Back when I was young, getting mail was a lot more fun. There was always the possibility of a letter – an actual letter, written on paper – from a friend or a family member. It made taking in the day’s mail something to look forward to.
Today, it’s different. Thanks to the Internet and cheap phone service providers like Mint Mobile, most folks tend to stay in touch with friends and family by phone, text, email, and social media. Our mailboxes are just as full as ever, except all the mail is from companies, not people. Between catalogs, coupon packets, pleas from charities, and credit card offers, sorting through the mail has become a chore instead of a treat.
If you’ve ever wished you could just turn a tap and shut off this flow of junk mail, there’s good news: you can. Well, sort of. It’s a little more work than just turning a tap, and it probably won’t stop every single unwanted letter from entering your mailbox. But with a little effort, you can cut that flow down to a trickle and ease the strain on your time, your sanity, and your overflowing recycling bin.
What Junk Mail Is
The term “junk mail” basically refers to every piece of mail coming into your house that you don’t want or need. That means you can’t count your credit card bill as junk mail; even if you aren’t happy to get it, you still need to know what you owe.
True junk mail is all the stuff you both don’t want and never agreed to receive. You can often spot it by the statements in capital letters splashed across the front. Junk mail can include:
- Credit card offers (“CONGRATULATIONS, you are pre-approved!”)
- Sales fliers (“GRAND OPENING! Everything 20-50% off!”)
- Donation requests (“We’re COUNTING ON YOU to help”)
- Political mailings (“It’s time for REAL CHANGE in Washington”)
- Magazine offers (“ACT NOW to get 50% off the cover price!”)
- Sweepstakes entries (“You may ALREADY be a winner!”)
Junk mail also includes mailings that could be useful for some people but aren’t for you. These include catalogs full of products you’d never buy, packets of coupons for stores you never visit, and phone directories you won’t use.
Why Junk Mail Is a Problem
All this junk mail is more than just a minor annoyance. It can cause real problems for you and the planet. Here’s how.
1. It Wastes Your Time
The more junk that clutters up your mailbox, the more time you have to spend sorting, opening, reading, and eventually recycling it. Even if this only takes you 10 minutes each day there’s mail delivery, that adds up to an hour a week. Multiply that by 52 weeks in a year and maybe 60 years in your adult life, and that’s a total of 130 days – over four months of your life – devoted just to dealing with junk mail.
2. It Threatens Your Privacy
Marketers and magazines share their mailing lists, spreading your name, address, and purchasing habits all around the country. Aside from leading to even more junk mail, this can put you at risk of identity theft. The more people there are who have your information, the greater the risk that one of them will be hacked and your personal data will be exposed. There’s also a risk that thieves could steal a prescreened credit card offer from your mailbox and attempt to apply for a card in your name.
3. It Can Transmit Scams
Although email and Internet scams are the most common type these days, there are still scammers out there relying on the U.S. Postal Service to peddle their lies. Many of these are scams that target the elderly, such as phony sweepstakes, investment scams, charity scams, fake free prize or vacation offers, foreign lottery scams, get-rich-quick chain letters, fake checks, work-from-home scams, or inheritance scams. One irate man wrote to the Huffington Post to complain that his elderly father, who received nearly 100 pieces of junk mail each week, had been lured into giving away nearly $5,000 over a three-month period.
4. It Buries Your Real Mail
When your mailbox is overflowing with junk, the few pieces of mail you really need are at risk of getting lost. Your cousin’s wedding invitation could go unanswered, or your credit card bill unpaid, because it got swept into the recycling bin along with all the trash.
5. It Damages the Environment
Junk mail isn’t just a pain for you. It’s also bad for the environment. All that paper coming into your house uses up trees, water, and energy to produce, and the gas used by the postal trucks that carry it adds to its carbon footprint. The Bay Area Recycling Outreach Coalition (BayROC) estimates that the junk mail sent in this country every year uses up 100 million trees and more energy than 2.8 million cars.
Ways to Cut Down on Junk Mail
According to BayROC, it’s possible to block about 90% of the junk mail entering your home by opting out. All you have to do is contact the senders and tell them to stop sending you mailings.
However, before you do this, take a few minutes to go through your mail and find all the different variations of your name and address that marketers are using. Send a separate opt-out request for each version you find, even the ones that are incorrect. For instance, if I were getting mail addressed to “Amy Livingstone” with an “e,” I’d need to tell the company to stop its mailings to Amy Livingstone, even though that’s not my real name.
1. Sign Up with DMAchoice
One of the biggest categories of junk mail is direct mail, or advertising that shows up in your mailbox. It includes fliers announcing the opening of a new store, coupons, catalogs, magazine offers, retail promotions, and offers from all sorts of other businesses, such as banks and insurance companies.
Companies send out direct mail for one reason: to attract new customers. It’s not in their interest to spend money sending mail to people who will just toss it straight in the bin, so these companies are generally happy to remove you from their mailing lists if you ask.
About 80% of all companies that send direct mail are members of the DMA, formerly known as the Direct Marketing Association. The DMA runs a website called DMAchoice to let consumers opt out of mailings from its members. For a $2 processing fee, the site lets you block direct mail to your name and address for 10 years. Once you create a profile on the site, you can add up to five versions of your name and up to five addresses.
DMAchoice gives you a lot of flexibility about which mailings you do and don’t want to receive. You can opt to block all mailings, mailings from specific companies, or general categories of mail, such as credit offers, catalogs, and magazine offers. Registering with the site does not block mail from companies you already do business with.
Registering with DMAchoice won’t cut off the flow of direct mail immediately. Any mailings that have already been processed or sent will still reach you, so it can take up to 90 days for the mailings to stop.
While you’re on the DMA site, you can also register for the DMA’s eMail Preference Service to stop spam from legitimate businesses. (Unfortunately, it will do nothing to block phishing emails, viruses, and other bogus messages.)
2. Block Other Sources of Direct Mail
Although the DMA is the biggest source of direct mail, there are several smaller firms also send out ads by mail. To get off their mailing lists, you’ll need to contact them separately. They include:
- Valpak. This company sends out regular mailings of envelopes stuffed with ads and coupons for local businesses. To stop these mailings, use the mailing list removal request at Valpak.com. If there are one or two coupons from Valpak you’d like to keep receiving, you can search the Valpak site for the specific ones you want and print them out, rather than receiving the whole package.
- Valassis. This company sends out the RetailMeNot Everyday coupon flier (formerly known as RedPlum). To stop receiving this flyer, fill out the form on RedPlum.com. The company promises to “make every effort” to stop its mailings to you within five to six weeks.
- Publishers Clearing House. Started in 1953 as a direct marketer of magazine subscriptions, Publishers Clearing House now sells a wide variety of merchandise by mail. It’s best known for its sweepstakes with million-dollar “SuperPrizes.” To be removed from its mailing list, use the mailing list removal form on its website.
3. Stop Credit Offers
Another major source of junk mail is prescreened, or “pre-approved,” offers for credit and insurance. If you have a good credit score, you’re likely to get a lot of these, because companies send them out willy-nilly to anyone and everyone who qualifies for a particular offer. They find these people by contacting the credit bureaus and asking them to provide a list of all people whose credit reports show they meet the requirements. They hope that at least some of the people who get the offer will sign up for the product, so the mailing will pay for itself.
Getting these offers is kind of a compliment since it shows you have good credit, but that doesn’t make them any less of a pain. Fortunately, it’s quite easy to stop them. There are two ways to do it:
- Call the toll-free number 1-888-5-OPT-OUT (1-888-567-8688)
- Visit OptOutPrescreen.com
You’ll need to provide some basic information about yourself, including your name, date of birth, phone number, and Social Security Number (SSN). This information is confidential and will be used only to process your opt-out request. Once you complete the process, you’ll be removed from the mailing list for prescreened credit offers for five years. It can take up to five days to process your request and up to 60 days for prescreened credit offers to stop showing up in your mailbox.
If you want to opt out from these mailings permanently, you can start that process through the website too. The site will give you a Permanent Opt-Out Election form, which you must sign and mail back to complete the process.
Note that opting out of prescreened credit offers won’t keep all unsolicited offers out of your home. You may still get offers from local merchants, companies you already do business with, and other sources, such as a professional or alumni association. To stop mail from these sources, you must contact them individually.
4. Cut Down on Catalogs
Personally, I enjoy getting catalogs from my favorite companies. It’s nice to leaf through them, see what new products they have in stock, and mark the pages with things I might want to buy. The problem is that every time I order just one thing from a new company, it starts sending me catalogs of its products – most of which I’d typically never think of buying.
The Catalog Choice website offers a simple and cost-free way to cut out all these unwanted catalogs so you only get the ones you want. Here’s how to use it:
- Register with the website, providing your name, email, and a password for your account.
- Gather up all your unwanted catalogs and other mailings.
- Search for each sender’s name on the website.
- The site will give you a link to take you to the sender’s opt-out page, where you can submit a request to be removed from their mailing list. It also offers some text you can cut and paste in the comments section, if there is one.
It can take six to eight weeks after submitting your request before the catalogs stop coming. However, Catalog Choice warns that companies are not legally required to honor an opt-out request, so there’s a chance the mailings won’t stop even after the eight-week mark. If this happens, you can log into your Catalog Choice account and click the thumbs-down logo next to your opt-out request. This helps the site identify merchants who aren’t complying with opt-out requests so it can reach out and encourage them to do so.
If you can’t find all the catalogs you receive on the Catalog Choice site, you can try contacting the senders directly. Call the toll-free number on the catalog’s order form and ask to have your name removed from the mailing list.
You can also try this approach with companies that you do like but that are sending too many catalogs. Call and ask if you can receive fewer mailings – say, one catalog every season, instead of one every other week. The answer might be no, but it can’t hurt to ask.
5. Cancel Phone Books
In the age of the Internet, not many people use phone books anymore. If you want to find a local business, you can just search the Web for it, and if you need to contact an individual, you can use social media. The Los Angeles Times reported in 2011 that only 30% of people actually use their phone books to look up numbers, and the percentage has probably dropped even more since then. (The article doesn’t say what percentage of people use them as doorstops or booster seats.)
American consumers can opt out of receiving phone books every year by visiting Yellow Pages Opt-Out. Canadians can do the same thing through the YPG Custom Delivery Program. However, a 2014 article in Vox warns that the American opt-out site doesn’t always work. Companies face no penalties for failing to honor your opt-out request, so there’s no way to force them to comply.
Also, these sites can only stop delivery of the “yellow pages,” or business directories. If you live in a state that still requires phone companies to deliver copies of the “white pages” phone book with home listings, there’s no way to opt out of that.
6. Reduce Mail from Charities
There are lots of great benefits of giving to charity, but there’s also one big downside: the more you give, the more junk mail you get. Charitable organizations often share their mailing lists, so if you give to one, you could end up with dozens of them pestering you with constant requests for donations. Some of these organizations make the problem worse by loading up their letters with useless “gifts” like notepads, address labels, or greeting cards, which they hope will make you feel obligated to send them something in return. All these extras add to the weight of the mail and create more waste.
To cut down on the amount of mail you receive from charities, follow these tips:
- Give Selectively. Every time you make a donation, even a small one, your name ends up on the charity’s donor list. That opens you up to a steady stream of mailings from that charity and any other groups it shares its mailing list with. So, instead of giving to every group that asks, carefully choose the ones you want to support. Think about which causes are most important to you, and then do some research to see which groups that support those causes will make the best use of your money. Sites like Charity Navigator, Charity Watch, and the BBB Wise Giving Alliance can help you weed out scams and find organizations that use donations effectively. Giving your money to fewer organizations not only cuts down on unwanted mail but also reduces the amount of money eaten up by administrative costs, so more of your donation goes directly toward the cause.
- Choose Charities With Strong Privacy Policies. You can also cut down on mail from charities by giving only to groups that promise not to sell or share your name, address, and giving history. You can search Charity Navigator to find organizations that meet this standard.
- Opt Out of Information Sharing. Some charities require you to opt out of having your name shared with other groups. Charity Navigator notes which groups have this requirement. Some charities provide an opt-out box on their website that you can check when you donate online. Others require you to call, mail, or email them to opt out of information sharing. You can use this sample note from Charity Watch for organizations that require you to opt out by mail.
- Contact Charities Directly. If you get mail from a charity you don’t want to support, contact the charity and ask to be taken off its mailing list. While you’re on the phone, ask which other organization gave the charity your name. It could be another charity, a retailer, or a magazine subscription list. Make sure you have the letter from the charity on hand when you call since it will probably need information from the envelope to find out what this source was. Once you find the name of this organization, contact it and ask it not to sell or trade your information again.
- Request Fewer Mailings. If there’s an organization you want to support, but you wish it wouldn’t send you so much mail, contact the organization and ask to receive fewer mailings. Tell it how often you plan to donate – once a month, once a quarter, or once a year – and ask to receive mailings no more often than that. Most charities will be happy to oblige since this helps them cut down on their expenses. However, if a charity is unwilling to honor your request for less mail, take it off your donation list and give the money to a different group that does the same kind of work. There’s no shortage of worthy organizations to choose from.
- Donate Anonymously. Several apps and websites allow you to give to charities anonymously without ending up on their donor lists. For instance, you can use Google’s One Today for Android and iOS to donate as little as $1 at a time, passing on 100% of your donation without passing on your personal information. You can also donate through the Network for Good or Charity Navigator’s Giving Basket, both of which will share your personal information with charities only with your permission.
7. Stay Off Mailing Lists
Following the tips above can help you cut out a lot of the junk mail that’s currently coming into your home. However, you have to be vigilant to keep your name from popping up on new mailing lists. Pretty much any time you sign up for anything – a magazine subscription, credit card, raffle, gym membership, or even a warranty on a new appliance – your name and address could end up on that organization’s mailing list, as well as any other list that organization shares information with.
To avoid this problem, here are a few tips to keep in mind:
- Use the Magic Words. Every time you sign up for anything, write the words “Please do not rent, sell, or trade my name or address” next to your name. Use this phrase when you make purchases by phone, as well, and add it to the comment field when you buy things online.
- Watch Out for Warranties. Before sending in the warranty card for a new product, read the fine print on the warranty to see if it’s really required. In many cases, the warranty is valid whether you register the product or not. In cases like these, the registration card is just a way for the company to get your personal information and sell it to direct mailers.
- Ask to Be on the In-House List. Contact your bank and credit card providers and ask them to put you on their “in-house list.” This requires them to keep your name and address within the company and not sell or trade it to other companies. Doing this will help keep new credit card offers out of your mailbox.
Junk mail makes some people so mad that they try to strike back at the senders by marking it “Refused” or “Return to Sender” and sticking it back in the mailbox. Unfortunately, according to BayROC, this doesn’t work. The postal service does not forward bulk mail, which is sent third-class; it just discards it.
Other people try to stick it to junk mail senders by piling all their accumulated junk mail into an envelope and sending it back – but without enough postage on it. The idea is that not only will the company have to deal with the flood of paper, but it will also have to pay for the postage due on the mailing. However, as the U.S. Postal Service explains, this won’t work, either. The mail will either be returned to you or treated as “dead mail” if there’s no return address.
The best way to cut down on junk mail is the most straightforward way: simply ask the companies to stop sending it to you. You can even do this with mail that’s not junk, such as bills. By signing up to receive and pay bills online, you can keep one more piece of paper out of your house and also get your bills paid faster. Then your mailbox will have nothing in it but the things you’re happy to receive – like birthday cards, magazines, and postcards from friends – and taking in the mail will be a pleasure once again.
Can you think of any other ways to cut down on junk mail?