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.
And 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.
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:
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
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.
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!
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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!