No matter how digital we’ve become, we’re still a paper nation.

Are your financial documents stuffed in a closet, files, shopping bags or stacked up on the floor?

You may prefer to view it as organized chaos. But isn’t it really just a manifestation of your inability to discern what you need and what you should let go?

When I look at the piles of paper in my office accumulated throughout the past year, I know it’s time for another document dump. It’s part of my spring cleaning ritual.

Sometimes we hold onto all that paper because we aren’t sure what to keep and what to toss. Here’s a rundown of what should be retained.

Certain papers should be kept in a safe location where they are protected from damage, loss and theft. Such original documents, which may be hard or costly to replace, include:

  • Birth certificates and adoption papers
  • Death certificates
  • Marriage and divorce records
  • Social Security cards. Yes, you know the number, but there may be an occasion where you have to produce the actual card.
  • Military service records, including discharge documents. An honorably discharged service member is eligible to receive funeral and burial benefits.
  • Loan payoff statements. Here’s something important: If you negotiated to pay less than what you owed on a debt, keep the original agreement in perpetuity. Often when debt is sold to debt collectors for pennies on the dollar, the sale doesn’t include a lot of information, including documentation proving a payoff.
  • Year-end pay stubs. If a company goes out of business you may not be able to track down the information should you need it later.
  • Retirement or pension records. Be sure to keep the records from previous jobs.
  • Estate documents
  • Funeral programs. Although many funeral homes will post an obituary online, they are often shortened versions of the program you might receive at the service. I have a folder of programs because they contain a wealth of information that can be helpful in estate planning, including maiden names and other family history you might need. (In this case, I like keeping the originals rather than a scanned version.)

Loan documents: Keep original loan documents and statements until you have paid off the loan. Then, save the paperwork verifying the balance was paid in full. My husband and I are coming up on one year of paying off our home. I may be a little paranoid, but I’m keeping the original documentation.

Vehicle title: Keep the original as long as you own the vehicle.

Receipts for big-ticket items: For insurance purposes, in case of fire or theft, save receipts for big-screen TVs, computers and other major purchases. Hold on to each receipt as long as you own the item. Personally, I like to keep the original, but a scanned copy should be fine.

Home improvement purchase orders, receipts, canceled checks: Keep proof of any upgrades until you sell the home. If you have a capital gain from selling your primary home, you may qualify to exclude as much as $250,000 from your income or as much as $500,000 if you file a joint return with your spouse.

If you exceed these limits, here’s where having proof of the capital improvements helps your tax situation: “When you make a home improvement, such as installing central air conditioning or replacing the roof, you can’t deduct the cost in the year you spend the money,” according to TurboTax. “But, if you keep track of those expenses, they may help you reduce your taxes in the year you sell your house.”

Investment statements: If they are available online, you do not need paper copies. The most important reason to maintain these records would be to establish your cost basis when selling an asset to make sure you claim the proper capital gain or loss on your tax return.

Tax records: Recordkeeping guidelines are tied to statutes of limitations. That’s generally three years, but it’s seven years for worthless securities and bad debts, according to IRS spokesman Eric Smith.

“For most people, the tax-related statute of limitations is pretty straightforward,” he said.

But there are special circumstances that extend that time. For example, getting a tax-filing extension, serving in a combat zone, qualifying for a disaster-area deadline postponement or a financial disability.

You must keep records, such as receipts, canceled checks and other documents that support an item of income, a deduction or a credit appearing on a return, according to the IRS.

But it doesn’t have to be an original. Scan and shred. The agency will accept a legible digital copy of a document.

“Electronic storage is also fine, as long as they can be retrieved, if needed,” Smith said.

Why keep even a scanned version after several years?

Your past returns contain your financial history — employment, investments and charitable giving choices.

But you won’t have to worry about having a scanned copy if you have an IRS online account. With an account, you can access a transcript of your return.

Maintaining years of tax returns can help if you ever need to research payments made into Social Security.

Medical bills: If you paid a medical expense with your health savings or flexible spending account, keep the receipt for three years. Consider it a tax-related document.

If you want more personal finance advice that’s timeless, order your copy of Michelle Singletary’s Money Milestones.

Credit card statements: Companies will provide you with a year-end statement that categorizes all expenses. If that works for you, shred the monthly statements you may have been getting in the mail.

And if you’re still getting paper statements, stop. Get them e-delivered. I still scan and save statements in case I close an account and no longer have online access.

There is no need to keep all those ATM or retail receipts. Once you get your statements, you can shred and toss.



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