This winter I finished a project I started in June of 2010 and posted what I thought was this innocuous little picture of what is left of my paper-based filling system–a tiny set of file drawers that fits next to my desk and is small enough to fit in a suitcase–on Facebook. It set off a lively discussion that continued right into the next morning at school drop-off and I realized that a blog post was in order. It’s a sad fact of life that expat life, no matter how amazing, is unpredictable. And moving your entire life to a new country is never easy. It’s even more difficult, however, when your filing system resembles the Library of Congress in size and complexity.
Last year I wrote about decluttering your child’s artwork and about the huge purge we did in anticipation of our international move, but now I want to focus specifically on how I moved my filing to a paperless system.
Step 1: Choose your tool
The first step in this adventure is choosing your tools: an electronic filing system and a scanner. As an expat, my local bank, my mortgage lender, my retirement accounts, my insurance, and basically any filing-worthy paper-producing institution in my life are all located 7-10 time zones away. That means I need to be able to get to the details I need quickly and easily whether they’re on paper or stored electronically because I can’t just pop in to the local banking center and ask a question.
Because ease of access from multiple locations and search capability was important to me, and because I didn’t mind paying $5US a month for the convenience of basically unlimited uploads while I was converting my files (you can upload 40MB per month free of charge), I opted for Evernote. Evernote saves documents to your account in the cloud, and also has a mobile app, so I can access my files from any computer world-wide. In the absence of a computer, I can pull details up from anywhere there is a mobile signal. The latest version even includes a Kindle Fire app.
It is certainly not the only option. If you have any sort of storage out there in the cloud, and have access to a scanner, you can create your own virtual filing system. You could probably do it fairly easily in Gmail and then take advantage of Google’s savvy search engine for locating your documents. Other Evernote competitors include Memonic, Microsoft’s One Note and UberNote. I have not personally used any of these, but they all offer fairly detailed FAQs and demos if you have a particular reason that you don’t want to use Evernote.
I have used a combination of my camera (for odd-sized documents) and the inexpensive scanner built into my printer (an HP OfficeJet) to move my files to electronic format. Nothing fancy, just quick and easy-to-use.
Step 2: Start with the present
When I started this project, I had a five-drawer filing cabinet that was stuffed full of files, as well as several file boxes and an additional couple of cardboard boxes filled with our taxes, school transcripts, and mementos. Instead of accumulating additional filing while I was dealing with the huge back-log, I started with present day. It not only allowed me to tackle the archive in chunks as time allowed, but gave me time to familiarize myself with the tool, to think about what tags and categories I wanted for my filing.
If you’re used to shoving opened mail into a pile and then filing it away once a week (or, let’s be honest here, once a month or once a quarter!), you’ll need to do a little retraining. I will admit that I don’t always open my mail daily, but when I do, I have a decision tree:
- Do I need to do something with this (pay a bill, fill out paperwork, etc.)? If yes, do it right now. Don’t leave it for later. It will get lost in the shuffle and create clutter.
- If I don’t need to do anything with it, do I need to keep it? If yes, do it right now (see the pattern here?!).
- If I don’t need to keep it, or if I’ve scanned it in to Evernote, it goes straight in the recycling with the envelope. Clutter averted!
Remembering to keep on top of the filing is an on-going process. My desk is not always clutter-free, but it’s getting better all the time.
Step 3: Purge & scan
Step three is scanning and purging that giant back-log. My parents were of the “keep it forever” variety when it came to financial statements. I’m pretty sure my Mom has every credit card statement she’s ever gotten in her filing cabinets somewhere. When they retired to Florida and sent me their old dining room set in 2000, they sent me the original receipts for the furniture from 1985!!!!
Since we seem to move every 2-3 years, that style of filing just wasn’t going to work for me. Now, not only have I scanned in that whole backlog, but I have carefully chosen what to keep and what to dump. Here’s a sample of items I used to keep that I no longer do:
- Monthly statements from the insurance company. Now I only keep the most recent copy of the policy and recycle the rest. And by “keep,” I mean scan, upload to Evernote, and recycle.
- Credit card statements, bank statements, investment statements–I have opted for online statements when possible and have verified that I can get access to old account details on the provider’s web site if they’re needed in the future.
There’s a lot of stuff that I think got lost in my labyrinthine filing system before that I make sure I hang on to (electronically) now:
- Receipts and warranties for large purchases
- Test results and other medical records
- Donation receipts and other tax-deductible expenses
This step is absolutely the most daunting and it’s very easy to accidentally sabotage yourself by biting off more than you can chew. I recommend breaking it down into the smallest, most manageable pieces possible so that you don’t get overwhelmed. Don’t pull out a whole drawer and try to tackle it in an afternoon. Pull out a single folder (or if your folders resemble MegaFolders with lots of smaller parcels of documents contained within them, choose a single manageable stack from a single folder and start there). Evaluate each piece based on the decision tree in Step 2. Scan in what needs to be scanned and immediately recycle the rest.
If you know there are whole folders in there that you don’t need, purge those first. It will give you a feeling of success and accomplishment that you’ll very much need when you get to the folders of endless odd-sized receipts and carbon-paper pages that you need to keep, but which won’t auto-load in your scanner’s paper tray and therefore have to be positioned by hand.
I left the entire filing mess in my unfinished basement while I was working on this project and carried a single folder up to my office at a time. By the time we moved to Finland, I had it down to two boxes of filing, which I then stowed in our guest bedroom (no huge unfinished basements in flats in downtown Helsinki!) and again, pulled out one folder at a time.
I got this project finished just in time because we’re moving again this summer! This time, only my tiny filing box is coming with us and it’s only about half full. I won’t need to worry about anything vital getting lost in the move because it’s all on my computer, backed up to the Cloud.
A few final tips I’d like to share. First, don’t fall into the trap of running to Acme Container USA and spending loads of money on organizers each time clutter starts to get you down. It was the fact that I needed a second filing cabinet to contain my papers that forced me to consider that there might be another way. Don’t get me wrong, there are some things that I want to keep forever in original format and a good organizational system is great for storing those types of things, but I think most people already have all the containers they need. What they need instead of more containers is less stuff! Purging not only declutters, but it saves you money that you might otherwise have spent on storage you don’t really need.
Second, don’t hold on to “stuff” out of fear or guilt. I had a whole bunch of stuff that was my mom’s that I didn’t really want to bring to Finland with me. It was hard to start the conversation, but by calling her up and asking her what I needed to keep, what I could send back to her, and what I could let go, I was able to declutter quite a lot of stuff without guilt or fear, and without accidentally getting rid of something that would have upset my mama!
And finally, the best way to declutter is not to accumulate in the first place. I love to shop, and the temptation is definitely there to buy one more adorable household item each time I venture to Ikea or Stockmann. To avoid accumulating, I’ve been trying to give everything a second look before I buy. If I love it the first time, and love it again the next time I see it, then perhaps it’s worth a purchase. If it’s gone when I come back the second time, it wasn’t meant to be.