The Shelf Life of Financial Records
When you finally make the commitment to organize that pile of financial documents, where are you supposed to start?
Maybe you’ve tried sorting your documents into this infamous trio: the Coffee Stains Assortment, the Crumpled-Up Masses, and the Definitely Missing a Page or Two Crew.
How has this system been working for you? Is that same stack of disorganized paper just getting shuffled from one corner of your desk to the top of your filing cabinet and back again? Why not give the following method a try instead? Based on the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA)'s “Save or Shred” ideas, here’s a list of the shelf life of some key financial records to help you begin whittling that stack down to just what you need to keep. (And remember, when disposing of any financial records, shred them – don’t just toss them into the trash.)
1. Keep These Until They Die: Mortgages, Student Loans, Car Loans, Etc.
These records are the ones to hang on to until you’ve completely paid them off. However, keeping these records indefinitely (to be on the safe side) is a good idea. If any questions or disputes relating to the loan or payment of the loan come up, you’re covered. Label the records clearly, then feel free to put them at the back of your file cabinet. They can be out of sight, but make sure they’re still in your possession if that info needs to come to mind.
2. Seven Years in the Cabinet: Tax-Related Records.
These records include your tax returns and receipts/proof of anything you might claim as a deduction. You’ll need to keep your tax documents – including proof of deductions – for 7 years. Period. Why? In the US, if the IRS thinks you may have underreported your gross income by 25%, they have 6 whole years to challenge your return. Not to mention, they have 3 years to audit you if they think there might be any good faith errors on past returns. (Note: Check with your state tax office to learn how long you should keep your state tax records.) Also important to keep in mind: Some of the items included in your tax returns may also pull from other categories in this list, so be sure to examine your records carefully and hang on to anything you think you might need.
3. The Sixers: Property Records.
This one goes out to you homeowners. While you’re living in your home, keep any and all documents from the purchase of the home to remodeling or additions you make. After you sell the home, keep those documents for at least 6 more years.
4. The Annually Tossed: Brokerage Statements, Paycheck Stubs, Bank Records.
“Annually tossed” is used a bit lightly here, so please proceed with caution. What can be disposed of after an annual review are brokerage statements, paycheck stubs (if not enrolled in direct deposit), and bank records. Hoarding these types of documents may lead to a “keep it all” or “trash it all” attitude. Neither is beneficial. What should be kept is anything of long-term importance (see #2).
5. The Easy One: Rental Documents.
If you rent a property, keep all financial documents and rental agreements until you’ve moved out and gotten your security deposit back from the landlord. Use your deposit to buy a shredder and have at it – it’s easy and fun!
6. The Check-‘Em Againsts: Credit Card Receipts/Statements and Bills.
Check your credit card statement against your physical receipts and bank records from that month. Ideally, this should be done online daily, or at least weekly, to catch anything suspicious as quickly as possible. If everything checks out and there are no red flags, shred away! (Note: Planning to claim anything on your statement as a tax deduction? See #2.) As for bills, you’re in the clear to shred them as soon as your payment clears – with one caveat: Bills for any big-ticket items that you might need to make an insurance claim on later (think expensive sound system, diamond bracelet, all-leather sofa with built-in recliners) should be held on to indefinitely (or at least as long as you own the item).
So even if your kids released their inner Michelangelo on the shoebox of financial papers under your bed, some of them need to be kept – for more than just sentimental value. And it’s vital to keep the above information in mind when you’re considering what to keep and for how long.