Your extra time at home now is on borrowed time.
Sure, we wished for “extra time at home” to get stuff done, but the pandemic was not what we had in mind.
It also hasn’t delivered all of the benefits most of us envisioned from additional time at home. Sure, there’s been a lot of yard work, home-improvement projects and other ways that people are passing their shelter-at-home period, but whenever life returns to normal there will still be a to-do list left undone, chores and tasks for which there wasn’t enough time.
One big chore, financially speaking, involves getting rid of unnecessary paperwork, and it’s especially important now because so many offshoots of the pandemic are financial.
Pruning overgrown financial files – keeping what you need and shredding the unnecessary and redundant – leaves you with good records, which can be a help if you are applying for a government-relief loan, trying to improve your credit score, tracking investments, calculating net worth and more.
People who don’t know what to get rid of tend to keep almost everything, both in paperwork and in personal information online and on their devices.
Most documents can go, though they may occupy file space for a few years first. Personally, I prune papers each year when my latest tax return hits the filing cabinet.
Here’s a quick rundown on what to keep and what to junk. Challenge yourself to shred, burn or otherwise eliminate financial clutter before the pandemic-driven “extra time at home” runs out.
Tax records: Reduce tax returns to small stacks of paperwork in a thin folder as soon as allowed.
“Support documents” — bills, receipts, tax forms on which you based your math — must be kept for three years after a return is due. Thus, when your 2019 return is filed, you can thin out the bulging file from 2015 (filed in 2016, so the three-year holding period has passed).
Keep older support items only if you think you played way too fast and loose with the rules; there is no statute of limitation in tax-fraud cases.
Old tax returns can be important for compiling returns, possibly decades into the future if they cover property purchases or sales. Thus, keeping actual tax forms in perpetuity is prudent, though not necessary when returns cover residences from your distant past; if you’re particularly cautious and have multiple sources of income, keep forms related to income (like 1099s and W-2s) for six years, the time the IRS can challenge returns that it believes underreported gross income by 25% or more.
Your tax preparer should keep copies of your documents for the life of your advisory relationship; that can also be your backup in the event of a surprise.
Investment papers: Since 2011, brokerage and investment firms provide cost information on stock purchases, mutual funds, options, bonds and other securities.
That means you can shred recent trading confirmations.
For stocks purchased before 2011 (and mutual funds before 2012), see if your investment house has established a cost-basis for your shares, and that it agrees with your records.
Some financial-services firms never kept cost-basis information before the rules, and were especially bad on securities that were held for decades. If you see a problem with the cost they have for your long-held securities, contact the firm, which should work with you to correct the issue; once their accounting reflects the papers you saved, consider the numbers reliable and ditch the old trading slips.
Shred investment papers you don’t need. Year-end statements show all transactions for the year, allowing you to examine a year’s worth of activity on one paper; keep your year-end statement and discard the monthly/quarterly documents.
Pay stubs, bank statements, canceled checks and consumer bills/receipts
The last paystub of the year – even if it comes midyear in tough economic times – is useful for cross-checking tax reporting, valuing donations made through payroll deductions and, potentially, recording the amount paid for health-care coverage; all other paystubs have no value, provided that you got paid what you earned without dispute.
Canceled checks today generally are mini images on bank statements; keep images with tax implications — donations, mortgage or tax payments, home improvements, medical expenses and the like — as support documentation.
Shred the rest; canceled checks from buying groceries or paying for a friend’s birthday gift aren’t relevant, whether from this year, five years ago or, worse, left over from the 1900s.
Trash credit-card statements, utility bills, department-store and service-station charge card bills, provided that they don’t cover tax-deductible expenses, like electric bills for a home-office where you deduct energy costs. If you used a credit-card or line of credit to pay home-improvement expenses — which have tax implications — squirrel that record away for use when you sell the home someday.
There are a few special situations. In divorce cases, records can be important in determining who pays a child’s bills and, therefore, can claim a dependent on tax returns. Warranties and buyer-protection plans – along with receipts for the product showing the purchase dates – are worth keeping while they are in force.
Keep bills on which there were disputed charges, fraudulent card use or other problems — along with notes on how and when those issues were resolved — until you are sure those negatives aren’t hitting your credit report.
Documents stored on electronic devices: If you don’t need a paper copy, don’t keep an electronic one. That said, make sure your cloud storage and platforms are secure; don’t scan important documents and keep them on your smartphone, unsecured, for months or years.
Passwords: This is maintenance rather than cleaning, but surveys show that two-thirds of people never change passwords or use one password for all accounts.
Pick strong passwords, use “security questions” that can’t be answered by trolling social media accounts. If your mom is a Facebook friend, don’t want to make her maiden name the only thing standing between you and hackers; the same applies to your dog’s name, the high school you went to, your wedding anniversary and more; a little caution and forethought can save you the paperwork nightmare of identity theft.