You don't need, and certainly don't want to carry a growing mound of receipts and bank statements with you every time you move. You do, however, need to keep records just in case you have to settle disputes with credit-card companies or the Internal Revenue Service. Some paperwork will hang around for years, but you can discard other pieces in a year or less.
Tax or Not
If your records relate to tax write-offs, like material you'd need to prove a deductible medical expense, keep them at least three years. The IRS can't usually look back any further. It's got forever if it suspects you of fraud, but no more than six years if it thinks you under-reported income by 25 percent or more. If you spend money that could change a capital gains tax -- a new roof on your home, for instance -- keep the records until you sell the property.
You should keep auto, house, medical, flood and other insurance paperwork as long as you have the policy in force. If you have a claim in process, keep any related bills or receipts until everything is resolved to your satisfaction. With medical insurance, don't get rid of anything until you or the family member finishes treatment and the claims process is done. If you want a record of your own treatment, keep the paperwork as long as you need for your own information.
Receipts and Bills
If you keep track of cash purchases that don't impact your taxes or insurance, you can trash the receipts once you've recorded the amounts. When you pay by check or credit card, keep the bill or receipt long enough to confirm the company applied the right amount. Hang on to receipts for big-ticket items like jewelry or a new computer as long as they belong to you. It'll help if you ever have an insurance issue. Check your files every year and shred anything you didn't get to already.
Think of bank statements as your way to keep everything in order and an easy way for someone else to get to know you. Open those immediately and confirm everything's kosher. There should be no incorrect amounts and no checks you didn't write. If you're satisfied everything's legit, shred it then and there. The same applies to any hard-copy checks you get except for those tied to taxes, insurance or big purchases. If you don't have the time to weed through and shred your statements every month, do it at least once a year.
A graduate of Oberlin College, Fraser Sherman began writing in 1981. Since then he's researched and written newspaper and magazine stories on city government, court cases, business, real estate and finance, the uses of new technologies and film history. Sherman has worked for more than a decade as a newspaper reporter, and his magazine articles have been published in "Newsweek," "Air & Space," "Backpacker" and "Boys' Life." Sherman is also the author of three film reference books, with a fourth currently under way.