What Should I Keep? Going paper-free without losing anything.

Even when going paper-free there are still some things you want to keep on hand. Learn what to keep in paper, and what you don't need to save after all.
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Going “paper-free” is a personal or professional goal for many.  It means to transition from paper as a mode of storing information in favor of digital resources.

There are many reasons for wanting to go paper-free, such as less clutter, saving physical space, concerns for the environment, or a minimalist aesthetic.  What ever your reason, clearing out filing cabinets may mean scanning and saving files to keep a digital version. 

When deciding to go paper-free, you may find yourself with a few questions:

  • Does everything need to be scanned and turned into a digital file?
  • Is there anything I need to save a paper copy of?
  • If I scan everything, how do I avoid “digital clutter”?

This article will address what to keep in paper form, what can get digitized, and considerations of digital clutter.

Read: How to go “Paper-Free”: Step by Step Instructions

What You Should Keep as Paper

It may seem a bit counter-intuitive to suggest keeping paper in an article about going “paper-free”.  But the truth is, there are some things you will want to keep a hard copy for your records, for safekeeping, or because current systems do not allow digital versions of the document in question.

Documents you should keep in paper version are called “Permanent Documents”.  Permanent documents have at least one of the following criteria:

  • Irreplaceable or difficult/costly to replace
  • Items with ink signatures or stamps that will not be transactionally accepted digitally
  • Sealed documents (such as transcripts)
  • Documents that may need to be accessed by someone else at your time of death or in case of an emergency

For example, you may be asked to present a copy of your marriage license when applying for a mortgage.  If you have a stamped copy (depending on your state or country), keeping this document will save you a trip to your county courthouse – and any associated fees!

Another example of a permanent document may be a last will and testament.  While you or your lawyer may have a digital copy of this document, having the latest copy printed in your filing cabinet can be helpful for your survivors. 

Finally, have a small packet of items in a fire/flood safe box that gives you the information in case of an emergency.  Digital versions are great, but it can also be helpful to have insurance policy numbers, agent contact information, and passports in a place that is easy to grab if you have to leave your home immediately. 

Examples of permanent documents:

  • Title of a home or automobile
  • Certificate or an educational degree
  • Sealed transcript from higher ed institution
  • Bond / Loan certificates
  • Licenses
  • Birth certificates and social security cards
  • Wills or trust documents

Important Documents for Digital Filing

The next question to ask yourself when going paper-free is, “what documents should I scan and save as a digital file?”

Some people prefer to scan and save everything in case it is ever needed.  Others wish to reserve digital space and avoid digital clutter.  What you choose to save is up to you, but here are some items we highly recommend saving as a digital backup.

Financial Documents

While you probably won’t need to save your receipt for donuts from three years ago (unless you are deducting it!) there are certain financial documents you should hang on to.

  • Tax returns
  • Business receipts / deductions
  • Quarterly investment statements
  • Debt agreements and loan terms

Read: How To Process Financial Documents in Evernote

Employment Documents and Contracts

Keeping a copy of contracts is a no-brainer.  Having digital versions can be helpful in locating the information you need quickly.  These documents will be great to have on hand:

  • Employee tax documents (W-4s, yearly W-2s, or 1099s)
  • Employment contracts and job descriptions (the latter is an informal contract of services)
  • Rental agreements and leases
  • Contracts for services: lawyers, builders, developers, contractors of any type
  • Legal filings and agreements

Policies and Warrantees

Insurance companies may keep a copy of your policy on their website – just log in and download!  But make sure you download the latest version (and disregard a previous version unless making a claim during that time period). 

Why keep a copy?  Because you never know when their portal may change, or worse, the policy changes from the one you signed up for!

Additionally, keeping a scanned copy of warrantee information from products you own can be helpful if you ever need to make a claim against it.  Create a digital file for a product warrantee, including any instructions or manuals if available, and add details about the product – such as when and where you purchased.

Medical Records

Health care in the United States is not centralized or universally accessible.  Coverage and providers may change based on location or employer.  Therefore, we recommend keeping a digital copy of all medical records.
This may include:

  • Prescription information, Rx #, drug interaction/symptoms information
  • Test results and lab work
  • Doctor’s orders and any recommendations from appointments
  • Scans, x-rays, and other important information pertaining to your health
  • Medical record numbers, health insurance information, and provider information

Be Wary of Digital Clutter

Once you have scanned and filed the important stuff, it is time to take a hard look at what might not be so important after all, and how this can contribute to digital clutter.

Digital clutter is just like paper clutter, but on a computer, hard drive, or cloud system.  It may seem innocuous at first, but too many unnecessary files have drawbacks.  They may become difficult or complicated to organize.  Or, even if well organized, old files take up space.  It may mean buying a second, or larger hard drive.  Or spending more money for more space in a cloud-based system. 

Truthfully, just because you CAN save a file digitally, doesn’t mean you should.  Here are some examples of files that can simply be skipped into recycling:

  • Old insurance policies that are no longer effective and no claim was made during the time of the policy
  • Receipts for products you no longer own or cannot return
  • Bills or statements to utilities from months or years past (the most recent version will do)
  • Brochures, catalogs, and mailer advertisements (record the information you need and dump it)
  • Outdated versions of documents for work
  • Scrap paper and notes if already recorded somewhere else

Anything else can be scanned, saved, or recycled at your own discretion.  Enjoy the paper-free lifestyle!

Featured photo by Sear Greyson on Unsplash

Posted by Amanda Parsons

Amanda has always had an appreciation for writing instructions that are easy to follow. When not curled up with her laptop trying to figure out why Word on the Mac is so weird, she can be found kayaking in the Pacific Northwest.

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