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When to keep financial paperwork – and when to toss it

Does your filing cabinet look like it was plucked from an episode of “Hoarders”? Do you need a paper catcher for your paper catcher?

You’re not alone.

“I’m overloaded with stuff,” said Betty Falkowski of Cheektowaga. “The day-to-day papers just accumulate like crazy.”

Like many Western New Yorkers, Falkowski isn’t sure what to hold onto or for how long, so she errs on the side of caution and just keeps everything.

No one wants to throw away a receipt only to have to return the purchase later, or ditch a cable bill and then be accused of not having paid it.

“How long do you really need to keep these things?” Falkowski said. “I want to clean everything out, but I don’t want to get rid of something and then realize, ‘Oh, no, I should have kept that.’ ”

Not everyone is willing or able to go paperless with digital accounts, so to help you wade out from under the mess, we checked with the experts. Here’s what they suggest:

• Tax returns and supporting documents. The Internal Revenue Service has very detailed and confusing advice about this – surprise, surprise.

Ideally, you should only have to keep tax documents for three years, since that’s how far back the IRS can go to audit you for accidental errors. But if you underreport your income by more than 25 percent, the IRS can come after you for six years. And if you fail to file or file a fraudulent claim, they can come sniffing around indefinitely.

The problem with that is, what if you know you have not filed a fraudulent claim, but the IRS believes that you have? You might wish you had saved every shred of evidence to support yourself.

That’s why the tax experts we checked with said they tell everyone to save their taxes (and any bills and receipts that support them) forever. Sorry!

• Credit card receipts. Save your credit card receipts until you get your credit card statement, then check them against one another. If everything is reflected accurately, you can throw the individual receipts away.

Hold onto the credit card statements for one year, suggests Even if you don’t have an online account, credit card companies archive your statements electronically, so there are usually ways of getting at old statements if the need arises.

The same advice goes for bank statements. Save your deposit, withdrawal and ATM receipts until you can reconcile them with your monthly statement. Keep the monthly statements for one year.

• Purchase receipts. Toss clothing receipts after the clothing is worn (since it usually can’t be returned after that) and grocery receipts after the food is prepared and eaten.

If you run into problems with other merchandise, such as baby gear or small appliances, many manufacturers will work with you to repair or replace items without a receipt.

For items or services with a warranty or guarantee, save the receipt for the life of the contract. The same rules apply for hanging onto the warranties and guarantees themselves.

Receipts for large purchases such as jewelry, antiques or home improvements should be kept indefinitely for insurance purposes.

• Paid utility bills. Keep these for one year in case billing discrepancies arise later. Always note on each bill the date and amount paid, and record the check or confirmation number associated with the payment.

• Pay stubs. Keep all your pay stubs for one year until you can check them against your W-2 form and make sure they match, recommends the Social Security Administration. Save your W-2s indefinitely.

• Loan, lease or installment payments. Save the associated bills until you get the associated quarterly or annual statements, and toss the bills once you’ve made sure the two match up. Save the statements until the loan or product is paid off, then toss everything except the document that shows you are paid in full, according to personal finance guidelines from

For things like paid-off computers and cars, once you no longer own the item (or the item the loan was for), you can ditch the paid-in-full receipt.

• Retirement and savings plan statements. Keep quarterly statements until you get your annual summaries and check them against each other for accuracy. Toss the quarterly statements once they match up, but keep the annual summaries indefinitely, recommends

• Medical bills. Medical bills are notoriously vulnerable to errors. Since they’re bounced back and forth between providers, patients and insurers and several parties may be billed at once, consumer advocate Public Citizen recommends hanging onto medical bills for as long as five to 10 years after treatment for the associated medical issue ends.

• Insurance policies. Life, homeowner, auto and liability insurance policies should be kept for the entire time the policy is in force. When a renewal policy comes, you can shred the old policy and replace it with the new one, according to the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors.

And with all of these documents, don’t just toss them into the recycling bin. Keep your private information private and foil would-be identity thiefs: Shred them all.


The no-toss list

Some papers really should be held onto forever. Here are some things you’ll want to keep permanently.

• Social Security cards, citizenship paperwork and passports.

• Marriage, birth and death


• Prenuptial


divorce decrees and military



• Wills, trusts and power of attorney papers (unless they’ve been updated and are no longer valid).

• Annuity

policies and

original bond or stock certificates.

• Personal health records, adoption papers, union cards and