Organize all the things!!!
April 29, 2013 11:16 AM   Subscribe

I finally went through my mountains of paperwork this weekend and got a nice little filing system up and running. I have an ungodly amount of old paycheck stubs. Do I need to save these? Do you save medical bills? What about old tax returns? Arghshshs!

After years of keeping all my shit in a couple of poorly organized accordion files and never throwing anything away, I bit the bullet and filed everything. I have a giant box of paper to shred. Yay!

I've done a lot of different things to make money the past few years, and I have a shitload of paycheck stubs dating back more than three years. Do I need to keep these? I think I have all my paycheck info in a nice, neat file dating back to June, 2011, but should I keep older stuff?

I also have tax info dating back to 2009. How many years of tax returns do I need to save?

Should I save medical bills? (My gut feeling is NO, but I clearly have no idea what I'm doing, so all input is appreciated).

I want to just SHRED IT ALL!!!, but I don't want to get rid of something I might need down the road.
posted by ablazingsaddle to Home & Garden (19 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
Here is one article about what to keep and what not to.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:22 AM on April 29, 2013 [2 favorites]

After you do your taxes (and received your refund or the receipt of payment), bundle up all the documents (returns, paycheck stubs, receipts, etc.) and store them somewhere, labeled with the year.

You can pretty safely throw away anything older than five years.
posted by Etrigan at 11:23 AM on April 29, 2013

The only thing I save are tax returns or anything I might need for a future tax return. Those pay stubs get shredded immediately. I do save receipts for large purchases for a couple of months just in case something goes wrong and I need to return or exchange it.

I used to be a saver of all bills and pay stubs until it occurred to me I had never once in my life used or needed to use any of that stuff. I started tossing it a few years ago and have not regretted it.
posted by something something at 11:24 AM on April 29, 2013

If you have a scanner and more free time than you'd guess it would take, you can scan it all and save it electronically.
posted by Jacen at 11:25 AM on April 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Does the fact that I am a freelancer and frequent job-hopper change things?
posted by ablazingsaddle at 11:27 AM on April 29, 2013

Some helpful info from the IRS.

In summary, keep your tax records for 3 years from the later of 1) April 15 of the year you filed, or 2) the date you actually filed. So, for tax returns filed March 1, 2010 (TY 2009), keep until April 15, 2013. For tax returns filed on extension on August 1, 2010, (TY 2009), keep until August 1, 2013.

There are exceptions for returns with various defects (filed fraudulently, claimed worthlessness deduction). See the linked page.

My understanding is that people are advised to keep their paystubs to confirm they're consistent with that year's W-2s. I don't save mine at all.

I have a Brother printer/scanner, and I periodically scan a full folder of documents and shred the rest. I've culled at least a full document box AND I can feel virtuous knowing I have permanent records of my tax returns dating back to 1990. Feels so good.

Otherwise, I'd recommend downloading electronic versions of any statements you can (bank statements, credit cards). Store them in an encrypted folder on your computer. Paper is a liability, and heavy.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 11:27 AM on April 29, 2013

Best answer: I'm getting Evernote and I'm scanning the world.

The only paper stuff I'm keeping are the Pink Slips to the vehicles, the deeds to our house, our marriage certificate and the cats's annual shot records.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 11:35 AM on April 29, 2013

Best answer: Freelancers should keep tax documents for seven years.
posted by Riverine at 12:09 PM on April 29, 2013

Regarding medical bills... the last time I went through all our family records, I made a spreadsheet listing major events with the date and the doctor names. Now I have an easy place to look when I can't remember when my daughter broke her arm and which doctor performed my gallbladder surgery 8 years ago.

If I didn't have those piles of bills, I couldn't have created that. I could probably throw away all the big piles now, but I've left them in the bottom drawer just in case.
posted by CathyG at 12:44 PM on April 29, 2013

I'm not sure what the benefit of keeping the actual tax forms for 5 years is. The IRS has copies of everything with a form number at the top. What people really need to keep is paperwork that is the source for numbers in the tax forms. Like brokerage statements with purchase price and dates, or mileage logs, or receipts for business expenses.
posted by smackfu at 1:13 PM on April 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

At the very least, you may want to keep the first and last pay stubs you received from each of your previous employers. My SO recently had trouble verifying the start and end dates of one of his previous jobs for a background check, and having pay stubs would have been really helpful. (This previous employer was supposed to provide documentation for the background check but is generally incompetent and it almost screwed over my SO.) FWIW, this was for a job that he held before 2009.

Digital copies should be fine for this purpose.

On preview, yes, what smackfu said as well. My SO's ass was saved when he found copies of his W2s.
posted by Carmelita Spats at 2:45 PM on April 29, 2013

Best answer: Our tax CPA said save 7 years of records. I keep all germane receipts in a big envelope, and all $ transactions in Quicken. I save Quicken records for 7 years also. Why so cautious? We have been audited three times. 1. for charitable contributions out of the normal range, 2. Darned if I know why. In both cases, our records proved there was no fault.
3. because the tax preparer we got from a list from our bank put a figure in the wrong column. She had to pay the penalty. We did not use her again.

As a frequent job-changer, you might just stick out of the pack. Many audits are caused by some aspect of a return looking out of the normal parameters.
posted by Cranberry at 3:35 PM on April 29, 2013

The Fujitsu ScanSnap S1500 has been my best friend ever since I bought it a number of years ago. I love it! I've fed all my piles of paper through it and stashed the resulting PDFs on my NAS (in a directory structure suitable for finding everything again) and I'm also backing it all up online via CrashPlan (which has a resonably priced family plan and allows for backing up NASes).

Using this approach I have reduced my life in hard copy to a single drawer with files (all of which were of course also scanned) which include the following: 10 years of tax returns and supporting paperwork (they say 7 is enough but I'm paranoid), a couple years worth of paystubs (probably overkill as well though I like the suggestion further up to keep first/last from previous jobs), all medical docs for humans and animals (because you never know what legal BS you might have to deal with), all service records for the current car (useful when selling), any and all paperwork documenting that some loan I had taken out had been paid off, all paperwork for my current lease or mortage, all other important government related paperwork (in my case visa/green card stuff).

Looks like they're not selling my particular model of the ScanSnap anymore. The closest one I see on the page seems to be the iX500. No guarantees that it's the same as mine. But I can't state this enough: my ScanSnap scanner is one of the best purchases I've ever made in my entire life! I'm a bit OCD when it comes to keeping paperwork so being able to convert most of it to PDFs has been a massive relief.
posted by Hairy Lobster at 3:44 PM on April 29, 2013

Best answer: Cranberry's post reminded me: when I said I keep 10 years of tax returns with supporting docs I also meant receipts. I do my bookkeeping in Quicken these days which allows me to scan receipts. So all my receipts are scanned as well. I keep per-year zip-lock folders with any tax relevant receipts in them. I have mass-scanned older batches of receipts through the ScanSnap as well. They don't batch-scan as well as regular stacks of paper but it's not like you have to hand-feed them individually either.
posted by Hairy Lobster at 3:47 PM on April 29, 2013

Best answer: I used to save a lot of receipts and stuff until I was around people who really couldn't be counted on to save so much as a receipt from a purchase of an hour ago, and they didn't seem to suffer too much. So I stopped saving as much paper. But I still save those once-a-year docs like W2's and such.
posted by telstar at 7:28 PM on April 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

One way to save time on this is to do a rough sort of your pay stubs and medical stuff into piles by year, put those piles into letter-sized envelopes, labeling them by content and year, and then setting them aside. Then figure out what kind of record retention policy you need for each, and discard appropriately. If you never need to open the envelope, you've saved yourself a chunk of time that would otherwise have been wasted sorting.
posted by dws at 8:25 PM on April 29, 2013

Not that I've implemented any of the ideas yet, but there was this recent Metafilter post about getting your paperwork together which might be useful.
posted by jvilter at 9:21 PM on April 29, 2013

Best answer: I never see this mentioned in any of those links but it comes up fairly regularly as something people need (I'm a benefits administrator so I have to work people through this a lot).

When you end insurance coverage in the US your insurer sends you a Certificate of Creditable Coverage, KEEP THIS. You don't need to keep every doctor's visit receipt (unless you have deducted the costs on your taxes or used an FSA/HSA to pay the expense in which case the receipt should be kept with your tax information) but for the love of god KEEP THE CERTIFICATE OF CREDITABLE COVERAGE.

This way when you start your new coverage and your new insurer sends you a letter asking you to prove that you've had prior coverage (doesn't always happen but does happen) you just pull out your certificate and send a copy right over.
posted by magnetsphere at 7:39 AM on April 30, 2013

Response by poster: Thanks, y'all. I will shred my old pay stubs, keep all tax documents for at least seven years, and think about scanning (but probably not get around to it for a while).
posted by ablazingsaddle at 10:55 AM on April 30, 2013

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