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How to Go Paperless at Home – 11 Tips & Solutions

By Heather Levin

paper filing manBefore I became a full-time writer, I owned a professional organizing business. Clients often complained about the constant influx of paper into their homes. Credit card offers, catalogs, bills, insurance forms, charity solicitations, and more show up in your mailbox daily. In addition, you have a lot of other paper you have to review and keep, including medical records, receipts, coupons, articles, and magazines. Paper has a way of piling up into insidious piles just minutes after you’ve sorted and filed everything away. It’s maddening, and it never seems to end.

Sounds familiar, right? I coached dozens of clients through serious paper purges, and helped them transition to paperless households. Going paperless reduces unsightly clutter in your home, and also helps the environment:

  • According to 41pounds.org, the production of junk mail destroys more than 100 million trees each year.
  • The average American receives 41 pounds of junk mail each year. Almost 50% of it winds up unopened, in a landfill.
  • Junk mail production wastes about 28 billion gallons of water every year.

These statistics only provide details about junk mail. The statistics don’t provide information about bills, letters, and other types of mail.

In addition to helping save the environment, going paperless also saves you time. If you go paperless, you don’t have to sort through as much mail, or file as many documents as you do today. You also save money by keeping paper out of your home. Catalogs, magazines, and credit card offers just tempt you to shop; if these items stop coming into your home, you’re less likely to fall prey to the advertising.

Tips for Going Paperless at Home

Review these tips and strategies to go paperless, and pick and choose the ones that work best for you and your family. After all, your plan to go paperless must be relevant to your lifestyle.

Don’t feel frustrated by the effort it takes to go paperless, either. Transitioning to a paperless household requires patience and a dedicated commitment. It also takes time for all of the entities bringing paper into your household to slow down, and eventually stop completely. The time you spend making changes now will pay off in the future.

1. Opt Out of Junk Mail Lists
Reduce the amount of mail you receive by opting out of junk mail and catalog lists. Many services can help you opt out of mailing lists. I used DMA Choice several years ago to manage the influx of mail into my home. Now, I do not receive junk mail, and I do not receive catalogs, unless I request one.

Catalog Choice also helps control the amount of mail sent to your home. Like the DMA Choice service, Catalog Choice allows you to pick and choose what you want to receive. Once you set up an account, you can see the amounts of solid waste and greenhouse gases you’ve eliminated by opting out of junk mail. Catalog Choice also allows users to opt out of receiving phone books.

2. Sign Up for E-Statements
Sign up to receive electronic bills and statements. Instead of receiving paper statements each month, companies send electronic statements and bills to your email. Entities offering electronic statements include banks, cable companies, and utility companies.

Sign up for e-statements and e-bills by registering on each company’s website. You will need your account number for each company, and you will need to provide other identifying information, when signing up for an account. It takes time to set up online accounts to receive electronic statements and bills, but you will immediately see a reduction of paper coming into your home.

3. Pay Bills Online
Financial institutions offer online banking, and services like MyCheckFree allow users to view and pay bills online. Cable companies, utilities companies, and many other entities allow customers to pay bills on their websites. You could even sign up for automatic bill payment plans for added convenience.

Paying bills online can be difficult for people used to paying bills in person. Some people don’t trust websites, and like to receive receipts for payments made. However, keep in mind that even when you pay a bill in person, somehow, somewhere, the system used to process your payment is probably web-based.

Online payments made on a company’s website typically result in an automated email, that acts as a receipt. Banks and credit unions include information about payments made in your online account and in your electronic statements.

recycle paper mill

4. Start Purging and Recycling
Once you’ve stopped receiving junk mail, signed up for e-statements, and started paying bills online, you need to start sorting through the existing paper you have in your home. Essential steps to going paperless include sorting, purging, and organizing your paperwork. On the bright side, this boring and tedious large-scale project can give you an awesome feeling of accomplishment when completed.

Start small to successfully sort your paperwork, and tackle one small stack of papers each day. As you review, 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 you work, you may find that you naturally sort your paper into different piles. Papers you must keep include bills, tax records, investment-related information, and sentimental papers. You can also keep papers that may require some kind of action or decision. If you can decide in less than two minutes, do it now. If the paper requires an action or decision that takes longer than two minutes, however, schedule a time on your calendar to deal with it later.

Sorting through paper can be extremely draining. Remember, this is a long-term project. Don’t try to sort and organize every paper in your entire home in one day. You’ll get discouraged, burnt out, and you probably won’t finish the job. Continue working and let the amount of paper in your home set the pace for the project.

5. Digitalize Your Documents
Scan documents that you need to keep, and store them electronically on computer hard drive. Scanning old papers saves a ton of space and reduces clutter. However, if you don’t correctly label documents, finding them again will be a huge chore. Set up a system for labeling documents, and maintain consistency as you label and scan your files. Create and save a master document that helps you navigate your online filing system. Include notes about files that you suspect could become misplaced or lost in your master document.

Invest in an external hard drive to store archived documents. Store important documents in several places, including your computer, an external back-up drive, and store another copy offsite. Your offsite storage location for back-up files might include the home of a family member or close friend. Make sure you can easily access your offsite storage location in case of an emergency.

You can also store photos and documents on many reliable online backup sites. Mozy and Backblaze are popular options, and Dropbox charges $9.99 a month for 50 GB of space. Scanning and organizing your digital documents is a time-consuming process. Take it slow, working on a few papers every day. To save time, you can hire someone to scan your documents and photos for you using a service like Shoeboxed.

6. Use a Tablet or Cell Phone for Notes
I used to scribble my grocery lists on small sheets of paper. Now, I type my lists out on my Blackberry. Tablets and smartphones make it easy to stop using paper for short lists, calendar entries, and notes. An added bonus: Since you always have your cellphone with you, you won’t lose or forget your notes.

Tablets can help you save paper in a number of other ways, too. I used to print recipes I wanted to try, because I didn’t want my laptop in the kitchen where it could get damaged. I now pull up recipes on my iPad, and prop it on the window. I don’t have to waste paper printing, and the iPad stays out-of-the-way while I’m cooking. You can also use your iPad or tablet to take notes in class or at a meeting.

7. Digitalize Your Signature
You may sometimes receive email with an attached document that you need to sign. You have to print, sign, scan, and then send back the document. You can avoid wasting paper by saving a digitalized image of your signature on your computer. Sign a piece of paper, scan the paper, and save your signature. When someone needs your signature on an emailed document, you can insert your digital signature instead of printing the document. Use a felt-tip pen for your signature to ensure the scanned signature is clear and easy to read.

If you have an iPad, you can download the free PowerPad Lite App, which allows you to sign PDFs with your finger, and then submit them electronically. PowerPad Lite also allows users to write out notes on the iPad, instead of typing them.

magazine subscriptions

8. Rethink Your Subscriptions
Cancel subscriptions to reduce the paper coming into the house, and to save money. Reassess your newspaper subscription; you might be able to get the same news in real-time, online. Also reevaluate your magazine subscriptions, and cancel any subscriptions that don’t seem worthwhile. Reuse newspapers as a creative way to wrap gifts, and donate used magazines to local community groups or organizations.

9. Rethink Your Printing and Paper Use
Look for ways to cut down on your printing and paper use. If you print an annual Christmas letter to send to family and friends, consider saving the letter as a PDF, and emailing the letter instead. Rather than buying pricey birthday cards and envelopes, buy electronic greeting cards. For $12 a year, you have access to unlimited e-greeting cards at Hallmark.com.

You can save paper even when you have to print a document. Reduce the font size of the document to 10. Adjust the margins, so the words take up more space on each printed page, and print the document on both sides of the paper. By utilizing these tips, you can use less paper when you print documents. In addition, turn the back of printed papers into scratch paper. Think twice before printing anything, and when possible, read documents on your tablet or laptop instead. If you need to share a document, use email.

10. Rethink Your Toilet Paper, Facial Tissue, and Paper Towel Use
Many people forget that paper products include toilet tissue, Kleenex, and paper towels. These products devastate trees and water at an incredible rate. According to the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), if every household in the United States replaced just one roll of virgin fiber toilet paper (500 sheets) with 100% recycled toilet paper, we could save 423,900 trees.

Buy recycled toilet paper made from post-consumer paper. Try reusable fabric alternatives, like rags instead of paper towels, and cloth hankies instead of Kleenex tissues. These small changes quickly add up to reduce your overall usage of paper.

11. Switch to a Kindle or E-reader
With the Amazon Kindle, B&N Nook, and all of the other e-book readers on the market, it makes sense to move away from paper books. Recycle old books, and buy e-books in the future to cut back on the waste of paper. If you enjoy reading, eliminating physical books will free up a surprising amount of space in your home. If you have a tablet or a smartphone, recycle paper maps and encyclopedias, too.

Final Word

I’ve followed all these steps to reduce the paper in my home. It’s a solid plan, but it takes time to go completely paperless. You save time and money when you reduce your paper inputs and outputs, and you also help make a difference in the number of trees cut down annually. If that isn’t enough, many companies also offer incentives and free contest entries to customers who opt out of receiving paper bills. It’s a major win!

Have you made any steps to go paperless in your own life? What other tips do you have to cut paper out?

(photo credit: Shutterstock)

Heather Levin
Heather Levin is a freelance writer based in Detroit, MI. She's passionately committed to living green, saving money, and helping others do the same in their life.

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  • Ronifilla

    This is a great article with sound advice. I do however, need to let everyone know of a dire problem with being paperless. We do the online, paperless thing. Now I am in a position with a random IRS Audit that REQUIRES all that paperless to magically appear. Cancelled Checks or the once a year downloaded and printed yearly Bank Expenditures and Deposit record used to figure out where the money went for taxes…is not going to help you if you are Auditied. The IRS REQUIRES that you provide the monthly statements from EVERYTHING that includes your Water Bill, Electric bill, Cable, Insurance of any/all kinds, etc.And especially if you have a home based business you have to PROVE what/why you paid that particular bill. If you do not have the Statements (ie Credit Cards, department stores,Tool Store) you may not receive the deduction based on the Cancelled Check. They want the PROOF that that check you wrote 2 or 3 years ago for that amount is actually a viable deduction. RECEIPTS….you have to have all the receipts, monthly statements, gasoline mileage logs…etc etc…or don’t even think about claiming it on your taxes. It could be a huge problem being paperless, as I am finding out now. Paying the statment amount, then tossing the statement (shredding it) sounds great. Now go back 2-7 years and try to get those companies to re-issue them to you for your IRS Audit….good luck.

    • Heather

      Ronfilla, I’m so sorry you’re getting audited! You bring up an excellent point; I have a ton of deductions too since I’m self-employed and work at home, and always figured that I would just get statements reissued if an issue ever came up. However, you’re exactly right; it could be a huge headache. Thanks so much for bring this up; I appreciate it, and I’m sure other readers do as well.

  • econobiker

    The paper documents are also required in documenting any kind of court case such as if you have a contested divorce or similar. And government entities such as child support agencies want proof of payments since you are considered guilty until proven innocent if a former spouse claims that support was never directly paid.

    Banks don’t care whether you have the document from 4 years ago- they just want to save postage, paper and printing costs – which brings them more profits. And if a two bank merge, document retrieval just becomes 400% more difficult as legacy systems become merged or retired.

    Print out the receipt now and file it now.

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