Q: I have several packets of seeds left over from last year. Are they still viable?
A: Do you know that seeds are living things? Each seed contains an embryo with the genetic information that determines how that plant will grow. Most seeds remain viable for one to three years without being planted, so there is a good chance that your seeds will still germinate.
To avoid disappointment, test them first. Here's an easy technique: Lay 10 seeds (of the same type) on a moist paper towel and fold the towel up, encasing the seeds. Transfer to a resealable plastic bag, label the bag with the seed type and date, and place it in a warm spot.
After a few days, check to see how many of the seeds have germinated, or sprouted. More than 70 percent success, or seven out of 10 seeds, means the seeds are still viable. If the results are between 40 and 70 percent, sow the seeds thickly. If less than 40 percent germinate, it's time to buy new seeds. Seeds will last longer if they're kept in a cool, dry, dark place.
Questions should be addressed to Ask Martha, care of Letters Department, Martha Stewart Living, 11 W. 42nd Street, New York, N.Y. 10036. Questions may also be sent email to: firstname.lastname@example.org. Please include your name, address and daytime telephone number. Questions of general interest will be answered in this column; Martha Stewart regrets that unpublished letters cannot be answered individually. For more information on the topics covered in the Ask Martha column, visit www.marthastewart.com. Copyright 2006 MSLO LLC. All rights reserved.