Paperless Life

August 14, 2017

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Like I mentioned last week, I don't keep paper.  (John's been a little more resistant, since he was raised to keep everything, but he's coming around to the process.)  Digital storage makes my life easier and simpler, as does letting go of the notion that I 'might need it, one day.'  Spoiler: you don't.  There are so many good reasons to stop the paper madness - saving trees, saving money, saving sanity.  To me, the biggest benefit of going paperless as much as possible is that it reduces the amount of clutter in the home.  People don't realize what an issue paper is, because a few scraps here and there seem so small.  What they don't see is all of that paper piled together in one spot.

If you pile it all together, it's instantly overwhelming, particularly if you've never thought to cull and organize in that area before.  Stuck your refrigerator warranty in a folder 10 years ago and haven't looked at it since?  Yeah, it's not good anymore more.  I know a few people who set time aside each year to sort through things like that, but those people are rare and also, well, wasting their time.  Why not just stop the paper before it even starts?  I find it much more beneficial to stop it from coming in at all if it doesn't need to, and then to digitize anything that needs to be saved immediately.  Note that I said needs to be saved.  Not save everything all the time forever.

ITEMS TO KEEP

But first, there are some paper items that need saving, that's just the way it has to be in our current society.  For those items, we have a fireproof safe.  I highly recommend getting one if you don't have it, they come in at all price points.  Here's what we have in ours, and some other things you should probably keep in there if you have them:
  • House Title
  • Vehicle Title (John has a car, I do not)
  • Birth Certificates (our parents used to keep them but we're adults now so in the safe they go!)
  • Social Security Cards
  • Passports
  • Wills and Powers of Attorney (I write these up for a living so we have a big fireproof safe at my office.  Ours live in there so I don't have to deal with it at home.)
  • Marriage License (obviously we don't have this)
  • Computer Hard Drive Backup, for photos
Those are the general must haves, but I do know people who prefer having hard copies of some things that I just store digitally, and they keep in them in the safe as well.  Those things include:
  • Tax Returns (mine are on TurboTax and if that's not good enough for the IRS then... bite me.)
  • Medical Information
  • Home Inventory Lists and Receipts/Warranties for Expensive Items
  • Diplomas 
  • Insurance Policies
  • Loan Documents
  • Legal Agreements

REDUCE INCOMING PAPER

Before tackling the pile of papers you already own, you're going to want to stop anymore from coming in.  You might have some that you already know are an issue, like bank statements, but you haven't gotten around to getting paperless statements yet.  Now's the time.  It only takes a few seconds online, I promise.  Beyond paperless statements, you can also:
  • Use online bill pay
  • Call your credit card company and make sure you're on their list of 'do not sell my address to other companies' (yep, you have to request it)
  • Access documents online instead of printing
  • Cancel magazine and paper subscriptions you don't need
  • For any you keep, do the same as with the credit card and call to make sure they don't sell your information.  (You basically need to do this with every company that gets your information.  I even had to do it when I first donated money to the animal shelter.)
  • Decline receipts when you know you won't make a return (groceries, gas), and decline paper in general that someone tries to hand you, like flyers
  • Put up a No Solicitation sign on your front door.  Not always successful for stopping restaurants and lawn mowing companies from leaving their flyers, but it does work sometimes!
  • Try not to enter your address anywhere.  Sweepstakes, warranties (you don't need an address for any warranty to be valid, I promise), contests, even if they offer something for free in exchange for you filling out a form with your info.  Don't do it.
  • Use mailing 'unsubscribe' services, that work similar to how unroll.me does for your email.  These include DMAChoice for direct marketing, Catalog Choice for catalogs, and OptOutPrescreen for insurance and credit card offers.
  • Use the PaperKarma app for anything that still hits your mailbox (just take a picture inside the app to get off the mailing list, might take a mailing cycle or two to work.)

SCAN WHAT YOU ALREADY HAVE

Once the incoming paper is under control, it's time to make some decisions about what's currently sitting in your home, as well as to make a plan about future incoming things.  There's really only two options: recycling it, or making it a digital document to be stored on your computer or online (and then recycling it.)  The recycle part is easy - no identifying information, straight to the bin.  If it does have something, shred first.  So for the items you decide to save, if you're really, really sure you want to keep them (can't stress that part enough!), scan them into a digital document.  The way you want to do this really depends on how much you have and how much you're going to continue to have come in. 

For me, I simply use an app on my phone called CamScanner.  It's free (because I save my items elsewhere, you have to pay to use CamScanner cloud storage), and all you have to do is take a picture of the document and it saves it perfectly as a PDF, like zooming in around the edges and making the writing really clear - better than just a typical picture, it looks like the real document.  There are a few other apps as well, Genius Scan is also free and the other cost a few dollars, but I don't have personal experience with them.  If you have a small amount of papers coming in after the above steps, and a small to medium amount currently in your home that you want to keep, then a free phone app is the way to go.  Just grab a chunk every time you sit down to watch Netflix or snap away while you watch the newest Game of Thrones.  If you already have a printer or scanner, that works too, but I wouldn't bother investing in a dedicated document scanner unless the paper piles are out of control.

ORGANIZE AND STORE YOUR SCANS

I can't think of any papers that I keep at this point.  I get rid of everything.  But there are some household things that need to stick around, at least for a little while, so when those come in, John scans them in with the app and I organize and save them.  (Total transparency: I'm better about recognizing which documents are a waste of my time, so sometimes he scans things in and I just delete them right away, shhhh.)

There are three main places that I then save the scans - Google Drive, Evernote, and Dropbox.  All free, as long as you stay within the upload or storage limits.  Yet another reason to think long and hard before you commit to saving a document.  Each has it's pluses and minuses and I use them for various things, based on what type of document it is (if I need to save an Excel sheet, for example, that's best for Google Drive) and who I'm sharing it with.  The key to any of these systems though is in the organization and naming of your documents.  Even if you're in a hurry, make sure you organize the folders and put the proper and consistent names on your documents, because it will save you a load of time and headache when you're trying to find it again later.  If you use Evernote, you would use 'tags' instead of the typical folder system that's used on Google Drive and Dropbox.

Since it's the most easily accessed and edited with my phone, I use Evernote for the bulk of my items I know I want to see again relatively soon.  I tend to use Dropbox to stick things like warranties that are good for another year or two, because I don't ever access it.  There's a bit of a learning curve with Evernote and I couldn't even, at this point, tell you all of the ways to use it.  I really like it though for my needs.  But Evernote is not encrypted, so it's not the safest place to store sensitive information.  Dropbox has the equivalent of bank level encryption, so if you have financial documents or things with your social security number on it, it's safer to put those in Dropbox, just to be sure.

Of course you could just save everything to your computer, but it's just not the safest way, given how often they fail and how often people forget to backup their files to an external source.  That's why I prefer these digital sources.  For the truly important things though, I tend to save those to more than one location.

If you have a question about how I deal with a particular piece of paper that you didn't see make the list, ask me in the comments and I'll share my suggestions.  How is the paper clutter in your home?  Do you keep a lot of physical copies of things, or are you a digital person like me?


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