Going PaperlessThe Internet has largely eliminated the need to keep paper record of every transaction and event in our lives. Leading a paperless life can help you reduce clutter (especially important if you live in a small home!), help you use your time more efficiently,and even save you money if you have missed bill payment deadlines in the past. Here’s everything you need to know about going paperless.

1) Keep these in paper form

There are some paper records you should always hold onto, with the most critical being marriage certificates, birth certificates, estate planning documents, Social Security cards, and tax records. However, these can all fit into one folder or binder at the largest. These records should be stored in an archival document box or safe in your home, or in a safety deposit box at your bank.

For a more detailed list of what records to keep and for how long, visit our article on important papers to keep.

For almost all other bills, receipts and statements, you can safely scan in electronic copies and dispose of the physical copies.

2) Reduce unwanted paper mail

Junk mail [CC Licensed Judith E. Bell

Junk mail [CC Licensed Judith E. Bell]

There are several ways to reduce bulk mailings and advertisements.

  • Contact the Direct Marketing Association. Companies who use the DMA for bulk mailings must update their mailing list at least quarterly. Manage your mailing preferences and remove your name from the list by registering online at dmachoice.org.
  • Catalog Choice is a non-profit that helps you opt-out of bulk mail as you receive it.
  • Some mail (such as pre-approved credit card offers) comes from data provided by the credit bureaus. Call (888) 5OPTOUT to be removed from their system.
  • For the other mailings you get, such as most catalogs and letters from charitable organizations you have donated to, you must contact each one individually and request to be removed from their mailing list.
  • Don’t register (or minimize your registering for) contests or sweepstakes, product registrations, mail-in surveys, or shopper’s loyalty programs.

PrivacyRights.org has an in-depth article on how consumers can reduce their unwanted junk mail.

3) Change your billing preferences to online billing

Most utility companies, banks, insurance companies and other companies that accept recurring or frequent payments have an electronic payment option, and they usually offer an automatic payment option that will help you avoid late bills.

Even if you don’t think online payment is an option, log in to your online account and double-check, because the company may have set up an online payment option after you registered and failed to notify their existing customers.

4) Scan and save your important paper records electronically

Desktop setup [CC Licensed via Marius Brede]

Even records that you keep in paper form should be scanned so you have at least a digital copy if the original is destroyed. If you don’t have your own scanner, office supply stores, mailing stores, and libraries often offer inexpensive access to digital scanners.

If you plan to scan items frequently (for example, if you want a scanned copy of every receipt), you might be better off with your own scanner. A self-feeding document scanner is ideal for large quantities of documents. Some will even straighten pages and file the documents as PDFs for you, like this Fujitsu scanner.

Smaller, portable, and wireless scanners do well at handling small quantities of documents at a time, but they usually aren’t self-feeding, which means you have to position every document yourself. If space is at a premium where you live, however, this might be the best choice for you.

Another option if you have a smartphone and just need an electronic copy for your records and not a perfect duplicate is to use your phone to snap photos of the document and send it to a folder in Evernote for storage (this link gives each of us one month of Premium free ).

5) Backup your electronic records in a separate location

Once you have the files on your computer, you should save a copy to either a) a cloud storage system or b) an external hard drive.

Cloud storage

Clutter-free home office [CC Licensed via Tom Carmony]

Clutter-free home office [CC Licensed via Tom Carmony]

Cloud network storage is a good option if your computer is stolen or destroyed, since your important records are safe off-site with the storage provider. However, there is always a risk of data theft with anything uploaded to the Internet, though the best providers keep top-of-the-line security measures in place to minimize the risk.

Box.net is a good option for those who want to be able to try out their system and interface for free before upgrading to a paid subscription. Prices per month hover around $6 monthly for around 5GB of information for file uploading and backing up.

If you want a more robust option that allows you to access and upload your records from multiple computers and share secure links to your documents with others, LiveDrive’s plan offers 2TB of cloud storage and is very well-reviewed.

External hard drives

Users with data security as their highest concern should consider using an external storage device to back up their files. The purpose of using an external drive is redundancy in case your computer is destroyed or stolen. Though it can be inconvenient to remember to transfer files over to your hard drive, this method means your data never has to be transmitted online at any point.

Luckily, storage gets cheaper every day, and there are many external hard drive options with up to 5TB of storage available for less than $100.

Whichever means of data storage you choose, make sure it is synced or transferred over frequently. Going paperless means it is especially vital that you have an electronic backup handy in case you lose your original file.