Are your files bulging with ridiculous amounts of paperwork? If you need an important document, can you find it in that mess? As the year closes, this is the perfect time to pare down your files and organize the remaining essentials.
Here’s what to toss
Most of us hang on to much more than we have to. These documents can be discarded today:
• Income tax records over seven years old
• Pay stubs reconciled with W-2s
• Insurance policies you no longer own
• Expired warranties
• Owner’s manuals for electronics or appliances you no longer own
Documents to keep
Some important paperwork should be kept indefinitely. This collection should include birth certificates, Social Security cards, passports and marriage or divorce documentation. You should also permanently store military and education records, legal filings, bankruptcy records and documentation of contributions or withdrawals involving individual retirement arrangements (IRAs).
Estate paperwork also falls into this category. Be sure to keep active life insurance policies, investment beneficiary information and the latest version of your will.
Everything in between
Here’s a list of some of the most common records and how long to hang onto them:
- Tax returns: Keep for seven years from filing date. This includes supporting documents such as 1099 and W-2 forms, year-end bank statements, loan interest documentation, receipts for donations and tax-deductible expenses, and records of capital gains and losses.
- Canceled checks: Once reconciled with bank statements, these can be discarded unless needed for tax purposes.
- Warranties, service contracts and receipts for large purchases: Keep as long as you own the item.
- Monthly utility bills: Discard as soon as you’re credited for payment on the next statement unless needed for taxes or a discrepancy is found.
- Monthly bank and credit card statements: Unless needed for taxes, keep for one year or until any discrepancies are resolved.
- Loans: Retain paperwork until the loan is paid off and then permanently file only documentation that the loan is satisfied.
- Insurance policies: Keep the latest policy until you renew or cancel. Claims paperwork should be retained until claim is resolved unless it’s needed for taxes.
- Deeds and receipts for home improvements: Keep these as long as you own the property.
- Vehicle titles and vehicle repair/maintenance receipts: Retain as long as you own the vehicle.
Once you’ve got the volume of paper under control, individual folders, file cabinets or accordion files allow you to organize your records by date and category. To protect these files, keep them in a fire-safe container or safe deposit box, which institutions like Luso Federal Credit Union provide. If you decide to store any documents electronically, use an encrypted external drive and make sure the technology remains up to date so information can always be retrieved. The time you spend organizing records will be well worth it when you realize you’ll never again have to experience the panic of searching high and low for an elusive document.
Roberta Pescow, NerdWallet