5 Easy Steps to Life Without Paper

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Paper, paper everywhere, and not a spot to think.

At least, that’s how it feels when the tyranny of paperwork invades your desk, your home (and your mind): bills, receipts, notes, memos, brochures, statements, claim forms, post-its with mysterious scribbled numbers, all seeming to breed and multiply before your very eyes like parchment Gremlins. And just when you clear through a pile, another seems to march in the door.

Managing our paperwork is not only time-intensive, but—let’s face it—not fun. Which is why more often than not, when faced with a disheartening leafy mountain, we turn toward more fulfilling activities—like procrastinating, or watching New Girl.

No more. Paper, you have met your match.

Woman sitting at desk, files and in and out trays, close upAnd that match is LearnVest’s guerilla guide to Going Paper-Free—ranging from free apps to pricier (but well worth it) scanner products. Everything here will help you get enviably organized, and all your paper masterfully under your control. Getting into a new de-papering system may take a period of adjustment, but once you’re there, trust us: You’ll never look back.

Say hello to well-saved time, money, sanity, trees—and goodbye to papercuts.

 1. Stop the Catalogs

The first step is to stem the tide of paper that flows into your life via your mailbox. These days, everything from filling out a warranty card to purchasing a product puts your name and address on a catalog mailing list; your information is then sold to countless other organizations. Ebb your mail flow by heading to either DMAChoice.org or CatalogChoice.org, both of which allow you to either opt out of all catalogs, or select certain ones to stop.

2. Tackle the Bills

You can’t exactly stop your bills from coming (though that would be nice)—but you can stop your bills from coming on paper. Instead of logging into five different accounts to pay them, set up online bill pay through your bank account. Or go one step further and set up an account at Manilla.com, a sleek one-stop shop for managing and paying all your bills, magazine subscriptions and even airline miles.

RELATED: How Long Should I Keep My Financial Documents?

3. Ditch the Post-Its

If your desk area is a paper flag forest, and you’re constantly leaving your to-do list at home (or at the office), you need to go digital with your memos. Try Evernote, a free app that’s become a cult fave for creating digital notes on the go that sync seamlessly between your phone and computers (work and home). If you’re a list person, check out Wunderlist, a free app that lets you create stylish to-do lists that sync up between all your devices, and share your lists with others. (Hint: this function is really handy for passing off “pick up dry cleaning” to your significant other.)

4. Junk the Filing Cabinet

Go big or go home—we mean it when we say that paper-free can be a way of life. Check out this handy chart for how long you need to keep important documents:

Receipts—1 month
Bank Statements—1 year (save annual statements for 7 years in case you get audited)
Credit Card Statements—45 days to 7 years. Throw out statements once you confirm that receipts match up with statements; keep for 7 years if tax-related
Loan and Mortgage Statements—For the length of the loan or mortgage, plus 7 years
Medical Bills—1 year after they’ve been paid off
Tax Documents—7 years
Home Improvement Receipts—Until your house sells. Proof of spending can sometimes be used to lower your taxes, and you may need proof to the buyer of how recent the improvements or repairs were
Investment Statements—Indefinitely
Closing Documents—Keep closing documents for mortgage and/or loan

Even with this schedule, you might be hanging on to stacks of files for years—all the while, accumulating more. Scan and digitize everything to clear your space and allow you to search for files more easily.

If you are on a budget, get an inexpensive document scanner like Canon CanoScan LiDE Flatbed Scanners (available for $60) or the 99 cent JotNot app that turns your iPhone into an impressively quick and effective scanner. Upload your files to a program like PDF OCR, which converts all your scanned documents into searchable text files—meaning you can quickly search for “Board Meeting 2011″ instead of digging through your filing cabinet.

NeatDesk

The NeatDesk

If you can afford it, though, go with the Cadillac of paperlessness, the NeatDesk scanner. It allows you to scan receipts, documents or business cards (up to 50 sheets at a time with a lightning quick feed, one of its best features), and it reads the contents, uploading them into an easy to use, intuitive software that allows you to easily drag and drop the documents into files, categorize and search. Another major plus: NeatDesk allows you to tag receipts by tax-deductible categories, and then exports the data to TurboTax or Quicken, making accounting and tax time much less painful (and less expensive, if you’re paying your accountant by the hour). One staffer got rid of an entire file cabinet’s worth of documents by using NeatDesk and raves about how easy it is. If the $399 price tag is daunting, consider its less expensive version, the $199 NeatReceipts (for receipts), or head to our contest below for a free NeatDesk giveaway!

Because We Love Our Facebook Fans

We have not one but TWO giveaways just for you!Click HeRE

5. Shred It Up, Back It Up

Going paperless can be a bit of a psychological leap at first—like a trust fall into the digital netherworld. Making sure everything gets backed up securely is critical, so that you don’t lose all the files and information you’ve stored digitally. An Apple customer service expert recommends backing up your data on several devices, thus decreasing the chances of losing it in case one device crashes. A recommended scenario is having your data on your home computer, a cloud and two separate external hard drives that you keep in different locations (in case that fire or flood hits one spot). Check out DropBox or SkyDrive for cloud storage for your files. Shred everything that you’ve scanned after you’ve backed it up securely and triple-checked—we like the inexpensive MiniMate shredder from Staples, or if you don’t have a ton to shred, these inexpensive shredding scissors will do the job.

Giveaway Alert! [UPDATE: Now closed to new entries]

LearnVest is excited to give away a free NeatDesk scanner, valued at $399, to help you go paperless and get organized now! To enter to win, comment below and tell us why you need a NeatDesk in your life! (Read our standard contest rules here). And to double your chances, enter to win on our Facebook page, where we are giving away a second NeatDesk scanner!

  • Bridgette Gregory

    A NeatDesk would be a great way to get my fiance to get rid of his paper. He has and keeps paper for all his bills…FOREVER! I don’t think he’s ever thrown anything away except junk mail. This would save us lots of hassle as we try to merge our lives, financially and spatially!

  • Leedle97

    I may or may not have Ziploc baggies of receipts from five, six, seven years ago.  And my boyfriend just took something like 10 trashbags to a professional shredding company.  So, to say we could streamline a bit is quite the understatement.

  • Anonymous

    Hi: please make me the winner.  I lost my job and I am looking–but my home is a pile of papers right now, since I am working from my dining table.  Thanks!

  • John P. Buschhorn

    Too many papers in my life!  Help!!!!!

  • Buffett1225

    I really need the NeatDesk to help me get rid of the overflowing file cabinet! It will help me clear my home office piles of paperwork and I have tons of medical docs that need to be cleared out. Even better I can use it to magane my parents paperwork!

  • Tom

    My motto in life has been “A place for everything and everything all over the place”. Generally I will never rush into anything new without a lifetime of internal struggle. I’m sure that tomorrow a new technology will arrive that relieves me of obligations today. There’s always next year. My work creed is wait-plan-plan some more. HELP!

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Heather-Ferrante-Cathrall/1093517143 Heather Ferrante Cathrall

    I think the article is great!  With less paper I would feel less cluttered and more productive.  Just looking at stacks of paper can be overwhelming.  I can definitely use a Neat Desk organizer to help organize my desk and simplify my financial life

  • Deliayll

    Great ideas!!  Good advice!!!  now I need a Neat Desk organizer !!!!!

  • Diane Kenaston

    At work I have to pay for everything up front and then get reimbursed — Neat Desk would be such a help!

  • Missy327

    I would absolutely love to gather the piles of papers around my house and my classroom (yes, I am a 1st grade teacher), sit down at my kitchen table, and organize them all into the neat scanner!  I saw this at costco a few years back, and really wanted it, but couldn’t afford it.  Please make my dreams come true!! Sincerely…Miss Bielski :)

  • Tina S Smith

    I just moved across the country.  The NeatDesk Scanner will allow me to start fresh without accumulating paper clutter! 

  • Leonora Rush

    This is kismet!  I’ve just spent the past two days searching for documents and in the process gearing up for some serious shredding.  My spouse is a self-employed musician/eduator and tax time is always me frantically typing in receipts into a home-made spreadsheet.  NeatDesk take it away!

  • Ennett_j

    Tired of paper cuts from moving around stacks and stacks of papers while looking for that “vital” page that I left in plain view yesterday so i could easily find it today!  Help!

  • Christinetrudell

    To REALLY move into the digital age, I need the equipment! Can you believe I don’t even have an Iphone yet? Ok, I must get started and not look back.

  • Amira

    I need a NeatDesk because when I moved a few days ago, I was having a panic attack. It was caused by all the paperwork I was finding in every room. I didn’t exactly have the time to file each paper I was finding because my file crate is in alphabetical order. If I made a new file, it would take at least a half hour to re-organize the crate.

    With a NeatDesk, I can easily scan all of my paperwork and easily organize it on my computer. It will save me time and cause me less stress!

  • MAS

    I do try and be neat and organized, but just the “important” stuff takes up a lot of room in my file cabinet and my safe, so storing it digitally would decrease the load while still making sure I have everything I need within easy reach.  Would love to win!

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Candice-Dunn/1585089761 Candice Dunn

    I have a baby girl due in February so I have been frantically
    trying to organize my home for two reasons: I need extra space for all of the necessary
    baby items, and I know that an organized home will save time, allowing more
    time to enjoy the baby!

    I have done pretty well so far getting rid of clutter
    but I have one major obstacle, and that is paper! I’ve tried filing but more
    often it ends up shoved in a box. I can never find anything when I need it, and
    usually end up making a huge mess searching for the elusive paper. I am in
    desperate need of the NeatDesk scanner! Please help me put an end to the paper
    madness.

  • Fan

    I took care of my brother for almost 7 years. He had Down Syndrome so I took care of all his affairs, he also had many, many medical issues which produced a boat load of medical bills, statements and reports which takes up pretty much my entire file cabinet. He passed away recently and I now have to move to a smaller residence but still need to keep all his paperwork. It would be great to be able to store everything electronically. Thank you so much for considering me! It would be a God send.

  • Smartinez62708

    I am obsessed with organization, but have not managed to take the leap to paperless. Most of my bills are already online, but I still have two massive file cabinets at home and at work, countless.  Would love the Neatdesk to start me off in the right direction!

  • Vitality1296

    I NEED the NeatDesk scanner because I got married a little over a month ago and we have really dug our heels in to combine everything (bills and assets alike) to truly see where we stand financially. This device will put us on the best path to financial freedom from the worry and anxiety so many households are experiencing. Then we can spend more time relishing our new life together and all of it’s amazing moments and less time stressing over finances (a problem that has proven successful at driving wedges between spouses).

  • Carrie S Campbell

    The scanner would be a huge help to me to keep track of everything: two kids in college, pending divorce, possible house sale. The paper is positively breeding in my office,

  • Jennifer Watt

    I’m drowning in paper! When I get rid off a pile, another show up and then I move it from place to place because I want to keep it but have nowhere to put it.

  • Ann-Marie

    I NEED (not want) this because I haven’t filed a sheet of paper in THREE years!  I know, it’s terrible.  I have moved twice with boxes filled with random papers, receipts and business cards.  God forbid I get audited!  I’d be screwed!

    • Ms. Lala

      I am trying to get in the habit of keeping track of paper work now that I am mall. I get so lazy about filing anything. I start then stop. This a need as well, every sunday scanning in documents.

  • Jhamm3987

    I am probably the most unorganized person when it comes to paperwork.  I have piles of papers in multiple dividing trays/boxes/drawers and a filing cabinet that has no real organization system to it.  I take care of all the bills, insurance, paperwork for the house and my father in law.  I am also an RN and have 2 per diem jobs for home care where I need to type up reports, fax, contact insurance companies, make referral calls, etc.  It takes me literally an hour to do a task that should take 5 minutes because I cannot find the papers for the life of me.  My office is so full of papers that if I could post a picture it could be mistaken for a paper recycling center because of all the piles.  I need something that will get rid of all this paper and help me get my work and home life organized again!

  • 200willow

    i spend all my free time organizing and reorganizing my lists, paperwork, and receipts. This device looks like it will solve all my problems..I would DO ANYTHING to get my paws on it.

  • Tracy M. Bourne

    I would love to have this devise to organize the two filing cabinets, and stacks of papers in plastic bins, boxes, and bags I have all over our home and out in our shed.  Who knew a four person family could produce so much “necessary” paper?

  • Millermartha

    After I retired from Social Services, I found myself taking over the family business due to a family illness.  I am trying to learn keeping books on computer and all personal finances too.  I’m not a good organizer and the paperwork keeps stacking up and takes up more time than I expected.  Either of these items would help me get out of the office and enjoy the grandchildren. 

  • Amy

    I am a magazine, catalog junkie, because I still go thru them, or just love certain images, and I only have a tiny 250 sq. ft. NYC apartment. Even when I try to get rid of them I still rip out several tear sheets. I have a tiny semi closet that’s just deep enough for my laptop that I’ve been wanting to convert into a home office for a while, but I dread the paper clutter. The neatdesk would be soo helpful! And I’d share it with friends, so it would be like a win for several people. 

  • Not-so-neat

    I have a hard time ridding myself of paper.  I would love to simplify my life with this product.  And, help save my marriage in the process (my husband HATES all the paper so he throws everything away that he sees).

  • Jamie

    I’m trying desperately to start my own company but personal and business finances and paper work makes it so hard to stay on top and be organized.  I’m sure I would be more organized and successful with NeatDesk in my life. Hard to see the big picture when you have filing cabinets, boxes, bins and new pile ups.  Also hard to afford at the moment when all my funds are going into my startup, though I know it would be a business expense. 

  • P W

    I could really use this product. My life would be so much simpler if I didn’t have to deal with so much paper. Please send it my way!

  • Tme_marie

    I am a mother of two boys in elementary school, a student and work full time.  Between papers coming home with me, bills in the mail, papers coming home with the boys…we have 4 designated boxes for our paperwork which I seem to get filed about every two months.  I have used a Neat Scanner at work and feel that this is something my boys can certainly use themselves once I set it up for them.  And for myself..to get rid of that file with all of the jumbled up receipts that I keep for tax time would be great!!!

  • Ashley

    I have my own start up company and am DESPERATE for a NeatDesk scanner! I don’t have the time or mental capacity to remember where I put things and to file them all away. Plus, I am still figuring out which documents I need to keep for tax purposes. So if I could just file them all away, I wouldn’t have to worry! I am still learning the ropes of running my own business, so having a NeatDesk would be a life saver. Please send my way!

  • Samantha Palacio

    I need a Neatdesk in my life because my husband is a self-employed Locksmith and I do some selling of handmade goods online. We have two children under the age of two and way too many papers that they want to play with. As hard as I try to keep everything organized in boxes and put out of the way in the home office it is still a mess! This would be a lifesaver!

  • Elizabeth Orasco

    I have 3 jobs…a full time 21 year career in IT; an independent consultant with Scentsy Wickless and I just started up a commercial cleaning company. Needless to say I have so much paper around me on any given day/week/month that sometimes I feel like I’m drowning in it. My personal laptop sits on a corner of my desk surrounded by paper that needs to be filed; I pray the laptop doesn’t fall off the desk. I have a huge 3 drawer lateral file cabinet that is full of household receipts, tax documents from previous years, receipts for business and many other documents, I would be extremely grateful to have a NeatDesk scanner to remove the paper and filing cabinet in my home office. I could then Feng Shui my office to bring peace, creativity and abundance into my life.

  • Lynda

    My husband is disabled and I am in charge of keeping track of all the medical bills as well as the receipts for our taxes.  We have a big basket for medical receipts and I put them all into an Excel spreadsheet by hand so we have the information as to what was not reimbursed for our taxes.  I use Quicken for our checkbooks but it would simplify my life so to be able to scan the receipts and have the information exported to Quicken!  I would love to start selling some hand-made items…if I only had the time! This scanner will free up some time as well as help me with starting a business.

  • http://www.facebook.com/gnat.rae Natalie Regier

    I like do.com over wunderlist

  • Mart99_fish

    Need a NeatDesk to continue organizing files that a Prof. Organizer helped us in creating.

  • Tisha50

    I need a neat desk scanner to help me scan the 2 drawer filing cabinet-full of documents I’ve been holding onto for upwards of 40 years. three house sales included, among other very thick folders. It would make my miserably cluttered life a LOT less cluttered and would allow me to rid my tiny house of one more piece of furniture that is cluttering the house up. I moved from a 2700 square foot house to a 1433 square foot house 11 years ago and still have too much furniture. I need any kind of help I can get. The Neat Desk would help with the paper, at least. 

  • Jodi14

    A NeatDesk scanner would be wonderful for helping me to finally organize the heaping mounds of paper in my office that I’ve accumulated over the years so I can actually utilize my desk again!! I love all your tips — thank you!!

  • Ladybug

    I really could use a NeatDesk scanner to organize my
    household. I have a family of only three, however we generate a lot of paper. I
    have a 13 year old artist in the household and with just that alone the
    NeatDesk scanner would benefit my household. She has so many pieces that I
    would love to find a nice organized way to store them.  My husband is a mechanic and is very paranoid
    about keeping receipts so I have several over-stuffed files for just his
    receipts alone the NeatDesk scanner could help cut down the paper clutter tremendously.
    Lastly the NeatDesk scanner could help me organize better as I could get rid of
    the paper clutter and not feel guilty that I may have tossed something and it’s
    forever gone.   

  • Jackie Hughes

    What more can you say that hasn’t already been referenced by others?  I shudder to think of what it will be like if my computer would crash as I currently don’t have a back up system in place.  How would I survive the loss of all that information?  NeatDesk sounds like a user-friendly one stop shop that would be the perfect tool to get organized and not only with paper, but my computer files as well.  I think I have just created my summer goal!

  • zz

    check out 1dollarscan.com..

  • Amcafaro

    I want one for my mom. The papers in my parents house make me want to cry. It’s hard for baby boomers to embrace being paperless when they’ve had paper all their lives. Maybe this will motivate them to start.