How much physical paper do you keep? When a financial statement arrives in the mail and you don't have time to read it, do you stash it into a junk drawer? Do old receipts line the bottom of your bag? It is possible to go truly paperless and digitize nearly every last scrap of paper, and it's a lot easier than you might think, as long as you approach it in the right way.
"The time is ripe right now to go paperless, and the reason is we're sitting in a transition period, not unlike the transition we went through a few years ago with photography from print photos to digital," says Brian Berson, CEO of FileThis, an online digital filing-cabinet service.
When Berson and others in his field speak about saying goodbye to paper, they're not just talking about documents that have already accumulated in the home. They're also talking about future papers coming your way any moment now, such as recurring bills.
"The average household has about 25 businesses with which they have recurring, durable relationships, and it's more than that if you count travel," says Steve Shivers, CEO of Doxo, a company that offers an online digital filing cabinet service. All the bills generated by those relationships add up fast. And even if you're receiving statements by email, you'll want to make sure they're stored centrally, backed up, and appropriately tagged so that you can find them.
If you're ready to truly go paperless, here's what you need to know to get started and to keep it up so that digitizing documents becomes a habit, not a one-off project.
Start By Going Forward, Not Backward
In kicking off a paperless venture, focus your efforts on how you'll move forward, rather than how you'll deal with the backlog, says Harris Romanoff, senior vice president of product management at Neat, another company that specializes in helping individuals and small businesses manage their paperless documents.
"What I've observed over the years is the prospect of getting organized or getting paper-free is very aspirational. We see a lot of interest in Neat around New Year's and tax season, but then people say, 'Oh my gosh, I have so much!' They get overwhelmed," Romanoff says. The people who succeed, he adds, are the ones who draw a line in the sand, a starting date for putting all their new papers into the Neat system. "Once they get up and running and it becomes part of their routine and their daily work flow, then they can start to move backward."
Berson from FileThis sees a similar tendency. "Anyone looking at their filing cabinet or drawer full of papers will say 'Oh, I'll do it next week.' It may seem daunting to start, but it really isn't."
Most people start, Berson says, by stopping paper bills from bank accounts and credit card accounts first. Next, the average paperless person moves into bills and insurance documentsand, again, these are bills that will arrive in the near future, not piles of paper in the corner of the kitchen. Third, people typically digitize other kinds of financial accounts, like investment accounts, says Berson.
Pick a Service, Stick With It
Once you've stopped paper statements on some of your basic financial accounts and utilities, you'll want to store them in one central location (which should ideally be backed up, too).
You could keep your documents offline by storing them locally on your computer, but they could eat up a huge chunk of space, depending on the quantity and quality (resolution) of the documents you keep. Another downside of local document storage is that you can't access your paperwork from anywhere, which you can do with an online service. Say you're at the bank applying for a mortgage or trying to refinance your home. The whole process will be much speedier if you can immediately, from your phone, pull up PDFs of the old paystubs and other documents that the bank requires.
Ideally, you want an online-accessible system that's backed up and which includes tags that help you find your documents when you need them. Doxo, FileThis, and Neat all offer this type of service. Each offers a slightly different level of automation. For example, Neat is very good at identifying documents used in U.S. taxes and labeling them as such. FileThis adds tags to your paperwork automatically, including the type of document and relevant dates (such as the purchase date on a receipt). Both Doxo and FileThis offer "fetch" services that can automatically pull important documents out of your email accounts, or directly from the service provider. Doxo and FileThis also both offer integration with Dropbox and Box, in case you want to store your files in those popular storage accounts.
Fetching documents is one feature you'll definitely want if you use PayPal. PayPal only saves the most recent three months' worth of statements. If you use a digital filing cabinet that has fetch, it will grab a copy of your PayPal statement each month and save it, so you'll have a complete history of your records.
No matter which service you choose to use, pick one and stick with it.
As you become comfortable with your digital document setup, you need to develop little workflows for digitizing more kinds of paper moving forward to make sure being paperless becomes a habit you keep.
Martin Stein, chief marketing officer of FileThis, says he has made it a habit to save PDFs of manuals every time he buys a consumer product that has one. He also always forwards from his email to FileThis all receipts he receives from Amazon.com.
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