Going Paperless

In an effort to put my minimalist designation to the test, I plan to document some of my experience minimizing over the next few months. Step one: going (truly) paperless.

My interest in minimalism goes back to college. At that time I moved from a very large, on-campus room to an apartment. It was a struggle to get all my things into the new, smaller room.

My accumulation has two basic roots:

1) I may need X later.
2) I got a great deal on X.

I happily pursue a policy of minimalism. Thanks to a half-decade of NYC living and some hard-won revelations about my own tendencies. Like any human, I am still learning the ropes.

I just finished reading Marie Kondo's The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. I had heard enough reviews and synopses that I felt familiar with the material before I began reading.

You may recognize Kondo's things that spark joy theme for keeping possessions. In addition to joy Kondo is quick to emphasize the trash can. She provides excellent psychological comfort for those struggling with "I may need it later" feelings.

It's probably true that people start self-help systems at the nexus of their guilt. For me, that's paperwork.

You can call it organization, adult responsibility, or covering your A$$. No matter the reason, paperwork is accumulating. A few weeks ago, this came to a head for me when I wanted to access a home insurance policy, and I couldn't find it.

In this aggravated situation, you will imagine your ideal world. Or at least that's what I did. In my ideal world, all my documents are accessible at any point and organized on my computer, no exceptions. I never should ask the question: "Did I scan that document?" The answer should be "Yes" or it does not exist.

Last Saturday, I made my dream a reality.

Digitization of your documents will help you get rid of more than you can imagine. The organization alone is worth it, but you'll end up shredding more than you keep.
Trent Hamm recently wrote some great thoughts on frugality and free time at The Simple Dollar. Time is an un-renewable resource, I've written about this myself. As such, we had both assumed that we could hire some scanning help via TaskRabbit or another on-demand service.

When we got into the weeds, this idea hit the fan. Our document stack was a treasure trove for any burgeoning identity thief. Though chances are low, identity theft is not fun. We decided to dedicate the four hours required for this task. The peace of mind was worth the investment.

We began by sorting our documents. We had two small file boxes, and a couple thick folders from our mortgage brokers. We wrapped up anything specifically related to 2015, as we had undergone no document review since the close of the year. We sorted into categories and then we chose those destined for the shredder.

When you digitize, you will shred 2x what you scan.

I was very happy with this. But I think it's important to note that I wouldn't have sent as much to the shredder if I had not been forced to digitize these documents.

1) Government Identity (Passports, Birth Certs, Marriage Cert, etc.)
2) Tax Returns
3) W2s
4) Pay stubs
5) Charitable yearly summaries
6) Charitable individual receipts
7) Schedule C (Work) Receipts
8) Schedule E (Investment) Receipts
9) Product manuals
10) Product warranties
11) Immigration documents
12) College transcripts
13) College financing documents
14) Mortgage documentation
15) Home insurance documentation
15) Rental / lease agreements
16) 83-B Stock designations
17) Photos
18) Letters & Cards
19) Misc.

Those crossed out are the ones we shredded altogether. In these cases the information was either redundant or copies were already fine in an existing digital state (receipts or pay stubs, for instance). I took notes of documents that we received both physically and digitally. I will call each bank/charity/employer/etc. and see if we have an option to go completely paperless, thereby stopping future accumulation.

For everything else, we apply a timeline. With the exception of government identity and lifelong keepsakes, everything has its duration. Our window for tax documentation is just like the IRS: seven years. After that point the digital copies will suffice. Other things like product warranties specify their expiration, and should be cleaned yearly or when a warranty is used (Marie Kondo has some great thoughts about this).

Shred the documents you no longer need. Trash is not quite secure enough for articles that are likely to contain Personally Identifiable Information.
Auto-feed is a must for the multi-page documents or stacks of similar documentation. I recommend saving the organization/categorization for the digital side (and a later date). Copiers & scanners appear to have universally terrible user experience characteristics. Aim to maximize bulk scans. We did this by creating large category PDFs. Each was/will be broken into pages at a later point.

You will definitely hit a jam or two. Furthermore, there are some government documents (Marriage License?) that have various little scraps of paper hanging off them. The reason for this nonsense is older than me. Expect four to five scans of the same document to get all the relevant info in those cases.

Scanning documents for digitization will result in a few jams. Remember the bigger goal before getting agitated.
When we returned home, we found three more folders. I will take care of those over the upcoming weekend. It's important to recognize the continuity of this process. Expect this to happen a few times every year, just smaller batches.

I feel as if an incredible weight has been lifted off my shoulders. New inbound documentation is subject to an immediate digital scan, archival, and then shredding at the end of its duration period.

As for all the PDFs: I've been breaking up one file a day. The real task of organization now lives on the digital side. Our file cabinets have moved into a much less accessible part of our home. They are no longer in plain view. Minimalism Mission One: Accomplished.

Develop the resolve the digitize your paper documents. A healthy choice for your space, convenience, and peace of mind. Go truly paperless and feel the weight lifted from your shoulders.