I cringe every time I see a blog post about how to organize your life. Much of the time, they focus on how to store the vast amounts of paper we have in our lives. I have a much easier way of dealing with all the paper in my life. I get rid of it.
Seriously, I am ruthless about it. Paper in, paper out, that’s it. I keep my to do lists and on the fly notes in a couple notebooks, and that’s about all the paper I need. There are a number of reasons I decided to go paperless, and I’d like to share those with you. Maybe I’ll even convince you to try it as well. If you’re in your twenties, going paperless can be a fairly small task. I waited to go paperless until I was in my forties, but the process was worth the effort!
1. Going Paperless Saves Space
How many square feet of living space do you have? How much of that living space do you want to allocate to storing paper? How many desk drawers, filing cabinets, and bookshelves have you allocated for the storage of paper? Until March of last year, we lived in a 1,188 square foot house. In that house, we had three two-drawer filing cabinets, one four-drawer filing cabinet, six bookshelves, and several bankers boxes, all dedicated to storing books and papers. It took up at least 40 square feet of our living space, not including the space around the furniture.
At the moment, we rent a 625 square foot apartment, and we have one small plastic portable file box. If we still had all those filing cabinets and bookshelves, it would take up a big chunk of our living space. Because of the layout of our apartment, all that stuff would make it really cluttered. Instead, we don’t have a single drawer in the apartment, and the only bookshelf is for storing shoes and winter gear. What that means is that there is more room for us and for the things that are important to us.
2. Going Paperless Saves Money
If you are printing things out to save, you are paying for paper and ink (and ink is ridiculously expensive, as I am sure you know). Even when the paper is coming in from outside, you have to have a way to store it. People use binders, filing cabinets, file folders, bankers boxes, bookshelves, and all sorts of other things to store all their papers. Some people leave papers piled on their desks, tables, or countertops, leaving them with unusable space.
Another way it saves you money is related to space. It’s pretty easy to calculate how much your living space costs you per square foot. The 3% of our living space utilized for paper storage in our house doesn’t sound too bad, until you consider that our home cost $526 per square foot. So we paid about $21,000 to store all that stuff, most of which we never even accessed.
3. Going Paperless Saves Time
When a piece of paper comes in, I pop it in the scanner, name the document, and electronically file it. There are no piles of paper to sort and file, no searching for the proper file, and no paper cuts! You can also file a document in more than one spot digitally, making it easier to locate if it has more than one logical filing category. You’re much less likely to lose a document if you scan it as soon as you acquire it.
Additionally, when I scan documents, I apply OCR (optical character recognition). This takes a little longer, but it means that not only can I search by document name, I can also search for strings of text within a document. Searching hard copy documents and books is a little more time consuming, to say the least. And while applying OCR to a document when scanning may take a little longer, I can be doing other things while that process is going on.
4. Going Paperless is More Secure
Once I copy a document to our main storage drive, I throw the original file in a folder with a name like “Delete 1-1-15”. The date is about three months down the road, and it gives us time to create a couple backups on external drives. Then we switch out those drives with the ones in our safety deposit box (in another state), leaving us with a very secure backup copy of all our important files. Paper and computer files are both vulnerable to fire, flood, theft, and other potential hazards. Having a backup copy in a safety deposit box protects our data, and that just wouldn’t be feasible with more than a small number of paper documents. There are options to store large amounts of data in the cloud, but I don’t want to store things like my tax returns or health information on someone else’s server. Large hard drives don’t cost nearly as much as they used to, so there isn’t really any reason not to store your data yourself, as long as you create redundancies. If you only have a single copy of all your files, then you are probably asking for trouble. We also encrypt the hard drives with a password so if they get stolen the information stays safe and private.
5. Going Paperless Gets You in the Habit of Recording Important Information
I’ve spent a lot of time on the phone lately trying to sort out some health insurance glitches. Every time I talk to a new person, I’m given an incident number or a case number and I try to record as much detail as I can about what they tell me. I have a text document dedicated to this issue and I type the numbers they give me and any other important information into it and re-save it to my digital health file. In the past, I would have had the information scrawled on scraps of paper or maybe in a notebook if I was really organized. Then I’d have to scramble to locate it when I needed it again. But I’ve gotten into the habit of making sure anything that might be important goes into our digital filing system. Now, when I have to follow up, I just open the correct document so I can refer to my notes.
6. Going Paperless Makes You Mobile
What would you do if you suddenly had a great job opportunity that required you to move? What if it was overseas? Or what if, like us, you wanted to retire and downsize? Do you really want to move all that paper? Do you want to take up a larger percentage of your new living space with that stuff? We knew we didn’t want to do that, and we also knew we didn’t want to be scrambling to digitize things or be forced to get rid of papers we might want later in a last minute time crunch. I started digitizing all our papers and books about two years before we retired. That gave me plenty of time to complete the job without feeling like all I was doing was scanning.
We managed to fit everything we wanted to take with us in our Honda Element. We didn’t even have a roof rack. It was just us, our dog, and our stuff. Of course we couldn’t have done that without getting rid of a lot of other things too, such as our furniture. But without getting rid of the paper, we couldn’t have done it either.
7. Going Paperless Helps You Prioritize What is Worth Keeping
When I was digitizing our lives, I found tons of papers that neither of us had touched in years. Much of it was saved for the sake of nostalgia. While my kindergarten parent-teacher conferences might be mildly interesting to me, I didn’t really need to save the original forms for posterity. I can’t sell them on eBay for big bucks some day. There was a ton of that sort of stuff, from elementary school through college. I really didn’t want to let it go, but I hadn’t looked at it in years and probably wouldn’t again for many more years. So I scanned those types of things and recycled the originals.
I also found a lot of things that I couldn’t figure out why I had saved. Some of it was relevant for only a brief period, and then it could have been tossed. But people almost never purge their files, so once something goes into the filing cabinet, it rarely comes back out. I’m more likely to toss things like that now, but even if I decide to scan it just in case, I’m only taking up a tiny amount of digital space. The amount of shredding and recycling I did was kind of astounding. I’m not sure what percentage of those documents I didn’t bother to scan, but I’d guess it was between five and 10 percent. That’s a lot of storage space for stuff I didn’t even think was worth scanning!
Here’s a list of the types of documents we digitized. For those items marked with an *, we kept hard copies of some items when necessary.
- Articles of interest
- Artwork (created by us)
- Bank statements
- Car registration, ownership papers, maintenance records*
- Cards we’ve received
- Credit card statements
- Dog’s medical records
- Employment-related documents
- Genealogical research
- Home movies (paid a service to digitize them)
- Immigration papers*
- Instruction manuals
- Insurance information
- Investment records
- Medical records & expenses
- Published Work
- Receipts for large purchases
- School transcripts and papers
- Social Security statements
- Tax documents*
- Travel information for past & future trips
I know that going paperless can be pretty intimidating when you have vast amounts of paper. Your scanning probably can’t be tackled in a week. But if you make a plan and do a little bit at a time, the task is more than manageable and more than worth the time.
If you’re interested in the awesome scanner I used for all this scanning (more than 200,000 pages), I talk about it at length in my article on scanning my book collection. It’s a wonderful scanner and definitely worth the money if you have a large amount of scanning to do.
Photo courtesy photos-public-domain.com