Let me ask you a personal question. Do you have a shoebox full of receipts? How about a groaning file cabinet? How about stacks of paper? You got stacks?
Receipts, pay stubs, bills, statements. These are documents with no sentimental value, but you need to keep them around anyway.
Sometimes you need to pull up a specific item, and you have to go rooting around in a shoebox or file.
There’s got to be a better way, right? A way to store, file, and search all the minutiae of modern life?
I hesitate to use the phrase “going paperless,” because the world isn’t going paperless anytime soon, and setting an amorphous and unattainable goal like “go paperless” is a good way to make nothing done.
But the technology is getting better and better, and it’s time to get started. So here’s a concrete and attainable goal: stop accumulating new paper.
It can be done, and you probably have some of the tools you need to get started already. Once your stacks stop growing, you can start scanning and shrinking the stacks.
Here’s a 5-step plan.
1. Sign up for online everything
The best way to get rid of paper is never to receive it in the first place.
Sign up for electronic billing everywhere you can. More and more stores are offering email receipts. Use them.
TurboTax offers to let you print your tax return or save it as a PDF. You know the answer.
If every utility, employer, retirement plan, and office supply store offered online statements and receipts, this column would be over.
Well, the dream of the 90s is still alive for my wife’s employer, my retirement plan, and plenty of places I buy business supplies.
So it’s on to step two.
2. Your phone is your scanner
Smartphone scanning apps have gotten really good.
Using the camera on your phone, you shoot a picture of the document you want to scan.
The software automatically crops the document, enhances it, converts it to PDF for viewing on any device, and uploads it to your favorite storage service such as Dropbox or Evernote.
These apps support single- or multi-page documents, and they’re dirt-cheap.
Two of my favorite scanning apps are ScanBot (iOS) and CamScanner (Android).
Editor’s note: We’re also fans of JotNot Pro.
A lot of people who could benefit from these apps, I think, aren’t using them because they sound like they’re for geeks only. I assure you, they’re not.
The scariest thing about ScanBot is the name “ScanBot.” Here’s a screenshot of me, scanning a receipt:
That’s it. That Doritos receipt automatically goes to my 2014 Receipts folder on Dropbox, and I just have to figure out why it’s deductible.
3. Stick it in the cloud
Once you’ve scanned a document, don’t just store it on your phone or computer. It’s too risky.
Stick it in a place where it’ll be backed up and can be viewed on all of your devices.
The easiest choices are Dropbox and Evernote. One advantage of Evernote is that it will index the text of your scans.
So if you’re looking for all of your pay stubs with overtime on them, Evernote makes it easy to find them.
However, this feature is part of Evernote’s premium service, which costs $5/month.
4. Shrink the stacks
You won’t want to use a smartphone app to scan a whole file of papers. It would take all day.
For big jobs, you need a sheet-fed scanner.
It works like a copy machine: put a stack of papers into the input tray, press the button, and kick back while the papers fly across the platen.
(I have no idea what a platen is, but it’s probably in there somewhere, right?)
The Fujitsu ScanSnap iX500 is the market leader in this category. It’s fast and reliable, and everybody likes it.
However, it costs $450, and it’s overkill for all but the most serious cases of clutter.
Another option is to ship your documents off to a service like NeatScan, which charges $16 for 50 pages or $90 for 500 pages.
I used to recommend single-page sheet-fed scanners such as those made by Doxie and NeatReceipts. They’re cheaper (and slower) than the ScanSnap, but the scan quality is still excellent.
However, phone cameras and scanning apps have gotten so good, there’s really no reason to buy a cheap physical scanner anymore.
5. Shred it
Finally, invest in a decent cross-cut shredder. Paper will keep coming your way. Give it a proper burial.
Matthew Amster-Burton is a personal finance columnist at Mint.com. Find him on Twitter @Mint_Mamster.