Organize those crushing mounds of paperwork

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We are horrified by our prolific mounds of household paperwork. They crush us by the weight of their awful importance. They are our utility bills, mortgage statements, bank summaries, investment portfolios and income tax returns. They are our restaurant receipts, invoices, insurance claims, paystubs, medical bills, cellphone contracts and financial loan statements. For better or worse, these are the official papers that give us validation and legitimate standing to the financial powers that be. Managing these documents effectively gives us the freedom to safely navigate unpredictable fiscal waters with relative agility.

There are a few guidelines, but unfortunately no one-size answer for every household. First, invest in a household shredder. Your personal information is the key to identity theft. Criminals sifting through the garbage have become inconceivably clever at ripping us off with our own trash. Don’t believe me? Ask anyone whose life has been completely hijacked by information fraud. Shred every document you don’t keep. You’ll thank me the next time you hear about it on the news. Next, consider a scanner for electronic archiving. Folders neatly organized on your computer are manageable and easy to retrieve, but should always be backed up on a secure external hard drive.

I have reviewed several reputable online sites to assemble consistencies in what most financial advisors and government agencies recommend. The IRS can audit you for no reason up to three years after you have filed your tax return. If you omit 25 percent of your gross income, they can audit up to six years later. If you neglect to file altogether or file fraudulently, there is no statute of limitations on when they can show up with an audit. I have listed several items that can reasonably be destroyed after one month, one year, three years, and seven years. But the IRS isn’t the only agency that may require documentation. For that reason, the seven-to-ten-year rule is the safest for any record or document that may be tied to medical treatment, mortgages, income tax returns, litigation, or insurance claims.

In general, for most people:

Hold on to warranties until they expire or can no longer be returned or exchanged. For one month, maintain ATM printouts and bank statements until you can check them against your monthly statement for accuracy. If bank statements are your only means to prove a tax-related purchase, maintain for at least three years.

For one year, maintain the following unless used for income tax purposes — then keep for three years after filing: paycheck stubs until you can compare to W2 and annual social security statement; utility bills; cancelled checks; credit card receipts; bank statements; and quarterly investment statements.

For three years, keep the following: all income tax returns; medical bills; and cancelled insurance policies. Maintain all records of selling property or stocks. Retain receipts, cancelled checks and other documents that support income or a deduction on your tax return. Any annual investment statements should be kept for three years after the investment is sold.

Any records of satisfied loans and questionable income tax returns should be saved for seven years.

For matters that are still active, maintain: contracts; insurance documents; stock certificates; property records; stock records; pensions and retirement plans; property tax records; disputed bills (until the dispute is resolved); and home improvement records (if indicating income or losses on tax return, save for three years). Investment records should be saved as long as you own the securities, plus seven years to prove capital gains and losses.

Items to keep forever include: marriage licenses; birth certificates; adoption papers; death certificates; immunization records; college transcripts, current passports, and records of paid mortgages. These, along with current medical directives, wills, living wills, living trusts, and durable powers of attorney, should all be kept securely stored in a fireproof/waterproof location — indefinitely.

For more information, contact a reputable CPA or visit these online resources:

— Evan Zislis is founder and principal consultant of, delivering hands-on organizational solutions for households, businesses, nonprofits, students, and life transitions. To comment or suggest column topics, visit the Facebook page “Intentional Solutions.” For more information about simplifying your stuff and organizing your life, call 366.2532 or email

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