Who knew there were so many opinions about the financial documents you should retain or toss?

In two recent columns, I encouraged people to purge and offered some suggestions on what to shred, save or scrap. You can find both columns at www.washingtonpost.com/people/michelle-singletary.

On occasion, I let readers provide counterpoints in the Color of Money “Talk Back” feature. Here’s what some of you had to say about what to do with various documents:

Utility statements: “A homeowner should keep all utility bills,” one reader said. “When selling (my) last house, I was asked for copies of all utility bills for the previous five years. Fortunately for me, I am a packrat and was able to come up with them.”

I think that’s extreme. Would your home sale not go through if you couldn’t produce a backlog of your utility bills? I don’t think so. It’s more reasonable to show a potential buyer the previous year’s utility expenses.

Keep “at least the most recent year if you are selling your house,” wrote Theodore Seale of Maryland. And even then, your usage “doesn’t account for the seller who likes the AC colder than the buyer, but I guess it gives a ballpark number.”

Another reader countered: “You should amend the shredding comment on utility bills to point out that people who (1) install new storm windows, (2) experience significant temperature change in any year, or (3) convert from electricity to gas or vice versa may wish to examine comparative consumption rates in an effort to measure differences before and after.”

As it relates to utility bills, one reader asked: “Why go to the trouble of shredding hard copies?”

Identity-theft experts advise shredding any documents that have account numbers. You would be amazed at how crafty identity thieves are in pulling together information to steal your identity. And there have been a few times when, as a security question to verify my identity, I was asked the amount of my last utility bill.

On the other hand, one reader pointed out the need to have information once you become a victim of identity theft.

“In the process of freezing our credit and getting our credit reports, for each site we had to answer about five multiple choice questions in about five minutes,” the person wrote. “We were asked the terms of a loan we took out over 15 years ago, a list of phone numbers that might have been attributed to us at some point, and some questions about previous addresses. Having historical documents online and easily accessible has saved us a lot of time and headaches. The downside is that I need to keep at least one backup procedure in place.”

Pay stubs: “What about disputing inaccurate Social Security records?” a reader asked. “For example, if I find out that the Social Security Administration has an inaccurate income for me 10 years ago, how could I dispute it if I throw away my tax records and W-2s at seven years?”

Ideally, you should be regularly checking your Social Security statement to make sure you are being credited for all your earnings. If you haven’t already, go online to www.ssa.gov/mystatement to get a copy of your most recent one.

Credit card statement: “I think folks should retain hard copies of their monthly credit card and medical insurance statements indefinitely in order to document charges in the event of a large class-action suit or warranty claim,” wrote one reader. “A few years ago, there was a huge class-action suit against United Health Care, which had been overcharging certain customers for over a decade. It was only because I had retained my credit card and medical insurance statements that I was able to document my expenses and recover the full amount allowed by the settlement court. Otherwise I would only have received a substantially lower settlement payment.”

The reality is most consumer class-action lawsuits don’t result in large individual payouts, so why keep every credit card statement forever?

But if you think you’ll need the documents, scan and store them electronically.

Paperwork about your home: “As a family lawyer, I handle a lot of financial and divorce tax issues,” wrote Jan White, who practices in Maryland. “It is important to save documents which prove the tax basis in an asset for as long as you hold the asset, particularly receipts that prove capital improvement costs for a home renovation.”

Here’s the thing. There will be exceptions to advice about purging your paperwork. My best advice is to at least get organized.

Michelle Singletary can be contacted at:

[email protected]

Twitter: SingletaryM


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