Monday, February 12, 2007


I've been in major cleaning/purging/donating/selling mode in my apartment this weekend. I've got three bags of clothing to donate, some twin sized sheets that I kept for sewing them into something (though I don't have a sewing machine), some framed art that I no longer feel any connection to, assorted housewares, a whole box of VHS tapes, board games, a stuffed animal or two, etc. I've thrown away what I estimate to amount to about a gallon of lotion, probably about that much body spray and/or perfume, and have discovered some pretty disgusting things underneath my bathtub. I've done all this, and yet had been avoiding the biggest challenge of all - the personal filing project.

You see, there's this cabinet in my kitchen. It's tall and skinny and I'm not really sure what they were thinking when they built it, because it's not very functional for holding kitchen supplies. For the last three or four years, it has been my filing cabinet. I should clarify what I mean by that. What I mean is, every time I pay a bill, I take the bill pay stub and toss it in that cabinet. We're talking phone bills, gas bills, electric bills, credit card bills - the works. What's more is that I developed this habit after my existing filing box had grown so large that it was busting out of its container, and rather than clean it all out then, I just started a new receptacle. As of Sunday afternoon, the pile in this cabinet was three feet high.

I pulled every last sheet of paper out of there. I got out my old, dusty, plastic tote and pulled ever last sheet of paper out of it, too. I discovered checking account statements dating back to 1997, lines of credit I didn't even know I had, Qwest bills from when I still had a land line three years ago, faded receipts that are totally unreadable - your basic identity theft nightmare.

So for you, dear friends, I did some research. It's possible you don't have the same problem as I do. But if you find yourself in a similar predicament, here's what I've discovered about what to keep and for how long:
  • Taxes -- Seven years. The IRS has three years from your filing date to audit your return if it suspects good faith errors, and six years if it thinks you underreported your gross income by 25 percent or more.
  • IRA contributions -- Permanently.
  • Retirement/Savings plan statements -- From one year to permanently. Keep the quarterly statements until you receive your annual summary; keep the annual summaries until you retire or close the account.
  • Bank records -- From one year to permanently. Throw away checks that have no long-term importance, but keep checks related to your taxes, business expenses, and housing and mortgage payments.
  • Brokerage statements -- Until you sell your securities.
  • Bills -- From one year to permanently. In most cases, i.e. utility bills, when you receive the canceled check, the bill can be tossed. However, you should keep bills for big purchases (e.g., jewelry, appliances, cars, collectibles, etc.) for proof of their value in the event of loss or damage.
  • Credit card receipts and statements -- From 45 days to seven years. Keep the statements seven years if they document tax-related expenses.
  • Paycheck stubs -- One year. If your W-2 form matches your stubs, you can toss your stubs.
  • House/Condominium records and receipts -- From six years to permanently.
It will save you a lot of time and energy if you just follow these simple rules, though these sorts of things do make good kindling.

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