What is it about a new year that fills us all with the urge to purge? Clothing, old toys—that’s the easy stuff. (If it’s gently used, donate, please!) But how should you deal with the piles upon piles of financial paperwork? How long should you keep your tax returns? What about old checkbook registers and pay stubs? We tapped New York Times bestselling author and organizing and productivity expert Julie Morgenstern to give us the answer once and for all.
How Long Should You Keep Your Tax Returns? Your Paystubs? Your Car Purchase Paperwork? We Asked an Expert
Meet the Expert
1. Tax Returns: 3 Years
Previously, seven years was the recommendation, but Morgenstern maintains that three years is enough. “That means the current year, plus three years back, but everyone should check with their own accountant to see if there’s any reason to keep tax paperwork beyond three years,” she explains. Some examples of outliers: Maybe you went through a divorce. Or maybe you bought a house in a year that’s just outside the three-year margin. Ask your accountant, but if a significant event occurred that you might need to refer back to, it may be worth holding onto, Morgenstern adds.
Pro Tip for How to Organize: Morgenstern suggests setting up a single folder for each year and printing a copy of your taxes (assuming you filed electronically) to house in that place. “These folders hold your tax return, but also back up for any deductions you may have claimed,” she says. “Then, at the start of a new year, start a new folder to house all tax-related paperwork for the year as it goes on.”
2. Checkbook Registers: Up to 10 Years
If you still write checks or have registers from tax-relevant years, keep those puppies for about a decade. “Checkbook registers are almost like a diary,” Morgenstern explains. “Not only are they the story of a year, but if you use them regularly, it’s a reference for expensive purchases or services that you didn’t keep receipts for.” (Plus, these are records that do not exist digitally, meaning you need to keep them longer.)
Pro Tip for How to Organize: Pop relevant checkbook registers in the applicable tax return folder. (Anything further back you can stash all together.)
3. Monthly Bills: Toss
Your electric bill. Your cell phone statement. According to Morgenstern, it’s totally fine to shred upon arrival. “These types of bills are all online and the consequences [should you need to reference one] are relatively small,” she says. “You can easily go online and find out what you paid last month—or what you paid a year ago.”
Pro Tip for How to Organize: “Think of the perks of getting rid and shredding this stuff—it just leaves room for what you really need to regularly access,” Morgenstern says.
4. Pay Stubs: It Depends
Since most companies digitize stubs, the only time you might need to access a hard copy is if you leave your position. If that seems likely, print them out or save them as files. “First of all, there’s a strong possibility you’ll need to reference them at some point for taxes,” says Morgenstern. “But there’s also a story here. Say, you hold multiple jobs or change jobs frequently. Or maybe you work for an employer, take a break and then go back to them down the line. This is your only record of details like an hourly or project rate.” Hold onto any you think you might want to reference for five years.
Pro Tip for How to Organize: Morgenstern is a fan of converting them to PDFs and stashing in a desktop folder.
5. Credit Card Statements: Toss
No need to hold onto these—in fact, paperless is the way to go—since everything is so easily accessible online, says Morgenstern.
Pro Tip for How to Organize: Be sure you keep a separate card for personal expenses and one for work, so you don’t have a huge amount of untangling come taxes or expense time, she adds.
6. All Contracts: Forever
Financial paperwork that relates to big moments in your life should go in a forever folder, says Morgenstern. Some examples: a bill of sale for a house, your life insurance policy, the initial purchase paperwork for your car. Print these out and keep them on hand.
Pro Tip for How to Organize: In this case, a file cabinet (or lockbox) is best for anything extremely sensitive or difficult to replace.
7. Receipts for Online Purchases: It Depends
Per Morgenstern, you should keep a digital record for at least as long it takes for your item to arrive. Of course, depending on the size of the purchase or the return window, you may want to extend that limit.
Pro Tip for How to Organize: “Every time you place an order, you get an email confirmation, so my advice is to set up a folder in your inbox that says ‘orders placed’ and one that says ‘orders received.’ When something arrives, move it from one folder to the next as a way to check it off and keep track.”