Recently, I wrote about my annual financial spring cleaning ritual and implored you to join me in purging.
Amber in Indiana sent me a note that fits into a feature I started this year called “Ask Away.” She wasn’t sure what documents to destroy.
She wrote: “I work in a factory and have never been good with financial things. How do I know what is considered important or not important? I read how you kept making files you didn’t need, and I think I may have created that problem myself. I have a file of all mine and my husband’s paycheck stubs, a file on every prescription my family and I have had. I have files of rent from the day we moved in 10 years ago. I have kept all of my bank statements and my [utility] bills. Help.”
Like Amber, there was a time when I couldn’t throw out a lot of financial documents for fear that I may need them one day. I was paranoid that a creditor would claim I didn’t pay what I owed, so I held on to receipts for decades.
But you can let go of a lot of documents. And doing so will free you of all that paper and, perhaps, worry.
Paycheck stubs. At tax time, you’ll get a W-2 form, so no need to keep the stubs after that. Your final stub will also have a year’s worth of information. If you like, you can just keep those year-end stubs, especially if you’re unsure you’ll be able to retrieve the records should you need to prove income for, say, a home purchase.
Prescriptions. Keep medical information for at least a year in case there is a dispute about payment. I don’t throw out my family’s medical documents that detail treatment for any major surgeries, procedures or chronic illnesses.
Rent receipts. If you’re paying cash for rent, certainly keep those receipts. But you probably don’t need them after a year. If you’re paying with a check, you’ll have proof of payment from your bank statements.
Bank statements. At year-end and at tax time, banks provide lots of information for the previous year. Once you get those statements, you can shred the monthly ones. And please do shred them.
Utility bills. Unless you need these for business/home-office tax deductions, you can shred them at the end of the year.
As for other common documents:
Debt-payoff statements. If you fell behind on a debt but have settled it or later paid it in full, keep the proof forever. Creditors often sell the right to collect old debt, and your information could erroneously be included.
Tax returns. Officially, if you aren’t doing something shady, the IRS says you only need to keep tax returns for three years, from the date you filed your original return or two years from the date you paid the tax, whichever is later. But to be safe, keep the returns for at least seven years. Certain mistakes or underreporting could trigger an IRS audit at the six- or seven-year window. (Of course, keep the proof for any deductions you claimed for the same period of time.) For more details on what you can shred, go to irs.gov and search for “How long should I keep records?”
ATM slips. Once you’ve reconciled a withdrawal or deposit, you can shred the slip.
Sales receipts. I have a tendency to stuff my purse with sales receipts just in case I need to return something.
For minor purchases, toss the receipt after you’ve used the items. For a major purchase, keep the receipt until the warranty is up. You should also keep receipts for high-end purchases in case you need to make a homeowner’s or rental insurance claim. (Take a photo of the item and keep it with the receipt.)
Finally, if you are unsure of what to keep, scan it. If you’ve got a home computer — and let’s keep in mind, not everyone does — invest in a printer with the option or a basic scanner. I’ve become a big-time scanner. It helps placate my paranoia.
Or put that smartphone to good use other than playing “Candy Crush Saga.” There are apps that allow you to make clear and sharp images of your documents, converting them to PDFs. Look for an app that has optical character recognition, or OCR.
My motto for “Ask Anyway” is: “Better to ask and know than to stay silent and uninformed. No question is too simple.” So got a question? Send it to email@example.com.
Write Singletary at The Washington Post, 1301 K St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071 or firstname.lastname@example.org. To read more, go to http://wapo.st/michelle-singletary.