How Long Should You Keep Important Financial Documents?

Are you tired of the ever-increasing volume of financial documents, but not sure what you can toss? What follows is a general guide of what records to keep and for how long.

There are things you should never throw away, such as birth or death certificates, adoption paperwork, education, military, and marriage records. But when your filing cabinet is bursting with receipts and bills, throwing away the papers you don’t need makes it easier to keep the important ones organized.

Let’s take a look at 12 important financial documents and how long you should keep them.

1. Tax returns

The Internal Revenue Service says you should keep your returns for at least three years. If you happened to underreport your income by 25% or more, the IRS can audit you for up to six years. The IRS also notes that you should be aware if your insurance company or creditors have different requirements.

Somewhat comically, the IRS recommends keeping records indefinitely “if you file a fraudulent return.”

2. Investments

Hold your capital gains tax reports and 1099 forms you get from investment income for at least three years with tax returns.

You need the statements of your taxable brokerage accounts to prove whether you have capital gains or losses. If they do not show your cost basis, the original value of an investment, keep trade confirmations that can prove the basis over time. You can shred the prospectus and annual reports immediately after viewing.

3. Individual retirement accounts

If you made a non-deductible contribution to an IRA, keep the records as long as the account is open to prove that you already paid tax on this money. With deductible IRAs and Roth IRAs, it is wise to keep track of your total contributions.

4. 401(k) plan statements

Save your end of year statements and quarterly statements for the current year.

5. Pay stubs

Once you balance your bank accounts, you don’t need to keep the paychecks. If you are looking to borrow in the near future, you might need three to six months of stubs.

6. Bank statements

Keep for three months if you plan to apply for loans. Otherwise, shred after you balance them.

Source: Thinkstock

Source: Thinkstock

7. Credit cards

Hold on to credit card receipts until your statements arrive and you verify that the charges are correct. Keep the statement for three months.

8. Checks

Shred them once you balance the account, unless you need them for tax records (such as business-related deductible expenses or charitable contributions).

9. Loans

Keep the statement with current balance; retain the final payment evidence seven years.

10. Insurance policies and premium payment evidence

Keep them until the policy expires.

11. Medical records

Medical insurance statements, doctor’s bills, prescriptions, and hospital bills should be kept for five years from date of service.

12. Real estate records

Keep documents of the purchase, sale, as well as receipts for home improvements. The improvements increase your cost basis, which can potentially lower your tax bill when you sell it.

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Gary Brooks is a certified financial planner and the president of Brooks, Hughes & Jones, and a registered investment adviser in Tacoma, Wash. An expanded version of this piece first ran at his blog The Money Architects.

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