What papers should you keep?

"What papers should I keep?" This question comes up over and over again when I'm helping residential clients organize their papers. Most businesses have a record retention policy that dictates what papers you should save and for how long. But many people are unclear about what they should be saving in their personal home files.

The lists below contains suggestions from Clark Howard, the consumer guru from Atlanta, and financial planner Ric Edelman. Prudence dictates that I tell you that I am not an accountant or lawyer. These suggestions should serve as guidelines to get you started, but you should also consult your accountant and possibly the Internal Revenue Service's web site (see IRS Publication 552: Record Keeping for Individuals) to see if there are other suggestions that better fit your situation.

Clark Howard says:


* Tax returns, keep forever
* Tax return documentation (receipts, supporting documentation), keep for six years
* Contracts, forever
* Real estate records, forever
* Last pay stub of a job if you leave the job
* Last pay stub of the year of your current job
* All mortgage payment checks (statements), until the mortgage is paid off
* All student loan payments, until the loan is paid off
* Car loan payment stubs, until the car is paid off
* Canceled checks, for 7 years
* Bank deposit slips, for 7 years
* Bank statements, for 7 years
* Home Improvement records, ownership period plus 7 years
* Investment records, ownership period plus 7 years


* Credit card statements that are more than three years old
* Past insurance statement
* Old utility bills, except the most recent one from your old address if you've moved
* Recently paid bills (statements), once you have something saying they have been paid

Other suggestions from financial planner Ric Edelman's web site:

  • Birth certificates, Death Certificates, and Marriage Certificates: never discard
  • Health records: never discard
  • Stock and bond certificates: discard or shred when sold
  • Vehicle titles: discard or shred when vehicle is sold
  • Wills, trusts, and powers of attorney: discard or shred when a new one is signed
  • College financial aid and other loans: shred ten years after loan is repaid
  • Insurance policies: keep copy of existing policy as long as policy is in effect. Then keep a copy for one year after your replace the policy
  • Investment account statements: seven years after the last investment held in account is sold
  • Pension documents: never discard
  • Receipts for items under warranty: shred after warranty expires
  • Receipts for expensive items: shred after item is sold or donated
  • Social Security statement: shred old one when new one arrives
  • Transcripts: shred old one after you complete another course
  • Vehicle registration: shred old one when the new one arrives
  • Vehicle repairs: keep until vehicle is sold
Most of these documents can be placed in a locked filing cabinet, though you may consider purchasing a fire and burglar resistant safe for some of your important, but hard to replace, documents. Consider using a safe deposit box for originals that you rarely need such as adoption papers, citizenship papers, lawsuits, divorce decrees, household inventory lists, photos of possessions, military discharge and veteran's papers.

Hopefully, these suggestions will help liberate your filing cabinet of all those non-necessary bits of paper that may be inappropriately squatting there now. Of course, they aren't going to jump out of there on their own. Sometimes you gotta go in there and throw them out.