10 Expert Tips for Going Paperless


“I wish I never would’ve gone paperless.” —Said no one ever.

No, I didn’t come up with that great Seth Meyers-ish quote. I found it in Abby’s Just a Girl and Her Blog while searching for hot new tips! on how to go paperless. Turns out that the strategy for going paperless remains largely the same: decrease the amount of paper coming in and digitize the rest. What is new is a focus on timing and expectations.

The typical American cold-turkey, all-or-nothing approach often stalls the paperless process. If you can think of it as a paper usage diet rather than an all-out starvation, you can start reaping the benefits of at least reducing the paper in your life. And the benefits of using less paper are many:

  • Digital documents are easy to search, sort and access from anywhere.
  • Digital documents are easy to backup in a secure manner.
  • Less printing saves you money on electricity, printers, paper and ink.
  • Less paper to manage reduces clutter and confusion.
  • Digital documents protect your information from harm (theft, flood, fire).

(If you’re not concerned about that last point, keep this in mind: Matt Peterson, president and CEO of eFileCabinet maintains that, “Nearly three-quarters of companies that lose their data in natural disasters are out of business within a year,” in an interview with Katherine Gustafson of Intuit. Project that idea to your personal life and think about the process of replacing all your personal financial information if it goes up in smoke.)

So, given the benefits, why not go paperless?

Time It Right & Control Your Expectations

In acknowledging the benefits of a paperless life, Jackie Ashton of Remodelista says, “But like all life improvement plans, a paper-reduction strategy also benefits from realistic expectations and baby steps.” You can do that with a focus on just getting started. As you start to experience the benefits—and it feels good—you’ll look for opportunities to do more.

Tip 1. Move Forward

A good time to go paperless is when experiencing a life change such as starting a new job, moving or getting married. Or maybe it’s your New Year’s Resolution to figure out ways to make your life easier. Whatever the inspiration, the best way to get started is to move forward and establish new habits. According to Gustafson of Intuit, “Although ‘going paperless’ can evoke images of endless scanning of paper files, it is best to simply start by scanning all new incoming material. Only then, after that has become habitual, should one work backward over stored files.”

No matter when you decide to start on your paperless journey, it doesn’t have to happen overnight. “Remember, this is a long-term project. Don’t try to sort and organize every paper in your entire home in one day,” says Heather Levin of Money Crashers. Developing habits is key. “As you become comfortable with your digital document setup, you need to develop little workflows for digitizing more kinds of paper moving forward to make sure being paperless becomes a habit you keep,” says Jill Duffy in PC Magazine.

Tip 2. Keep Calm and Keep Using Paper

Taking on the challenge of going paperless falls into the category of “perfection is the enemy of good enough.” People are easily frustrated by the sheer volume of existing and incoming paper to manage—so they give up. That’s why I suggest you try going paperlite. In fact, according to Joe Kissell of Macworld, “The biggest barrier to a paperless office may be the very word paperless…Going paperless doesn’t have to be all or nothing to be effective.”

And don’t feel bad about the paper you do use. The bottom line is that sometimes it is required or preferred. You need the hard copy of your birth certificate, for example, and it often makes more sense to cook off a printed recipe so your iPad or phone isn’t exposed to heat and water in the kitchen. As Jill Duffy says in PC Magazine, “Do not try to quit paper cold turkey. Pick one specific area where you will give up paper notes.” The key to going papelite is to start somewhere and do the best you can.

Reduce Incoming Paper

An easy way to go paperlite is to stem the tide of paper coming in to your home and office. You can then make plans to deal with your backlog of paper documents later. According to Brooks Duncan, owner of DocumentSnap.com, the way to get started is to “Look at where paper is coming in, and see what you can eliminate. You’d be surprised at how much paper we just ‘deal with’ that we don’t even need or want.”

Tip 3. Sign Up for Electronic Statements

If you do nothing else to cut your paper usage, sign up for electronic statements for your bank account. Once you get used to that, transition your insurance policies and any bills you pay (cable, cellphone, credit cards, utilities and more). You then view these statements online rather than receiving hard copies in the mail. While this may produce an initial flurry of even more mail (Thank you for receiving your bank statement online…), it will cut the volume of paper for you to manage. Just don’t forget to pay the bills—and if you sign up for auto bill-pay, don’t forget that money is coming out of your account!

Tip 4. Opt Out of Junk Mail

The National Endowment for Financial Education suggests you use www.optoutprescreen.com if you want to halt credit card and insurance offers from coming in the mail. Other services, such as www.catalogchoice.com and www.dmachoice.org, allow you to customize other unsolicited mail. (I found opting out of credit card offers to be a cinch and managing junk mail a chore—a chore I decided not to complete as I kind of like catalogs.) For details on managing your snail mail, see “How To Opt Out And Get Less Junk Mail.”

Tip 5. Read on a Tablet

Read meeting agendas, reports and contracts—not to mention magazines and newspapers—on a tablet rather than printing them out. (And a lighted tablet makes it easier to curl up under the covers in bed and finish that novel—or quickly download a new one. Maybe stick with hard copy for your tub reading, though.)

Tip 6. Use a Digital Signature

Rather than printing out contracts, signing them and either rescanning or mailing them, use a digital signature. In Microsoft Word, this is easy: sign a piece of paper, scan it, crop the photo, and insert it where needed (Insert > Picture > Photo from File). For Adobe Reader, you can find instructions on Adobe TV. Or, if you have an iPad, Heather Levin of MoneyCrashers suggests signing PDFs with your finger using the PowerPad Lite App (a handy app that also lets you write rather than type notes on your iPad).

Tip 7. Print Less

Be honest: You serve as a source of incoming paper. You printed that dinner receipt, that game schedule that’s available by RSS feed, that coupon you could download to your phone. But think about it: How often do you actually use what you printed? How often do you go through the pile of papers next to the sofa and find one piece to keep? According to Heather Levin of Money Crashers, “Keep in mind that the National Association of Professional Organizers estimates that we never look at 80% of the papers after seeing them for the first time. You can probably shred or toss most it.”

As a test, the next time you run out of printer ink at home, don’t replace it. See how long you can go before you really need to print something. (Just be sure to have the ink on hand for that emergency late-night assignment you’re kid needs to print! Or the coupon you want when, heaven forbid, the wifi is down.)

Digitize What You Need

Once you control the flow of incoming paper, you can deal with all the paper you already have. The first step here is to decide what you really need. Courtney Carvey of Be More With Less emphasizes that you probably need less than you think: “We don’t actually use most of the paper we keep. Instead, it sits in filing cabinets, drawers and on countertops. We keep paper so we can act later, and just in case we need it. Then we don’t act and don’t need it.”

Let’s consider the example of product manuals. If your refrigerator filter needs to be replaced, what are you more likely to do? (1) Root around in the closet or drawer stuffed with those manuals, find the right one, blow off the dust and look up the filter type? Or (2) Type the model of your fridge into a website like FridgeFilters.com? The reality is that product manuals, information and helpful hints are almost always available online. (I watched a YouTube video to fix my dishwasher!) You can safely recycle all those books, booklets and pamphlets provided with your products.

After you properly recycle all the paper you can, digitize the remaining papers and start managing those documents online.

Tip 8. Scan and Print to PDF

Don’t let the lack of a fancy scanner hold you up. At worst, you can snap pictures of documents with your phone. At best, you have a desktop scanner with a document feeder that processes piles of documents for you. Personally, I love my quick little Doxie scanner for items such as checks and receipts, and I only bother with the desktop scanner for longer documents like my tax return. Once you have a digital copy of a document, shred or recycle the hard copy.

What about all those documents that come into your life that are already in electronic form? Anytime you have the impulse to print something for posterity, simply create a PDF. Chris Hoffman of How To Geek says, “Print to PDF: Anything you might want to print—whether it’s a receipt, document, email, or web page—can be printed to a PDF file.”

Tip 9. Manage Your Digital Documents

So, now what do you do with that pile of digital documents you’ve created? If you leave them on your hard drive without an offsite backup, they are in as much danger as your paper documents would be during a fire or flood. A major hard drive crash could wipe out everything you decided was important enough to keep. The solution here is a secure cloud-based document storage system such as FileThis, Dropbox or Evernote. These services offer searching and sorting features along with instant access from any device, anywhere. As an extra benefit, FileThis offers a free service that fetches electronic statements for you and an app for quickly snapping document images and accessing information.

Tip 10. Start Somewhere—Now!

If you take nothing else away from this story, remember that going paperlite is not an all-or-nothing proposition. Manage your expectations. “Remember that less is not nothing and paperless isn’t paper free,” says Carver. And take baby steps. As Duncan says, “The important thing is to start.”


Kelly Kordes Anton is a freelance writer and editor who lives in Littleton, Colorado. She specializes in financial education and publishing technologies.