Tuesday, February 16, 2010

How Long Should You Keep Financial Records?

I tackled my home office last week during a major east coast snow storm. I let it get too cluttered and disorganized, so I filed, tossed and shredded my way to a clean work space. In doing so, I noticed my filing cabinet was becoming very hard to close. I was just filing papers, and not purging along the way. It was definitely time to clean out the file cabinet and there was no better time then when the weatherman predicted 20 inches of snow.

As I was removing the files, I wondered, What Financial Records Should I Keep and How Long Should I Keep Them For?

So much is done electronically now, but there are documents where a paper copy is needed. I fired up the computer and here is what I found.

Bank Statements - One nice thing (among many) about the electronic age is that banks keep statements online up to a couple of years. Our personal bank has statements online all the way back to 2006. However, you should print any canceled checks or year-end statements that you would need for tax purposes, ie - charitable contributions, home improvements, business expenses, mortgage payments, etc. If you are not going to print the statements, you really need to check them each month for errors and fees.

Bills - Utility bills can be tossed the following month when you receive your next statement and it shows that the bill was paid, unless you need the bill for tax deduction purposes, then refer to Taxes below. Any bills for big purchases like jewelry, appliances, computers, etc, should be kept permanently for insurance and warranty purposes. Permanent home improvement bills should also be kept while you still own your home.

Credit Card Statements - These can also be found online, so I'm not sure a paper copy is necessary, unless you need it for documentation for tax deductions, then see Taxes below. If you are not printing it, you should still review it closely for any discrepancies and unnecessary or incorrect fees. You should keep any credit card receipts to match up with your statement. Read more about receipts below.

Household Records - Keep all records from the purchase of your home and any receipts for permanent home improvements and selling expenses for as long as you own your home. This is very important and something that I learned while researching for this post. When you go to sell your home, the cost of permanent home improvements and any selling expenses incurred will be added to the original purchase price of your home. This final number will help to lower your capital gains tax.

Legal documents, such as wills, passports, birth certificates, marriage license, proof of paid mortgage, deed to your home, title to your vehicles should be kept permanently in a safe location such as a safe or safety deposit box.

Pay Stubs - Keep for the year until you get your annual W-2. If the information matches, you can shred your pay stubs. If the information doesn't match, head to your human resource department for correction.

Receipts - Keep until the warranty expires or you can no longer return the item. Any receipt that supports a tax deduction, should be kept with your tax returns. For other receipts from a credit card for example, groceries or gas, keep until you get your next statement to look for any errors.

Retirement/ Savings/Brokerage Statements -
  • Keep records permanently for nondeductible contributions to an IRA to prove that you already paid taxes on this money when it is time to withdrawal.
  • Keep the quarterly statements for your 401k or other IRA accounts until you receive the annual statement. Check for any discrepancies. If there aren't any, shred the quarterly statements, but keep the yearly until you retire or close the account.
  • Keep any brokerage statements until you sell the security. You'll need proof of gains or losses at tax time.

Taxes - You can be audited by the IRS for up to three years after you file your return. BUT if the IRS has reason to suspect that you under reported your gross income by 25% or more, the IRS has up to six years to audit your return. AND if you fail to file or they suspect a fraudulent return, there is not time limit on the possibility of an audit. ALSO, if you are self-employed, you should keep your returns and supporting documents for six years.

It is important to note that you should keep your returns and any supporting documents for these time periods. Supporting documents include any receipts, statements or canceled checks that support income or a tax deduction that you took.

Here is a link to IRS.gov where it explains their Period of Limitations for tax returns.

Personally, I know we have filed honest returns, but because we are self-employed, I am holding on to our returns indefinitely. I have our returns and all supporting documents neatly filed in the cabinet. How long have you held on to your tax returns?

Some Ideas For Keeping Your Financial Records Organized:
  1. For our personal taxes, we keep a present year file for tax deduction documents, such as receipts for charitable contributions, mortgage tax payments, receipts for school and real estate taxes, Goodwill donations, etc. As we receive them, they are put into the file and at the end of the year, I have everything in one place.
  2. Every year for our small business, I create a 4 inch binder, with tabs for each of our expense categories, to store the statements, receipts and invoices. I use a small accordion file with 12 monthly files for credit card receipts.
  3. In your filing cabinet, group your major files together by category with sub-files. Some examples:
  • Assets - with sub-files like your checking, savings, retirement, etc.
  • Insurance - sub-files would be Auto, Health, Home-Owners, Life, etc.
  • Liabilities - sub-files would be Auto Loan, Credit Card, Mortgage, Student Loan, etc.
  • Home improvements -with sub-files for each major improvement.
  • Medical records should be filed by family member.
  • Professional records with sub-files such as resume, employer records, degree records, etc.
  • Taxes with sub-files for each year.

DO NOT FORGET to shred anything that you are throwing away that has your personal information. This will help you avoid possible identity theft. Shredders can be found just about everywhere and are a worthy, inexpensive investment.

If you have any questions regarding a particular document and feel uneasy about whether or not you need to keep it, then please seek advice from a professional.

Do you have a method for filing your financial records that works well for you? I would love to hear about it. Please let us know in the comments

sources: Suze Orman, Bankrate, IRS.gov

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  1. Thank you for the helpful information! My husband and I were discussing this very subject this weekend. He has kept all his tax information since 1993 when he had his first job! I thought this was a little much.
    I will have to have him read your post when he gets home from work today!
    Thank you again! ☺

  2. A few months ago, my wife and I refinanced our home loan from 5 7/8 to 4 5/8. We also added money to the pot to get it down to conforming. We'll recoup the difference in a few years from the reduced mortgage payment.

    We had enough cash on hand to actually pay the house off, but I'm doing way better in the stock market than the 4-5/8's rate we have. Also, we needed the cash to make a down payment on a second home, where my in-laws will be living, and to put enough into a bond fund to make the second home's mortgage payment.

    As far as real estate taxes, I voted for Prop 13 in CA umpteen years ago. Its kept our property taxes down, and thus state spending down. Without it, I'm not sure anyone could afford to live in CA. (Renters pay property taxes in the form of higher rents.)

  3. I’m trying to figure out how to deal with this to get rid of some of our extra junk. Instead of an online backup, I may just put everything on a flash in store it in a fireproof safe, and possibly have a second copy stored elsewhere.

  4. From one year to permanently. Keep the quarterly statements until you receive your annual summary; keep the annual summaries until you retire or close the account.

  5. # Keep all records documenting the purchase price and the cost of all permanent improvements -- such as remodeling, additions and installations.

    # Keep records of expenses incurred in selling and buying the property, such as legal fees and your real estate agent's commission, for six years after you sell your home.

  6. Keep records permanently for nondeductible contributions to an IRA to prove that you already paid taxes on this money when it is time to withdrawal.


    Eventually everyone will want to confirm their earnings records with data at Social Security. If there are errors and you do not have proof of earnings you will be S.O.L.

    Trust this advice... I worked for SSA for over 15 years and have had to try to reconcile my own earnings records. You just HAVE TO keep these records unless your are willing to be a victim of record keeping errors or the failure of long-past employers who failed to report your earnings to SSA.

    This "keep for 7 years" advice is wrong but is still spread by virtually financial advisors.


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