I have always preferred minimal clutter. I’ve always enjoyed donating a bag or two of stuff to Salvation Army more than I have ever enjoyed buying the same stuff. I have never been one to get to attached to tangible objects or feel much loss when a tangible object is lost. I like people and their stories and visiting new places and seeing awesome things that people or mother nature have built. I prefer Kindle to printed books. It is easier to read anytime I have a few minutes and I can carry whatever books I am currently reading with me all the time. I prefer looking at pictures online instead of thumbing through an old album. I know it doesn’t make much sense to many folks, but if someone gives me a gift, the memory of the gift and the time with that person is what sticks with me, rather than an attachment to the actual thing. I just find I don’t need the actual thing to enjoy the memory, and I find life much more pleasant with less to clean around (and move when the time comes).
Like most folks, I find myself constantly bombarded by paper documents. I recycle bags of it and here it comes again. Being a lawyer adds to the pain. Of course, records have to be kept for client purposes, but the filing of everything in duplicate ends up running to everything (more on this later). When I started this new thing, I had a tall file cabinet in my office, 5 drawers, each drawer about 3 feet wide and deep enough to put a legal (14″ inch long) file in longways. These weren’t my client files, these were personal files that I had accumulated over 20 years or so of adulthood and 15+ years of practicing law.
At home, I had hundreds of pics that I had taken and that others have sent to me. I have so many friends that send me pics of their kids and I love getting them. But once they left the fridge, I rarely dug them back out of the box and look at them.
At some point, I decided to tackle the paper monster that I was carrying around with me before it carried me off. Then I decided going paperless was going to be a new thing I would try. It was actually kind of a fun project.
Here is how I did it:
- First, I gathered every user manual or other similar instructions that I had. I had a drawer full of them at home. I had paper manuals/guides for every power tool, every appliance, my car, etc. I had some for appliances or tools that were long gone. Of course, I just recycled those. The current manuals are things you might need some day right? When you replace the water filter on your fridge, the manual is what tells you that to get the little notice light to go off, you have to stand on one leg, recite the lord’s prayer backwards, hold a pencil between your nose and upper lip and punch the “+” temp button 3 times, then pause 4 seconds, then punch it 11 more times and say “abracadabra.” I sat down with the manuals and searched for a pdf of each one online. They are very easy to find. Then I saved a pdf of each manual to Google Drive. As I saved a pdf of a manual, I tossed the paper version into recycling. There was not one manual I couldn’t find in an electronic version. I went from a stack about 6 inches thick, to exactly zero manuals cluttering up my house. I decided to keep my printed car manual in my glove box in case I loaned my car to someone else or needed it at a time when I couldn’t pull up Google Drive on my phone, but I do have a pdf of it on Google Drive too.
- Next I started tackling the huge file cabinet at work. I got out every file and threw a bunch of stuff away. Earlier I mentioned how the practice of keeping hard copies of everything at a law office began to bleed into other stuff. Not only did I find copies of proof that I took the required Continuing Education courses during my first year as a lawyer (a long time ago), I also found a copy of the letter my assistant sent with it, and the certified mail slip that proved it got there. If I hadn’t turned that stuff in back in 2001, the State Bar would have long ago called and hassled me. Why did I still have it? Trash. This is just one example of career related stuff that I put in files because at the time it seemed like something I should keep, and at the time it was. Now, when I save things in Google Drive, I often use folders that say “keep until 20___” and then I’ll know to check that folder and can delete things once they are stale. I went into the office about thirty minutes early for about 10 days and threw stuff away or scanned stuff I needed or wanted to keep. If you’ll dedicate 30 minutes a day to going through any files cabinets you have, I think you’ll find you can get rid of a lot of it. Some of it you won’t even remember why you ever kept it in the first place.
- With regard to more personal records, i.e. tax records, medical records/receipts, etc., I scanned them in and organized them into folders that make sense to me. You can find a bunch of different suggestions about how long you need to keep tax records, but when the records actually take up no space and don’t weigh anything, I figured I would just keep them all and not worry about it.
- Insurance polices – I scanned them all in and trashed the originals. I’ve had people tell me that you need to keep your original policies, especially life insurance. I suppose there could be a situation where an insurance company might want to see your initial policy. I encourage you to make your own decision and if it makes you feel better to have the original, keep it. For me personally, I have filed claims on homeowner’s, renter’s, title insurance, automobile and health insurance and never once has a company asked me to prove that I have the original of the policy they sent me. I even canceled a life insurance policy to take the cash value out and they didn’t ask for the original policy back. I collected a little money on my dad’s life insurance policy when he died and they didn’t ask me for an original of his policy either. Every company I have insurance with, including my life insurance company has a copy of my policy that I can access online at any time. I saved a copy to Google Drive and recycled the paper.
- Photos – In my life, I have been blessed with the most wonderful family and friends. I’ve also been very blessed to have been able to travel quite a bit and see some cool stuff. In addition, funny/random stuff happens to me all the time and sometimes I can catch a quick pic of it. I’ve got tons of pics in electronic format. From back in the olden days, I also had prints of photos – hundreds and hundreds of them. Especially with regard to the printed photos, with the exception of the recent Christmas card photos of your cute family that stayed on my fridge until the next year’s card came, I almost never got those old pics out and looked at them. I decided to digitize everything and spend some time organizing my pictures so I could easily share them others or simply look at them for my own enjoyment. I used a service to scan a few hundred of my old photos. It was very convenient and very expensive and, I later learned, very unnecessary. In the end, I did all the rest of my scanning using a used photo/slide scanner that I got from Amazon for $89. It worked great and when I was done with it I loaned it out to other family members so they could use it. If I never get it back, no problem. I got way more than $89 worth out of it.
One big question I faced is where am I going to put all these photos – on my computer hard drive, in iCloud, etc.? Allow me to save you from a mistake I made. Shutterfly seems great. It’s free no matter how many picks you upload. The phone app works well with your phone camera. You can create folders to organize your images and even share some folders with other people (that also have a Shutterfly account) if you want. BUT – once you send your images (if you don’t keep a copy on your own hardrive) the only way to ever get your full resolution images back is to buy them back from Shutterfly. You read that right! Shutterfly makes its money by selling you coffee mugs for grandma, calendars for mom’s desk, mousepads for dad, etc. with images of your adorable kids on them. If you want to make a calendar of your little anklebiters for grandma, by all means upload a few photos to Shutterfly for free (keep a copy of the full resolution images somewhere else), create the calendar and make grandma’s Christmas and entire next year. But do not use Shutterfly as the place where you are going to store all your images. It cost me $46 to buy a CD from Shutterfly of the full resolution images I had uploaded to Shutterfly once I learned this little part of their game.
Next, I tried Dropbox. I liked it and only had one reservation about it that caused me to finally go with another option. There are only two options with Dropbox. First, the free option, where you can store up to 4 gigs or so (you can earn a little more free space by linking to FB or inviting friends, etc.). When you have exceeded the free space amount, option (2) is to spend $99 a year and get 1 terabyte (1000 gigs). Now, I don’t know who at Dropbox decided this was a good idea, but in my entire life I’ll never save enough pics or docs to use a terabyte, and I am sure not going to pay for a terabyte when all I really need is another gig or two of storage. So, I ended up using Google Drive for saving my photos. Note – I Put them in Google Drive not in Google Photos. The full resolution images are saved, I can download them on my phone or any internet connection, the first 15 gigs are free, and then you can buy more storage space (100 more gigs) for $1.99 a month. If I do end up taking a two or three million pictures in my life, I can also upgrade to a terabyte for the same price as what Dropbox charges. Every one of the pics I own (including slides from my grandparents) are now online, neatly organized in categories that make senses to me. It’s the best photo album ever and if I come across a funny old picture of one of you, I can easily post it to Facebook!
- This has been the biggest help in keeping paper out of my life, and has made life much easier in other ways. I started using an online mail service. Basically, you pay a monthly fee and you get a specific address assigned to you that looks like an apartment address. I chose one in Portland because I liked visiting there and they did not offer addresses in Houston at the time I signed up. It really makes no difference what address you pick. What looks like an apartment number is actually your box number. There are lots of companies that do this, but I picked www.travelingmailbox.com and I could not be happier with them. There are several different pricing levels. I pay about $15 a month. I changed my mailing address on everything to the address Traveling Mailbox (“TM”) assigned me. My mail goes to my box at TM, they scan the front of the envelope and notify me I have mail by an email that includes the scan of the envelope. I can review the scan online, then have them open and scan the contents for me (as a pdf), shred the entire envelope and contents or forward the piece of mail to me (for very cheap). For things like a new driver’s license or some other situation where you need the original (which is pretty rare) they forward it to me for $2 plus the cost of a stamp! Minimizing the paper that comes to my house, and being able to get anything someone mails to me as a pdf has made life so much easier. I wish they had this service when I was in college and was moving every other semester or so!
Im now about 98% paperless when it comes to photos, books and any personal records. The above are just basically summaries of what worked for me with regard to some of the larger categories of paper items in our homes. I find that I look at old pictures now more than I ever did. The people in those pictures are my people, including some of my people who have gone on to the next great adventure, so it makes me happy to see those pictures often. My time to gather stuff to send to my accountant for taxes was about 1/8th what it use to be. I have almost immediate access to most any document I need and have backup copies of driver’s license, passport, etc. whenever I am traveling. In a pinch if I don’t have my phone or the internet, I can call a friend and say “hey, would you log into my google account and email me this or that document ” instead of “can you please physically go over to my house and dig through the stack of papers in the bottom drawer of my desk and…” Basically every paper document I have is now easier to access and I can easily share them with someone else when needed. I’d be happy to answer any questions you may have about what I did so that I can maybe help you avoid some of the mistakes I made along the way. Just comment below and I’ll be in touch.