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Tax Day 2012 is looming — and after we file our returns, many of us will try to figure out what to do with the seemingly innocuous but possibly crucial documents we use to prepare our returns. Filing electronically can make those records easier to manage. But what should we really keep, and for how long?
Most experts recommend holding on to financial records for three years after they're used in a tax return — that's the amount of time the IRS has to audit taxpayers.
Personal finance writer Kimberly Lankford, who recently wrote about keeping tax documents in an article for Kiplinger's, says you should keep one type of record as long as you possibly can: your tax return itself — a Form 1040, and the supporting forms that go with it.
Those documents can be a big help in coming years, she says — for instance, when you sell an investment, or need to apply for a mortgage or disability insurance.
But that doesn't mean you have to buy a new filing cabinet to store all those papers, as she tells NPR's David Greene, in an interview for Monday's Morning Edition.
"These days, you can just digitize — scan it, take a picture of it with your cellphone," Lankford says, "put it on the computer, and then you don't have to worry about it."
The main reason to keep those documents is for your own benefit, Lankford says. They don't all have to be official copies — just something to help you find the information again later. For reference, the IRS has a page of frequently asked questions from people who keep their books digitally. And if a cellphone photo sounds too informal, there are other options out there.
"There are some very official ways that you can keep them on PDFs," Lankford says. "There's some apps that you can get. And if you do TurboTax or TaxCut, you can keep it on a PDF that way. And that's a really good idea — at least for those first three years."
Lankford didn't name any apps — but some of the most popular ones are from Mint, Pageonce and Adaptu. More comprehensive — and expensive — options include PC programs such as those from Quicken (which, like TurboTax, is an Intuit product) and You Need a Budget. Those services also offer mobile versions of their software.
The main thing, Lankford says, is to be sure that the computer you're using is secure — so the personal information you're saving will be, as well.
"This time of year, there's also a lot of ID thieves out there," she says, "who are preying upon people who either are using insecure computers to include all of their tax information — because think about it: It has your Social Security number; it has every single piece of personal information that can help them steal your identity."
In addition to tax returns, Lankford recommends that you hang on to two other types of records:
If you're storing your financial records electronically, you should back up your data, so you don't lose your information if a computer's hard drive fails, for instance. Cloud storage is one option, but not everyone is comfortable beaming their financial life into a distant server. So, you might want to save copies on a DVD or CD, or even on an external hard drive.
Whatever method you use, you can also use tax time as a "purge date" for some documents that are more than three years old, Lankford says. Among them are canceled checks, receipts and bills.
Other items, such as monthly statements from your bank or stock brokerage, ATM receipts, bank-deposit slips and pay stubs, can be disposed of monthly, unless they contain tax-related details.
"But also, be very careful about the hard copies of things," Lankford says. "Shred them before you throw them away. Because otherwise, you're going to have one big bucket of trash that has all your information in there. So just be really careful about all that stuff."
Lankford admits something that will make a lot of people feel better: She hasn't done her own taxes yet.
If you're a procrastinator, you have a bit of extra time before tax returns are due this year — because April 15 falls on a Sunday, and the Washington, D.C., holiday of Emancipation Day is on Monday, April 16. So, the big deadline is Tuesday, April 17.