Hurricanes Harvey and Irma have come and gone, inundating huge areas with water. Fortunately, we in Baltimore did not have to deal with that catastrophe. But, to push a metaphor, many of us are inundated all the time by a sea of clutter. Imagine the folks in Florida having just a day to decide what to bring with them when they were told to evacuate. An uncluttered house enhances one’s ability to quickly decide and find what to pack, including such precious items as family photos, vital documents, and laptops.
We all struggle with clutter, unfortunately. And a huge portion of it is paper. When we procrastinate taking care of the paperwork, when we are confused about what to keep and what to throw away, the piles accumulate and take over our lives. Looking for records and trying to figure it all out consumes our time and saps our energy. We miss deadlines, pay fines, and feel generally stressed.
Ten years ago, I wrote an article describing how to set up a home filing system. I wrote about paying bills by mail and filing papers in filing cabinets. I suggested different-colored folders and the right kind of shoe boxes. Please scratch all that and consider this: With computers ubiquitous, this massive paper mess is now unnecessary. Let me explain:
The New Rules of Life
Paper records consist of bank and credit card statements, bills, and other miscellaneous items. All the big vendors – banks, credit card companies, utilities, and phone companies – now have fully functioning websites, and they encourage their customers to go “paperless.” Once you go paperless, all mail from these institutions will cease. Rather, you can see your account online any time. You can print out any records if you choose, and you can pay your bills as well. Each month, I pay these bills online: mortgage, phone, cell phones, internet fees, gas and electric, health insurance, car and home insurance, water, and real estate taxes. I do print them - but to a paperless paper called a pdf that gets "filed" on my computer.
If you are still receiving bills by mail, you are following the old rules. Consider the new word that has entered our vocabulary: scan.
Nowadays, most printers can double as a scanner, but I have a dedicated scanner on my desk so that it is always available. Scanning involves taking a picture of the paper and turning it into a digital file called a PDF, or a Portable Document Format. This is a file format that can be used to exchange documents reliably, independent of your software, hardware, or operating system.
The Plan of Action
Let’s run through how to eliminate paper clutter in a system that is simple to create and maintain:
1) First, get a decent scanner. the better one's are worth the money.
2) Next, sign up for paperless statements with all of your banks, credit card companies, BGE, and all telephone companies. You can customize your account: that is, you can elect to receive alerts about withdrawals and deposits, reminders of upcoming billing deadlines, and more.
3) All these vendors can be paid online. The advantage over “snail mail” is that you are certain that your payment was received (a special boon to “last-minute” people). Another advantage of paying online is that you pay by credit card, which builds up miles for your point collection game.
4) Each month, log on to each of these sites and download the current bill. Next, print your statement or bill to a “paperless printer.” That means that, instead of going to a real printer, a computer “sheet of paper,” called a PDF, is created. Some people ask me why I need to save these papers since they are available online. The answer is that they are only available online for a limited amount of time. They will not be there forever. Therefore I download them to ensure I will have them in the future.
5) When you create the PDF, you have to name it. The easiest way to use the “save as” command. Let’s say it is your Bank of America January 2017statement for account #1234. I would save it with the name BOA 1234 2017 01. That will make it easy to sort by date.
A car repair bill might have the name Chev Van 2017 01 15 $85.00, brakes. That means your Chevrolet van was fixed on Jan 15, 2017. The charge was $85, and they worked on the brakes.
You save the PDF in a folder. It is simple to create folders and label them. Some examples of folders are “family checking,” “BGE,” “house phone,” “cell phone,” “car,” “doctor bills,” etc. I also create folders for miscellaneous bills that do not fit into other categories. The number of folders you can create is unlimited. Each time you create a PDF, save it to the correct location.
6) The only papers that should be saved are vital records, such as birth certificates, social security cards, passports, car titles, and the like. You also need a place to store warranties and instructions for big purchases. I also like to save mementos and sentimental papers, which is easier when you don’t have so much other paper to store.
7) In addition to starting your new online bill-paying system, scan all miscellaneous bills that come in and start catching up on the old stuff. You will have to examine each piece of paper and decide whether it can be thrown out or whether it needs to be scanned and saved on your computer. Once it is a piece of computer “paper,” or PDF, you can discard the original. Keep up this process until your house is paper free.
What to Do with the Mail
There are some categories of paper that are still not connected to the computer. For instance, we all get many charity requests in the mail. Immediately discard the ones you will not be giving to, and put aside just the enclosed envelopes of the ones to which you want to send a check. A small box should hold them all. Now send your contributions by mail, but first take a look at the charity’s website to see if you can donate online. Often, you can.
I also get numerous credit card applications by mail. I open them and remove the paper that has my name preprinted on it. I throw the bill in one trash can and the paper with my name into a different trash can. That way, no one will piece them together. This is of course due to the risk of identity fraud.
Regarding paper bills and receipts from retail stores or service contractors, if you want to save it, put it through your scanner and create a PDF. Then throw the original away. I envision a future in which we will not be handed receipts at the supermarket. Rather, the receipt will emailed to us as a PDF attachment. (Already, my car mechanic can email me my bill, and I feel certain that this trend will catch on.) Such a system will allow you to log on to the supermarket’s website and see all your receipts and reports of your spending: ditto for other stores, such as Home Depot, etc. Imagine being able to go to your supermarket’s website and find out when you bought sugar three years ago and at what price! Amazing.
How Long to Save Papers?
I am often asked how long to retain certain records. The answer is that it varies with the type of record. But one thing is certain: Once you start scanning, you will not mind saving papers forever since they take up no room. I think it is advantageous to have papers going back a long time for comparison purposes. It is helpful to be able to see what one paid for items in years past.
As you start to go paperless and eliminate clutter, you might discover that you have been wallowing in a flood of papers and that life will be a lot more exhilarating and pleasant once you get rid of them. Good luck and have fun!
Eli Pollock CPA can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.