What to Toss, Keep, Shred or Digitize
From ATM receipts and bank statements, to receipts for auto maintenance, home repairs or the purchase of your new refrigerator, most of us are up to our ears with the paper that flows in and out of our homes every day. And with tax time around the corner you may be wondering what you really need to get organized for tax filing.
The good news is that you don’t have to keep as much as you might think. A little organization can go a long way, and digital technology has made it possible to dramatically reduce paper clutter, while still maintaining important documents and tracking expenditures throughout the year.
Here are a few simple tips to help you identify what to keep for tax purposes, what you can safely get rid of, and how to organize and manage it all.
Whether you do your taxes yourself or work with an accountant, the process will be easier if you have your information in order. In general, you’ll need to know your total annual income, expenses that may change how your income is taxed, and what items can be deducted, such as charitable donations. If you have already paid some taxes you’ll need to know the amount of those payments. Web sites such as TurboTax.com and hrblock.com have helpful checklists, tax calculators and other tools to help you get organized and even file your taxes. Here is general checklist of some of the information and documents TurboTax says you’ll need in order to prepare your taxes:
Personal Information – Social security numbers and dates of birth for yourself, your spouse and your dependents
Income Information – Not all of these may apply to you, but sources of income that must be reported include:
- IRA/pension distributions – forms 1099-R or 8606
- Social Security – forms SSA-1099
- Miscellaneous – income from things like jury duty, gambling winnings, scholarships, etc.
You can find a more detailed list here.
You’ll also want supporting evidence of purchases, donations or other expenses that can help lower your taxes. These are called itemized deductions and they will vary greatly from one person to another. A tax professional can help you identify which deductions apply to you. You’ll need receipts if you plan to deduct any of the following on your tax return:
- Advance Child Tax Credit payment
- Childcare costs
- Education costs
- Adoption costs
- Home mortgage interest and points paid
- Charitable donations
- Casualty and theft losses
- Union dues
- Unreimbursed employee expenses (such as uniforms, supplies, etc.)
- Medical and dental bills
Finally, you may reduce your tax burden by itemizing taxes you’ve already paid, including:
- State and local income taxes.
- Real estate taxes.
- Personal property taxes, such as vehicle license fees.
Toss or shred what you can
Although you’ll want to keep some receipts for a short time, after you’ve checked them against your monthly statements you can get rid of the following:
- ATM receipts
- Bank withdrawal and deposit slips
- Credit card receipts
- Utility bills and most other monthly bills
Pay stubs can be destroyed after you get your annual W2.
Shred anything that has personal information on it. If you still feel a little nervous about tossing all those receipts and bills, use a scanner to create an electronic copy and ditch the paper. You’ll have the peace of mind of having the information available without the clutter.
Save only what you have to
A good rule of thumb is to keep tax returns and related documents for three years from the April tax-filing deadline. Here are a few more guidelines from TaxAct.com to help you decide how long to keep tax-related documents.
Tax returns, plus all documentation that supports your deductions, especially documents related to property, investments or business assets. The IRS has three years to assess additional tax and to audit returns; this is also the amount of time you have to file an amended return.
Many states that collect income tax have an additional year to audit individual returns.
Forms W-2, 1099 and other forms that document income. The IRS has six years to contact you if you have failed to report income.
Information regarding loss from bad debts or worthless securities.
You don’t necessarily have to keep hard copies – going digital not only reduces paper clutter, it may also protect your information from damage or loss by natural disaster, accidents in your home or accidentally throwing it away.
It doesn’t have to cost a lot to store and manage documents safely and securely. If a shoebox works for you, it’s ok to stick with it. But there are a few items you may want to purchase if your budget allows.
A paper shredder can help protect against identity theft by destroying any papers that contain private information. Look for a crosscut or confetti-style shredder that makes it virtually impossible for the pieces of paper to be reassembled by would-be information thieves.
From small portable scanners to those integrated into your printer/copier, scanners enable you to create a digital copy of personal documents that can be stored electronically.
External Hard Drive
An external hard drive provides a back-up storage solution that you can access from your computer, without the risk of storing sensitive documents on your computer. Some models even function as a private cloud drive, so you can log in from anywhere to access documents on the go.