2014 might as well be the year you sort out which financial records you ought to keep around and which are safe to finally get rid of. The question is which is which?
Fear of an IRS audit nudges many of us into “better safe than sorry” territory, but the fact is that the reasons why you should keep certain things around for a certain amount of time are straightforward and easy to follow.
Streamline your files and piles with these guidelines:
Reconcile and toss
- Credit card statements and bills for non-deductible items. Since the IRS does not consider credit card statements to be sufficient documentation, there’s no reason to keep them around once you’ve confirmed all the charges and have proof of payment.
- Routine debit or charge receipts. Toss routine receipts once you’ve confirmed the amount charged to your debit or charge card is correct.
- Social Security statements. Keep the most recent one, and then toss it when the next one arrives.
Keep up to seven years
- Health explanation of benefits. Keep these on file for one year.
- Utility records. Some states recommend you keep these at least three years.
- Bank statements and checks. If your online bank or credit union records go back seven years, you’re free to toss out your paper statements. Otherwise, keep bank records and cashed checks for seven years.In the meantime, why not go paperless and stop piling up still more statements you’ll have to store?
- Investment and real estate records. These records will help document your cost basis as well as the taxes owed at the time you sell. Keep the annual summaries.
Keep until something else happens
- Pay stubs. Keep all your pay stubs until the end of the year; you can toss them out once you receive your W-2 for that year.
- W-2 Wage and Tax Statements. Keep your W-2s until you start receiving your Social Security benefits. These are your best proof of earnings to help verify your benefit amount.
- Insurance policies. Keep insurance policies until they expire, then toss. With one exception—Occurrence policies. These types of records cover you for damages that happened during the time the policy was in force, even if the claim is made later. Keep those permanently.
- Receipts for big-ticket items. Keep these receipts as proof of purchase for returns or repairs.
- Receipts for donations and business expenses. Keep these along with your tax returns for the year they occurred.
- Tax returns (including supporting receipts, documents and worksheets). You will often hear it said that the IRS has just three years to audit a return once you’ve filed; however, that limit only applies to errors made in good faith.If the IRS believes you’ve under-reported your income by 25% or more, it can slap you with an audit up to six years later, leading to the oft-quoted seven-year figure most experts recommend for keeping your tax records. But the real truth is that there is no statute of limitations for IRS action if it suspects you of filing a fraudulent return.As we noted in the introduction, this is clearly a case where you’re better safe than sorry; keep all tax returns and records permanently.
- Canceled checks for tax payments. Keep your cancelled checks for quarterly and annual tax payments.
- IRA contribution records. You may need to be able to document your IRA contributions when you finally withdraw them during retirement, in order to keep from paying too much tax.Or avoid the tax-keeping hassle by converting your retirement savings to a Roth IRA.
- Brokerage statements. Keep statements for taxable accounts on hand permanently in order to demonstrate the cost basis.