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I recently moved, and I am in the process of figuring out a filing system for my financial records, etc. I am a fairly astute record-keeper, but my new house has limited storage options, and I need to re-visit how I store my important financial records.

In general, do you find it more optimal to archive financial records by account, or to archive them by year? What is more likely, to be required to provide documentation of something in a specific account, or to provide the entirety of a year's records (say, for a tax audit, or a credit dispute)?

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Regardless of what else you do, do not archive accounts by year but rather do it by account. Recently, I helped the widow of a deceased, secretive highly egotistical, friend sort out the paperwork, which friend had filed on a month by month basis (his own system which she said ran perfectly because he knew where everything was (but he did not tell her)), and it was a nightmare. "When is the next auto insurance premium due?" "Huh?" Is there a life insurance policy?" Huh?" The policy was filed in the folder of the month it was issued! I found a $25K bond that she knew nothing about, and so on. –  Dilip Sarwate Jul 26 '12 at 2:26

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First, I try to keep electronic records (with appropriate backups) whenever it seems feasible: utility bills, credit card statements, bank statements, etc. This greatly cuts down on storage space, and are kept forever. For hard copy records, it depends on the transaction. I try to balance filing time and recover time, by how likely it is that I will need to access a record in the future. I'm much less likely to need the receipt for this mornings coffee at Starbucks than I am to need the utility bill for my rental property (100%, come tax time).

For instance, by default I file my credit card receipts, that don't get filed elsewhere, by year with all cards kept together, and cull them after 5-7 years. I keep all of the credit card receipts, just because it is less effort for me than making a decision about what to keep and what to discard. I put them in an accordion file by month of charge, and keep two, for the current year and previous years. At the beginning of each year, I get rid of the receipts in the oldest file and reuse it.

Anything that needs to be kept longer that a couple of years gets filed separately. Certain records are kept together. For example, car repair/maintenance receipts are filed by vehicle and kept for the life of the vehicle (could be useful when its sold, to provide the repair history). All receipts for the rental property are kept together, organized by account. I'll keep these until the property is sold. All tax related receipts that don't have a specific file are kept together, by year, along with the tax return.

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Thanks, I think that this helps. I know how long to keep records, but I wasn't really sure what the best method for doing it was. Do you keep your CC receipts for all purchases, or just major ones? And do you hang on to your statements and proof of payment for the 5-7 year period, as well? –  Arkamis Jul 25 '12 at 19:36
    
@gorcee I added some more details to my answer. –  KeithB Jul 25 '12 at 21:01
    
+1 for electronic records. A scanner and offsite backup can keep the paper to a minimum. –  JoeTaxpayer Jul 26 '12 at 3:13

The short answer is "it depends", mainly on the type of record and how old it is. Most retained records should be organized by year first, then by type. Have a look at this: http://www.bankrate.com/finance/personal-finance/how-long-to-keep-financial-records.aspx

Typically, you should do the following:

  • Retain all receipts, bills, cancelled checks, pay stubs, etc that you receive in a year, for that year, organized by the type of document and/or "account payable/receivable". You may pair canceled checks with bills they were used to pay once you have both. The site says you can shred the bill at this time if they match; I would suggest you keep both.
  • After that year, retain all records that substantiate any figure on your federal income tax return, such as earnings statements, records of deductible amounts, etc. and shred everything else. If summary statements are available that aggregate monthly or quarterly statements, it's only necessary to keep the summary statements provided everything adds up.
  • After seven years, retain the following indefinitely and shred everything else:
    • A copy of the actual 1040 return and any related schedules and W-2s (the page I linked to says to shred that after seven years, but the return and W-2 are a valuable proof of income that may be needed to resolve disputes over entitlement benefits)
    • Records of contributions made to retirement plans (especially after-tax, as proof of how the money was contributed and therefore whether it is subject to taxation on withdrawal)
    • Records of valuable purchases (house, car, jewelry, furniture, appliances - these records are proof of value in case of an insurable loss). These should be easy to find, so they are a notable exception to organization of records by year; once the taxes for the year in which the purchase was made are filed, put the proof of purchase into a special folder of the "keep permanently" file.
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So then based on this, would you say that it would be best to group records by year? –  Arkamis Jul 25 '12 at 19:14
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By year first, then for records newer than seven years by account or other document type. –  KeithS Jul 25 '12 at 19:15
    
One notable exception as I have edited is that records of valuable durable goods purchases should probably all be kept together regardless of year of purchase. –  KeithS Jul 25 '12 at 19:16
    
For entitlement benefits, keep the W2/Schedule SE, 1040 should be kept to prove you filed your taxes on time (no statute of limitation on not filing, statute of limitation is 3/6 years on filing wrong info, unless its a fraud). –  littleadv Jul 25 '12 at 19:17
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Social security benefits are not based on your actual income, only on the income you paid social security taxes of. This info doesn't appear on 1040 (except for schedule SE, for those having it). I agree with your way of keeping it, I keep the whole folder including the tax forms and W2's, per year. Just saying what's important for what:) –  littleadv Jul 25 '12 at 19:29

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