What to keep, what to dump for tax safety

Shred pay stubs, old bills, but save housing records

May 12, 2002|By Alyson Ward | Alyson Ward,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

The taxes are done for another year. Once you've filed, though, the tedium isn't over. You're left with a desk full of papers and receipts, wondering which you should save and which you can safely trash.

Financial records are tricky. If you've got shoeboxes overflowing with sales slips and a closet full of old phone bills, you're saving way too much.

We talked with Glen Mayers of Kiplinger's Personal Finance magazine, who gave us the lowdown on how long those records need to stay in your file box.

What to shred:

Paycheck stubs. No need to file away your weekly or monthly pay stubs to keep up with your earnings. That's what your W-2 form is for. Keep the W-2 form, and you've got a government document that records your annual income - everything you need, on one piece of paper.

Old bills. There's no need to keep utility and credit card statements from five years ago, with some exceptions. If there's a deductible item on your credit card statement, hang on to it for six years to keep the Internal Revenue Service happy. And if you've had a billing dispute, keep bills from that company for a while so that you can monitor any irregularities.

Everyday receipts. You can keep receipts for automated teller machine withdrawals and credit card purchases until the monthly statement arrives, but stick them in the shredder after that.

What to keep:

Tax returns. The IRS has three years to audit your tax returns, so keep your returns (and all canceled checks for deductible items) for at least that long.

The three-year limit applies only if you're generally honest. The IRS has six years to audit if it finds irregularities (for example, if you didn't report a quarter of your income), and they can go back as far as they like if they suspect fraud or if you didn't file.

Also, if something big happens - say, you buy or sell a house - hold on to those tax returns indefinitely.

Housing records. For as long as you own your house, keep mortgage papers, home improvement receipts, title papers and deeds, and other information related to the purchase of your home.

Records from other major purchases. If you buy a car, keep the related financial information for as long as you own that car. Once you've sold the car, you no longer need things such as the title information and the monthly statements.

For purchases of appliances such as refrigerators, you probably need to keep the receipt because of a warranty. After the warranty runs out, the receipt is pretty much worthless.

Investment records. With investments come a lot of paperwork. You probably get monthly statements that track the progress of, say, your mutual funds. You don't need to keep these. Do keep the year-end statements, though, for as long as you own the asset. And if you're earning money on an investment, you'll get a statement from your broker that shows how much interest you've earned. Keep these like your W-2 forms, for three to six years.

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