OUR TAKE

Trash vs. Treasure

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By Dayana Yochim (TMF School)
August 6, 2003

Feeling a bit unorganized? It could cost you. For instance, that bill you got three months in advance for your local car tax isn't going to magically find its way to the top of the "to do" pile in October. You don't want your reminder to come in the form of a $60 ticket come Oct. 2. (Perhaps we're projecting a bit here.)

Fools on the discussion boards have some great tips for preventing financial foul-ups due to disorganization and needless complexities. Things like carrying just two credit cards and rolling over 401(k) funds from your ex-employer's program into one self-directed IRA can keep you golden in the eyes of Uncle Sam, your spouse, and the local ticket tyrants.

Check out the lively discussions taking place on the Get Organized and Voluntary Simplicity discussion boards. (There's a free discussion board trial going on right now. So take a peek.)

Here are a few rules of thumb when it comes to simplifying your financial file cabinet (or those 11 dusty piles underneath your desk):

Throw away after one month: Bills. Once you get the next month's bill that shows that you did indeed pay last month's electricity bill, trash it.

Keep until reconciled: ATM and credit card receipts, and canceled checks (if you're still banking the old-fangled way) should be kept until you get your bank or credit card statement and can check them off. If you bank online or do automatic bill-pay (for which you are mailed a receipt), same goes.

Keep for one year: Those monthly brokerage and retirement account statements (including the colorful newsletters and whatnot) can be recycled after one year. However, keep your annual statements indefinitely.

Keep until you discard the item: Larger purchases -- such as jewelry, art, a Segway -- should be kept in your insurance file (if insured) or until you decide that ear-to-ear emeralds just aren't your thing. Same goes for stocks. Your brokerage and mutual fund statements will continue to clog your file cabinet until you decide to sell that over-priced mutual fund or stock you bought on a bad tip. However, if you need the statements for tax purposes, be sure to keep them in your tax file for a safe seven years.

Keep for seven years: Tax-related stuff (returns, receipts) can come in handy within three years should you find yourself in line behind Kenneth Lay for an audit. The IRS can come after you up to six years later if it suspects you under-reported.

Keep indefinitely: Your IRA contribution paperwork (including your work retirement account summaries) should sit in your "Do Not Discard" box. They offer proof that you paid taxes on non-deductible contributions when it comes time to start dipping into the kitty. Also keep your last pay stub from any job that you leave.

Now go plant yourself by the shredder and organize those piles of paperwork. Only this time resolve to actually use color-coded files.  

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