View Full Version : Deal with paper by getting rid of it

11-27-08, 11:30 AM
OK, here's something that works for me.

The thought of a filing cabinet scares the crap out of me. I hate the things. The concept of picking up a piece of paper, writing labels on folders... ugh... that's why I have piles of paper atop piles of paper.

The solution of course is to permanently get rid of that paper. Tax documents, EVERYTHING. It all goes.

Step one in paper reduction is to cancel ALL of your paper statements and get them electronically. Most places now will notify you by email that your statement is ready and you can then download it. What I've done to make sure I don't space out on this is to setup a folder called "Billing notifications". I've then setup a filter called "Billing notifications". For every company that sends me a notification I've setup a filter or rule (it's easy to do, there should be a menu option that says something along the lines of edit filters or edit rules) that redirects any email with a specific criteria (usually if it's from a certain vendor and contains certain text in the subject) it gets rerouted to that folder. This way when it comes in it gets redirected and it doesn't get accidentally marked as read while reading other emails until such a time comes that I can deal with downloading the statement.

Now, for the ACTUAL papers you'll need a good scanner. You specifically want to get a full duplex document scanner. Full duplex means that it can scan both sides of the document at once. You'll also want to get a sheet fed (and not a flat bed) scanner. Sheet fed scanners are designed specifically for handling documents and they take up less physical space than flatbed scanners (if I remember I'll have to post a pic of what mine looks like in my environment). Fujitsu makes some of the best document scanners in terms of performance and bang for the buck. They run around $500 to $750 or so and they can scan 15 to 20 pages per minute and have a 50 sheet feeder. Now if that sounds like too much there's another package called "Neat Receipts" for about $200 that comes with integrated software which is pretty slick. It scans the document and then runs optical character recognition and automatically creates a database that includes info like the store, the date, how much you paid etc. and can generate business expense reports and the like.

I've tried both. If you have a A LOT of paper to deal with the Neat Receipts solution isn't ideal because you'll no doubt be going through YEARS of crap that you have to clear out and NR just isn't very fast (nor is it full duplex). Once you've reigned in the mess it's much better.

Using the scanner - keep it simple. When I first bought the scanner I was using software called Paper Port. Paper Port has optical character recognition. After scanning your documents it runs the OCR and creates a searchable database. I thought this was REALLY slick for document management but the fact is, I've not had to use it once. I've never had to go back and find something using a text based search. It's just not necessary. The information I need to find something is:

1) The date (or the approximate date)
2) The name of the place I purchased it from
3) Was it business or personal and what was it for

We'll start with #3. You can accomplish this organization by creating folders in the area where you store your scanned PDFs. Some of my folders are:

Business Checking
Personal Checking
Insurance EOBs (explanation of benefits)
Medical receipts (statements from doctors and hospital visits)
Business Receipts
Personal Receipts
Kayaking (I have a specific one for kayaking so I can find my Kayaking stuff fast).

The other key to the system is HOW YOU NAME your scanned documents. The first part is how you do the date. The date should ALWAYS be in the following format:

Year Month Day

Why? Because when you sort by alphabetical order in your operating system, regardless of the date modified the document will show up in chronological order. So for example, today is November 27th, 2008. If I were to purchase something today my file name after I scanned the receipt would start with:


If I was scanning something that I bought on July 19th 2001 the name would start with:


Obviously if I scanned the 2008 document followed by the 2001 document and did a "sort by date modified" in Windows Explorer or in the Finder the 2001 document would show up out of order which is why the naming scheme is so important because when you sort by alphabetical (which is often the default many people have anyway) it will always be in the correct order.

The second part of the file name is the name of the vendor. Let's say I bought something from the Apple Store (if they were actually open today) the name on that document would be:


With that simple naming scheme finding things becomes pretty easy using the search tool in your operating system because you usually know WHERE an item was purchased and you usually know about when it was purchased so with that I can just use the search tool in my operating system and search inside the folder where all my scanned documents are stored. The search term would simply be file names that contain Apple. The OS will return a list and you can quickly scroll through to narrow in on the date when you think it was purchased. Unless you purchase something from the Apple Store every day, this should be fairly easy to find.

Is it legal with the IRS? Yes. The IRS recognizes electronic document keeping as a legal means of record keeping so long as your methodology is consistent. From the FAQ on Neat Receipts' website regarding the IRS...

Yes. According to ruling Rev. Proc. 97-22, the IRS allows one to prepare, record, transfer, index, store, preserve, retrieve, and reproduce books and records by either electronically imaging hard copy documents to an electronic storage media, or transferring computerized books and records to an electronic storage media that allows them to be viewed or reproduced without using the original program.

That last sentence is critical. The first package I used, PaperPort, worked best with a proprietary file format that could only be read by PaperPort. That would not be kosher with the IRS (fortunately it was easy to convert them all to PDF). An example of an acceptable format would be Adobe PDF (many applications can read PDFs) or JPEG (many applications can read JPEGs).

Now... the real difficult part about this for the ADDer is keeping up on it and the initial task of scanning all of that paper is monumental. You of course don't have to scan everything but the paper was driving me nuts and I felt compelled to get it out of my life. The key to making this work is scanning a document as soon as you get it, otherwise you'll find piles upon piles. Make sure that the scanner is always setup and connected to your computer and that the software you use to scan is both easy to use and easy to launch (create an alias on your start menu or on your desktop or on your launch bar).

One final note... once you've scanned the document you can shred it (to prevent identity theft you should cross shred it, you can get an adequate shredder for $20 to $40) BUT.... DO NOT SHRED IT UNTIL YOU'VE BACKED UP YOUR DATA!!!!!! Again...


Hard drives can and will fail. You need TWO backups (why two, what happens if lightning strikes while you're backing up your data??? It might take out the copy on your hard drive and the copy on your backup, if you have a second backup you're good). You can either backup to another hard drive or a USB flash stick. You won't need a lot of storage as the scanned documents are relatively compact. A 4 gig stick ought to do it. Just make sure you don't have both backups connected simultaneously in case the worst does happen. Place a box next to your desk for the "to be shredded" stuff. Once the box is full make your backups, then shred everything in the box.

This isn't an ideal system for everyone but it does help me get rid of paper which is the #1 primary source of disastrous and chaotic clutter in my life.

If anyone has any questions, lemme know.