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Is your paper clutter driving you crazy? Learn the secrets of going paperless at home (and why it will make your life so much better).
Back before I got rid of everything, I managed paper pretty well.
I kept essential items like passports and birth certificates in a locked, fireproof box. I had a small, 2-drawer filing cabinet that held other papers I figured were kind of important. I had a box where I threw action items so they were out-of-sight, but easy-to-find on Sundays when I processed my paper.
When we began traveling as a family, though, I went almost completely paperless, and even though we’re back in a house now, I’ll never go back to holding onto paper.
Reasons for Going Paperless at Home
Obviously, I had a compelling reason for going paperless at home. Papers wouldn’t have fit well in our suitcases. Storing them with a relative would have been a pain for the relative and made the papers difficult to reference on the road.
There are loads of reasons for going paperless at home, though, even if you’re staying in one place.
Less Clutter/More Space
Paper is one of the biggest sources of clutter in many homes–popping up in piles on our tables and kitchen countertops and hiding in boxes, offices and closets. Imagine how much more functional your space would be if you didn’t have to work around your piles. Consider how much more room you would have if you didn’t have to store all that paper that no-one ever references.
Less Waste/Better for the Planet
If we can defeat paper clutter at its source, we can create less waste and kill fewer trees. Simple shifts like removing yourself from mailing lists, switching to paperless billing, and thinking before hitting “print” can really make a difference.
Easier to Organize and Find
If you’re smart about naming your digital files (I’ll discuss how below) they are super simple to locate via your search bar. No more digging through a pile or file folder trying to find the thing you need.
Paper clutter costs us money for so many reasons. We might not be able to return an item because we can’t find the receipt. Paper checks can get buried in the pile until they’re void. Overdue bills at the bottom of the stack rack up late fees.
We also pay fees to replace documents we can’t locate and to reschedule appointments we missed. And don’t even get me started on all the costs of having a larger home or storage unit where we can keep this stuff.
Our paper is costing us time, too. The average American spends 2.5 days a year looking for misplaced items. How much of those 2.5 days goes towards looking for that one piece of paper you desperately need? And how much more time is devoted to replacing those papers you can’t find or solving the problems that losing them has created?
Strategies for Going Paperless at Home
Ok, so if you agree with me that holding onto all this paper is making your life worse, let’s chat about how to get rid of it.
Limit the Paper Coming In
Paper is tough to eliminate altogether, but that doesn’t mean we can’t try. Here are some ways to limit the paper coming into your home:
- Remove yourself from catalog mailing lists and other sources of junk mail. This guide will tell you how.
- If there are catalog or magazine subscriptions you value, consider switching to digital versions instead or reading a copy that belongs to your local library.
- Consider borrowing books from the local library or purchasing editions to read on an e-reader.
- Vow to touch most mail only once. When you come in from the mailbox, immediately trash anything you don’t need.
- Ask credit card companies, utility providers, and other vendors to send you bills via email, and pay those bills online.
- Create systems for papers that can easily get out of hand such as children’s artwork/school projects, coupons, and greeting cards. I like to decide in advance how many I’ll keep or where they’ll be stored. That way, it’s obvious when the limit has been reached, and I know I need to do some purging and choose my favorites.
Limit the Paper You Generate
Sometimes, we’re the ones who are creating our own paper problem. Here are some tips for not adding to the paper clutter in your home.
- Take notes, do your weekly planning, write on school worksheets, or add a page to your journal using a digital tablet instead of a piece of paper or notebook. Items recorded this way are easily searchable later. I love using the Apple Pencil along with this screen protector when using my iPad. It feels just like writing on paper. For any homeschool worksheets we want to write on, we store the PDF in the app GoodReader.
- Digitize your signature. Here are some easy instructions for doing so with Apple products. Check out this article if you are not an Apple user.
- Save any documents you need as PDFs rather than printing them.
Process the Paper That’s Left
We’ll talk below about paper that you’ll want to keep long term and about dealing with your current piles and file folders. Let’s chat now, though about how to quickly process new paper coming in.
Some paper, like, permission slips, coupons you’re waiting to use, and receipts you need for returns must stored briefly in your home. Set up a basket, box, or file folder where you can safely and attractively store this stuff, and set a day and time every week to process it. Yes, you must process it regularly or it turns into a monster.
When you process the paper each week:
- Take whatever action is required (sign your name, write a check, add a date to your calendar, etc.)
- If you don’t need a copy of this document, toss it (or add it to your shredding pile if it contains sensitive info).
- If you’d like to store a copy digitally, I love the scanning app Genius Scan. It straightens out pages if they look wonky and can convert a shoddy photo to a crisp black and white or color document. Once I’ve got the photo, I convert it to PDF and send it to the filing cabinet.
Here’s one way to name your PDFs once you’ve scanned them:
For example: 2021-01-15 Gas Bill.
This system works great because you can then create a file called Gas Bills, and all of your scans will sit in that folder in order.
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If You Have Tons of Paper Right Now But Are Still Interested In Going Paperless at Home
Your home didn’t get full of paper overnight, and you won’t be able to clean it out overnight. Attempting to do so is a sure recipe for overwhelm. Start as described above with the new paper coming in, and work through the backlog as you have time.
I recommend that you make an effort regularly–every day, if possible, to work for 10 minutes at a time purging your backlog. Grab one file folder or pile and quickly trash what is no longer needed.
If your documents have sensitive information on them, consider collecting those in a box or bag to shred later. Rather than investing in a shredder for home use, you can take your documents to an office supply store or citywide shredding event and knock it all out at once.
If you find items that you’d like to keep but don’t need hard copies of, collect them in a separate stack. Later, you can photograph these in a big batch for your new, digital filing cabinet.
You Must Maintain Your System if You Are Going Paperless at Home
Although digital clutter is less unsightly than physical paper clutter, it’s still clutter, which can be time-consuming to sort through and expensive to store.
Set a time weekly or monthly to purge your digital files. Because you were so smart when you named them, you could easily sit down once a month, search the name of the month you’re in–say September–and bring up all files from Septembers past. You could then delete any files that you know you don’t need anymore.
Wondering how long to save things? We’ll talk about that below.
Documents you’ll want to store
These are some documents that you will want to store forever as real-life, physical copies. I keep all of ours in a fireproof box like this one. Keep scans of these essential documents, too, for easy reference and to help you replace them if they’re lost.
- Birth Certificates
- Social Security and other ID cards
- Green cards
- Marriage Licenses and Divorce Decrees
- Death Certificates
- Vehicle titles and loan documents
- House deeds and mortgage documents
- Wills, Living Wills, and Power of Attorney Paperwork
- Retirement and Pension Plan Documents
- Promissory Notes
- Military Records
- Adoption papers
- Legal filings
- Inheritance documents
- Beneficiary forms
- Business licenses
Wondering how long to keep all of those other papers you’re afraid you might need in the future? This was the most exhaustive guide I found on the subject. Remember, keeping a document doesn’t necessarily mean you need to keep a hard copy. The IRS, for instance, will accept the digital copies you made in Genius Scan if you need them in the future.
There is a BIG elephant in the room.
It’s all the sentimental paper clutter that we stash away. When I left to travel, I got rid of all but what would fit in my small memory box. I think you would likely be happier with fewer of those papers you love, too. This is such a big topic, though, I’ll save it for a future post.
In the meantime, you might like this past post about dealing with sentimental clutter for some general guidelines, Or you can jump right in with all that boring business paperwork by following the steps below.
Remember, no matter how big your paper problem is, you can tackle it a few minutes at a time. You’ve got this!
Do It Now:
- Collect any stray paper piles in your house in one spot.
- Create a space for action items, and begin adding bills you need to pay, items you need to add to your calendar, permission slips you need to sign, and other items requiring action there.
- Remove yourself from junk mail lists.
- Download the free Genius Scan app to your phone or tablet.
- Choose a location where you can store all of your digital files. iCloud, Dropbox, OneDrive, and Google Drive are all good options. You’ll want to add 2-factor authentication to make your documents more secure.
- Schedule your first 10-minute paper purging/processing session. Start with new papers first, and dig into the backlog as your system develops.