By Stephen L. Nelson

How long should you keep old reports, copies of invoices, and other bits of accounting information? Unfortunately, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer to these questions. However, here are some things to think about:

  • Consider whether the other party to a transaction is ever going to want the information. For example, if you’re chronically arguing with a vendor about whether you’ve paid some bill, it makes sense to hang on to those vendor bills and any records of your payment for as long as the argument may go on.

    This means that any paperwork that documents vendor bills and payments doesn’t necessarily have to be retained if you don’t have a problem.

  • Consider tax accounting requirements. By law (a lot of people don’t realize this), a business is required to maintain accounting records in order to report its profits, losses, income, and deductions to the Internal Revenue Service. This means that anything that you need to calculate your profits or substantiate elements of your calculations should be maintained.

    However, a statute of limitations exists that typically runs three years from the date you last filed the return. This means that in most cases, you don’t need to keep paperwork that’s any older than three years past the return that it relates to. In other words, if you have data from the year 2009, and you filed the year 2009 tax return on March 15, 2010, by March 16, 2013, you shouldn’t (in most cases) need to keep all that old paperwork.

    The statute of limitations dictates that you should be able to discard the old stuff. A word of caution is in order, because a handful of exceptions exist to this three-year statute of limitations:

    • If you’ve been really sloppy and, through your sloppiness, omitted gross income in excess of 25 percent of what your return shows, the statute of limitations equals six years.

    • If no return is filed or a fraudulent return is filed, no statute of limitations exists.

    • States without income taxes (like Washington state) use a different set of rules and may use a longer statute of limitations. Washington state, for example, says the statute of limitations runs four years, not three.

  • Consider the old records that you may need in the future in order to calculate an item for your tax return. These records need to be retained. For example, if you bought a factory 30 years ago, keep those purchase records until 3 (or 6) years after you sell the factory.

  • Consider that in some industries, other document retention rules or regulations exist. For example, if you’re a physician, you keep your old patient records — and this may include patient accounting information — for longer than just three years. These other document retention rules vary by industry. Find out what the rules are for your industry.

  • Consider the risk of retaining confidential information too long. Finally, though you might ponder all the forgoing points and conclude that you should keep your financial records in perpetuity, note that this approach creates risks, too. The more financial documentation you archive, the easier in some cases it may be for this information to get lost or stolen.

    You wouldn’t want, for example, to keep so many years’ worth of data that you have to rent a warehouse in a bad part of town just to store the stuff.

Summing up, how do you make sense of these vague suggestions? Come up with a rough guess as to how long you think you should hang on to stuff.

If you’re not doing anything criminal or fraudulent or sloppy, toss anything that’s over five years old. Segregate documents you can throw out by year into boxes. Label the boxes with the year number. Also label the boxes with a note like “Discard in 2016” just so you know when you can toss that stuff out.

You may want to think twice about simply tossing out financial records. Don’t toss out your personal records or, of course, any client records: shred the documents first.

By the way, some big-box office-supply stores offer in-store shredding services at reasonable prices.