"Grab the shovel, honey! It's time to find the filing cabinet!"
Thus rings the refrain in households across the nation as tax season approaches. Huge stashes of old, paid bills, expired life insurance policies, receipts for broken toys, and cancelled checks for haircuts you got in college -- sound like your filing system? In addition to being a fire hazard, the blizzard of paper only buries the stuff you really do need to find. Particularly come April.
Grab a Hefty bag and start tossing. Here's a list of trash-worthy documents:
Paid bills: After you check them for accuracy and settle up, go ahead and toss your old bills.
Pay stubs: If you are applying for a mortgage, you might need two or three stubs to prove you haven't been fired. Your end-of-the year pay stub is handy to have, too.
Advertising inserts: Trash. Particularly those offers for overpriced or needless services that come in your credit card statement.
Warranties, manuals, repair records, receipts: Electronics tend to come with a file cabinet worth of paper. When you open the box, weed through it and find what you really need. (Directions in French are really only useful to the French, for example.) Once you sell or break your little treasure, send the sheath of manuals with it.
What to keep? Here's a bare-bones rundown:
Current insurance policies: If your policy has expired, toss the related paperwork (so long as no claims are outstanding). As for your current policies, you can get rid of the bills themselves and the offers to expand your coverage. Just keep the policies themselves and any modifications made to them.
Bank statements and cancelled checks: Keep them for seven years -- three if you like to skate close to the edge.
Brokerage statements: Everyone, including brokers and the SEC, says to keep brokerage statements forever, and that's undoubtedly the safe route. But, honestly, if you are sure the records that your broker has sent you are correct, the chances you'll need your own paper records to prove something are pretty slim. For taxable accounts all you really need to keep are the trade confirmation slips and notices of stock splits, mergers, and buyouts (but the monthly statements work as a nice backup if you lose one). When you sell a stock, simply match the buy slip with the sell slip and keep them with your tax records for the year you sold the stock. Year-end brokerage statements will have dividend and interest information that you will need for your taxes.
You aren't required to keep records for IRA accounts. There is one exception: You need to track any contributions (not earnings, just money you deposited to the account) that were not deducted from your taxes. That means all contributions to a Roth IRA and any contributions to a traditional IRA that were made with after-tax money. These contributions aren't taxed when you withdraw them (and Roth contributions can even be withdrawn prior to retirement), but you have to be able to show that you already paid taxes on that money.
Terms and conditions for credit card accounts: Those mini booklets in even mini-er type are loan documents. Keep the most current ones and toss the old. Your monthly statements can be tossed as soon as you reconcile, but if your lender does not provide a yearly account activity summary, then they may be nice to have for budgeting purposes. Even better, download your statements into a financial program such as Quicken or Microsoft Money and regularly back up your files.
Terms and conditions for other loans: Keep your current mortgage and car loan paperwork. And if you sell or pay it off, keep confirmation of this activity for at least a year or so, particularly until you receive clear title to a vehicle or piece of real estate.
Tax records: You are required by law to keep tax records for three years, and most experts recommend seven. The easiest way to comply is to put all your tax forms, W-2s, stock trade confirmations, and the receipts for all deductions into a 9-by-12 envelope with the date written in a Sharpie on the outside.
Real estate records: Although the laws have been liberalized on capital gains for house sales, you may still need to track the cost basis for your home (or series of homes). Keep real estate transactions (buys and sells) for each house and receipts for any large capital improvements you make (e.g. a deck, an addition, or major landscaping). Keep these records for all houses since your cost basis goes back to your first house purchase. For your current house, keep pre-purchase inspection reports in case the inspector missed anything.
Personal papers: Keep your birth certificate, medical records, marriage certificate, divorce settlement, and will. (Don't forget about a living will and durable power of attorney.)
Receipts for major purchases: If you ever need to file an insurance claim on a big-ticket item, you'll be glad you kept the receipt. Don't go hog wild holding onto every outrageous dry cleaning bill, though. Think jewelry, furniture, art and plasma TVs. Should flood, hungry termites or fire sweep through, these will help you prove how cool your stuff was to the insurance company.
Speaking of fire, a fireproof file holder or safe deposit box is the best place for your most important papers.