How Long Should You Keep Printed Records?

These days, we have to keep track of a lot of printed records: bank statements, bills, mortgage records, contracts, tax forms, and more. But for how long?

More than anything else, it seems, our society runs on paper--which means that whatever you do, you're likely to generate printed records. Tax records, bank statements, contracts of various stripes, house and car payments, credit card bills, college loan statements...all that paper piles up.

No one wants to be drowned in paper, so it's necessary to occasionally get rid of some of it. Of course, most of us know that a shredder is de rigueur in the paper reduction process, so that identity thieves won't steal your information and sell it to the highest bidder. The problem becomes what to throw away, and when.

What You Should Never Throw Away

Everyone knows that the IRS can audit you as far back as six years, so you should hang onto your tax forms and associated documents for at least seven. What most people don't realize is that they can also accuse you of not filing for as far back as they want to go, if they can't find a record of your tax forms.

All the receipts and other paperwork you can safely toss after seven years, but you should keep your actual tax forms forever so that you can prove you've paid. Other forever documents include contracts of any kind, as well as any real estate records and deeds.

The Middle Ground

Most records only need to be held onto for a few years--even though keeping the bulkier ones, like cancelled checks, can be annoying. You should keep those for seven years, by the way.

Home improvement records should be held onto for the entire time you own a property, plus seven years beyond. All loan, mortgage, and car payment records should be retained until the loan is completely paid off.

Hold onto your bank statements for a year (but remember, keep those checks). Credit card bills of any kind (gas, store, or general) can be shredded safely after three years.

What Not to Worry About

Fortunately, you don't have to keep everything! As soon as you get a new insurance statement, for example, you can throw away the old one; same for your utility bills, except the last one from your old place if you've recently moved. You can get rid of most other bills once payment has been acknowledged.

So now you know. Keep your basic tax, mortgage, real estate, and contract paperwork forever, just in case. All your other printed records have a definitely sell-by date, and once it's past, you can shred 'em with impunity.

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