Which Documents Should You Keep and for How Long?

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record keeping files
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If you’re wondering how long to keep mortgage statements, tax records and other documents, chances are that you want to run a tidy ship at home — but you’re just not sure which documents are safe to part with and when.

We’ve got a simple solution: Just follow this guide and you won’t have to be buried in a pile of paperwork!

Wondering How Long to Keep Documents? Check Out This List!

Sometimes, you think a document is important in your life — or will be at some point in the future — and so you hold on to it indefinitely. Turns out, that may not be necessary!

The amount of records and paperwork you should keep is actually more limited than you might think.

Table of Contents

Mortgage Statements

How long should you keep mortgage statements? The answer depends on which records exactly you’re talking about related to your house payment.

If you’re talking about your monthly mortgage statement, it’s only necessary to keep that until the latest statement hits your mailbox or inbox. When it arrives, be sure your mortgage balance correctly reflects your most recent payment. Once you determine that it does, you’re free to toss out the old statement and just retain the new one.

By doing this, you can avoid disputes over your balance. Errors can easily be made when loans are sold, or banks are absorbed by other banks and there’s a migration of records. The balance can be all fouled up — and almost always the error is not in your favor.

But note this next part well: When it comes to a statement that reflects your mortgage balance is paid off in full, you want to keep that documentation forever.

Mortgage loan payoff letter
Mortgage loan payoff letter

Tax Records

The IRS suggests keeping W-2s, 1099s and related documents for anywhere from three to seven years. Though depending on your individual tax situation, holding them longer may be advisable.

If the tax records relate to property ownership, you should hold them “until the period of limitations expires for the year in which you dispose of the property.”

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For example, you want to keep home improvement records until you sell. That’s because they can help lower your capital gains taxes when you do you file the following year.

Meanwhile, your actual income tax returns themselves are a different story. The IRS says that if you don’t file a return or if a fraudulent return was filed in your name, your best bet is to keep all tax returns forever.

What’s more, since old tax returns can help in preparing future tax returns — not to mention making computations on an amended return — there’s a strong case to be made for keeping all tax returns forever.

“I had all my tax records including supporting documents going back to 1994. But I recently purged all the supporting documents up to 2012,” money expert Clark Howard says. “However, I kept all the returns themselves going back to 1994. So I shredded 18 years of supporting docs, but still have the tax returns.”

Car Records

Keeping records related to your car has more to do with your individual ownership cycle than with any magic number of years to hold onto something.

When it comes to car loan payment stubs, you should keep them until the car is paid off. Likewise, when it comes to titles, you should retain that document in a safe place until you sell the vehicle off.

How Long to Keep Documents Chart

The question of long to keep mortgage statements, tax records and documents related to your vehicle are the ones that come up most often.

But we know people have questions about how long to keep many other documents, too. So with that in mind, we’ve come up with the following chart:

Document Hold On to It FOREVER Keep It for Up to 6 or 7 Years Keep It for a Month, a Quarter or a Year
Tax returns X
Contracts X
Mortgage loan payoff records X
Any loan payoff statement showing a zero balance X
ID cards (passport, driver’s license, Social Security card) X
Diplomas, education credentials or certifications X
List of previous addresses and landlord contact info (for renters) X
Contact info for people who can verify you lived at previous addresses (for background checks/security clearances) X
Tax return documentation (W2s, 1099s, etc.) X
Current insurance policies or past ones you still want to make a claim on X
Cancelled checks X
Apartment leases after you move out X
Warranties, receipts and serial numbers for valuable items you may want to make an insurance claim on X
Bank deposit slips X*
Bank statements X**
Investment records X***
Last pay stub of the year X**
Medical and/or dependent care receipts as qualified expenses for an HSA or FSA X**

* Keep until you reconcile your monthly statements.
** Keep until reconciliation at the end of the year or at tax time.
*** Shred monthly and quarterly statements as new ones arrive; hold on to annual statements until you sell the investments.

So that’s a look at how long to keep certain documents. But some documents can be destroyed much quicker after they come into your life:

Toss These Records

  • Credit card statements that are more than three years old
  • Past insurance statements
  • Old utility bills, except the most recent one from your old address if you’ve moved
  • Statements of recently paid bills, once you have something saying they’ve been paid

Use Your Discretion on How Long to Keep These Documents

  • Medical records, including bloodwork, a list of vaccinations and more
  • Job offer letters and/or employment contracts to verify what terms of employment you agreed to should a dispute arise

Final Thought

Remember, physical copies of documents are great, but storing them in the cloud is acceptable, too. Google Drive, Dropbox and similar services are great for this purpose.

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In addition, many people recommend following the 3-2-1 rule when it comes to record keeping and paperwork.

  • Have three independent copies of your data.
  • Two should be stored on different types of media — such as in the cloud and on a thumb drive.
  • One backup copy should be kept offsite.

Clark Howard recently stopped recommending safe deposit boxes at banks as a viable solution for offsite storage. Instead he uses a home safe.

“I keep valuables in a large fireproof safe. It’s well hidden and way too heavy for anyone to just walk out with.”

The thing is, you never know when you may need a document of some kind in an emergency situation. And unfortunately, not all emergency situations are created equal. A home safe is ideal because you can access the contents any time you want — not just during bank hours.

Got additional questions about how long to keep documents that are not covered here? Call our Consumer Action Center.

Contact Clark’s Consumer Action Center — a FREE help line open Monday-Thursday from 10 a.m. – 7 p.m. and Friday from 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. EST. We have volunteers available to answer YOUR concerns! Call Team Clark @ 404-892-8227.

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