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A pack rat’s guide to shredding

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Shredding Infographic


Is your home a pack rat’s paradise? You’re not alone. As you start spring cleaning, are you wondering what to keep and what to shred? We’ve looked at experts’ advice and compiled this summary of how long they recommend keeping certain documents. Put our handy graphic near your shredder as a guide. 

Save forever

Keep documents related to major life events – birth, marriage, divorce, and death. Lock securely:

  • Birth certificates or adoption papers
  • Social Security cards
  • Citizenship papers or passports
  • Marriage or divorce decrees
  • Death certificates of family members

Also, keep auto titles and home deeds stored safely for as long as you own the property.

Tax records

This time of year, the big question is: what tax records can you shred, and when can you shred them?

  • Tax returns – Our conservative advice? It’s best to keep these forever.
  • Pay stubs – Shred ’em after checking them against your W-2.
  • Home improvement receipts – Keep these receipts until you sell your home, since certain expenses may reduce your capital gains tax.
  • Other tax records – like tax-related receipts and cancelled checks – Wait seven years before shredding. Why? While the IRS usually has three years to audit you, it has up to seven years under certain circumstances. (If you file a fraudulent return, then the IRS can audit at any time – but for the average honest taxpayer, seven years works.)

If you’re unsure what tax records to keep, consult an accountant or call IRS Taxpayer Assistance at 800-829-1040.

Other records

Most experts suggest that you can shred many other documents sooner than seven years. After paying credit card or utility bills, shred them immediately. Also, shred sales receipts, unless related to warranties, taxes, or insurance. After one year, shred bank statements, pay stubs, and medical bills (unless you have an unresolved insurance dispute).   

For those who are thinking, maybe I should keep everything, just in case. . . remember that identity thieves can’t find documents you have destroyed. Destroying documents with your personal information reduces the likelihood of becoming an identity theft victim.

Shredding is just one way to reduce the risk of identity theft. For other tips on preventing identity theft, visit


Thank you for this post. I was just woundering how long to keep things. I have a stock pile to get shred.

Thank you for sharing this very important information with us. How many of the public really remember the specifics and this is the answer to most simple questions.

I have years of un shredded bank statements. I can't possibly shred them all. I can't burn them. I'm too old to be carrying them somewhere to be shredded. They're too heavy. What now?

If you have younger kids nearby (grandchildren) you can hire them to shred them, or there are some mobile sites that may come to you to shred them. If you google 'shred it', a list of services will appear.

"can't" or "don't want to"? Shredders are fairly inexpensive. If you shred a little bit everyday, you will eventually get through it all. Otherwise, have kids/grandkids do a little when they come over to visit. If you don't want to shred them yourself, then take some of it someplace to have it destroyed. Stop thinking that you have to destroy them all at once... just do a little at a time.

If you pay stubs have any garnishment shown, they should be kept forever.

The documents recommended to save forever are of a strange variaty.

irs want bank statements if you are audited so i'd put those in the other tax records category so they are kept for 7 years

It would be great to have some closure involving my Idenity theft case. I keep my hopes high and prayers strong for some form of relief and resolution

what about DVD's or Thumb Drives, Microchips and locked away in a fire proof safe? I hate to get rid of anything I have already had the IRS telling me I did not pay enough taxes in a certain year. I was able to take the documentation and go to a CPA and he filled out the proper worksheet instead of owing them they owed me. Did I see it NO but I got a 1099-int on the penalty they charged me.

shirl1669 - use a shredding company - they come to house/business and shred them in the truck immediately. Cost is inexpensive - around $40 for 100lbs

Shredding your documents are ALWAYS the best policy

A better rule is to shred your individual tax returns after 3 years. Unless there was fraud or unreported income greater than 25% of your total income reported (along with a few other exceptions), you shouldn't get audited past 3 years.

Shredding your own documents is the best dad a 26 yr military vet was just recently victimized with someone taking on his identity, my parents have no internet or cell phone so we are not sure how someone gained his personal information, he does volunteer at the va locally and we have heard news in media that a recent shredding company the va hired had an employee stealing veterans info off their papers before shredding them so do it yourself people.

I think this is a terrible article. The documents it says to shred immediately may be used for tax deductions and/or business expenses, etc. Shredding them immediately may just get you into trouble later. Surely you should have at least put some caveat to that in the suggestion. To me this article should have a big red flag on it...and a disclaimer. I'm shocked that an attorney would put something like this out there without a more serious disclaimer.

When you're making decisions about what to shred, please be careful to distinguish between “tax records” and “other records.”   Read about what to do with tax returns, pay stubs, and home improvement receipts

If you have and other tax records – like tax-related receipts and cancelled checks, you should wait seven years before shredding them. 

Most experts suggest that you can shred many other documents sooner than seven years.

Thanks for the tips! I have so many papers in my home that it's taking up a lot of drawer space. Having this list will help me know what I should keep and what can be shredded. There are so many tax records in my desk that I don't know what to do with them. Waiting at least seven years before shredding tax-related receipts and cancelled checks is a great tip to know. I have so many receipts that I've kept for the past ten years in case I ever needed them. Shredding them will help empty out a lot of drawer space. While I'm at it, I'll also shred the pay stubs I've already used for my W-2. Thanks for the tips!

I really appreciated the insight about when you should shred your tax records and what different records you should actually shred. As you say, things like pay stubs should be shredded, which is something that I didn't know. These, however, definitely provide sensitive information, so shredding them right from the get-go will help protect your information from not getting into the wrong hands. Thank you for sharing!

People, I'm sorry to throw a wrench on everyone's shredding party, I love to shred also, BUT...due to identity theft, I had to go get a lawyer and drag out my papers from 19, yes, nineteen, years ago. Having those papers which we were just told to shred, saved me thousands of dollars, anguish, & more frustration. Be careful, be prudent.

While I've had a terrible propensity to keep everything that's "official" somehow (like mortgage statements) I need to keep reminding myself that most of those items (bank statement, utility bills, insurance papers, credit cards, etc.) are available online for download from your provider. The best way not to accumulate the paper in the first place is to opt for the completely paperless option if one is offered.
Now that I mention it, I think I'll go take care of the few accounts that i haven't shifted to fully paperless yet...

I would keep all receipts related to tax deductions, all receipts related to home ownership for at least 7 years, and all bank statements for 7 years. I would keep credit card statements for 7 years too in case of tax audit. My banks only keep the last 12 months of statements available online, so I download these to my pc every 3 months to keep them for 7 years there.

NEVER toss any documents relating to the IRS or your FICA. Here's why:

Just one missing w-2 cost me over 1/4 of million dollars in lost ssdi benefits.


What about other legal/medical records such as Worker's Comp records? How long after the case is closed should those be kept?

Is a scanned image just as legal as the paper document?

The answer to your question could depend on many factors including the document you scan and the purpose for which you want to use the document. Are you thinking about scanning your child's drawing to share with a friend, or scanning a legal document to send to a court? You may want to ask a lawyer for advice.

When I got my first Social Security statement of lifetime earnings, there were a few years missing. When I called Social Security, they said I had to have my W-2's to show earnings. Of course those records had long been shredded as they were earnings more than 20 years old. SSA does not keep the records, so I was told I was just out of luck ("and should have known better...!")

How awful, Enjay! No one ever thinks things like this will happen to them. May we all learn from your unfortunate circumstance.

My ex-husband destroyed some of my personal tax returns for yrs. that don’t show up on my earnings statement. Wouldn’t the IRS have copies of every tax return and W-2 I’ve ever filed with them? A possible way to recover those lost earnings yrs. for Social Security?

I am ltonser. I need help. What can i do it?

Check your Social Security every year. Register on the social security site and get your earnings statement.

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