Ask Unclutterer: Products for processing paper

A few weeks ago, a reader asked me if I still stand by the information in our extremely popular 2007 series “Scanning documents to reduce paper clutter” and the three other articles in the paper-begone series. Basically, he wanted to know if I would write the series the same way now that I did then.

Would the fundamental premise of the articles be the same today as it was then? Yes. Would a few specific details change? Definitely.

The most obvious thing I would change is the equipment used to scan and shred the papers we don’t need to retain in physical form. I still love the Fujitsu ScanSnap, but the technology referenced in the article is now about six years old. The ScanSnap line has come a long way since then. Also, I’ve come to adore shredders on wheels because they can be moved around a room to wherever you need them.

The latest model in the ScanSnap desktop line is the iX500 and it’s an impressive machine. I’ve been test driving one the past two weeks (thank you, ScanSnap!) and it’s amazing — it doesn’t require a desktop computer to launch, it will scan straight to a mobile device or an online storage location over Wifi (so I can save straight to Dropbox), it’s noticeably faster than the S1500M model we own, and I’ve been able to customize it to send scans automatically to whatever program I want, so items like photographs now import straight into iPhoto. I won’t upgrade permanently from the S1500M we already have, but if we didn’t have a scanner I would save up for this one. If you’re in the market for one, the list price is $495. They’re expensive, but they’re really nice. (Full iX500 product details.)

As far as shredders go, I’d recommend the Fellowes PowerShred 79Ci now. The thing is a monster at chewing up stuff you want to shred. And, as I referenced earlier, it’s on wheels, which makes it convenient to use and store. It’s also expensive, but the thing will last you a decade or more if you treat it well. Our PowerShred PS-77Cs is still rocking after seven years of service, and we use it daily. Unlike less expensive shredders, the PowerShred line is built to last.

The list of things to shred and not to shred is still accurate, though a lot of people greatly dislike my advice to destroy old passports. I probably should have written more clearly about waiting to shred the old passport until after you get a new one. Submitting your old one does speed up the renewal process. However, once you get the old one back, if you don’t need it for any legal reason, it’s safe to shred (just be sure to pop out the RFID chip first). My last passport, though used many times, didn’t even have a single stamp in it because so many countries have stopped stamping and my old visa had to be relinquished when I left the country that required me to have the visa. If you want to keep old passports, especially if they have stamps in them, do it but please keep it in a safe or safe-deposit box so it doesn’t end up in the hands of identity thieves.

I still use DevonThink to organize my digital documents and FreedomFiler for my paper files (though, I’ve added a ridiculous number of my own files to the FreedomFiler system in the past six years that resemble what I discuss in my book). Those two products have suited me well all this time.

Even with all of these products and systems, paper continues to be something we have to deal with daily in our home. We’ve unsubscribed from as much junk mail as possible, yet we still get some from businesses and services we use. The shredder, trash can, and recycling bin by our main entrance are essential in dealing with the junk immediately and not letting it come deep inside the house. But, the stuff we let in voluntarily — the bank statements, the receipts, the pay stubs, the contracts — still feels overwhelming at times. We’ve gone so far as to unsubscribe from all print magazines and now subscribe to these publications digitally over Zinio. The only way we’ve been able to keep from being overwhelmed by paper is to clear our desks each day as part of our end-of-day work routines. All papers filed, junk shred, receipts reconciled, documents scanned, etc. It only takes five or ten minutes, but it’s still a chore. I’m looking forward to the day when I only have to spend five or ten minutes a week (or less) dealing with paper clutter.

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20 Comments for “Ask Unclutterer: Products for processing paper”

  1. posted by Paul on

    Which DPI resolution to use for scanned documents? ATM I use 200 DPI color or bw

  2. posted by Erin Doland on

    @Paul — I set the resolution based on what I’m scanning. Photographs I typically scan full color at 300dpi. For a text document with no pictures, I’ll drop that to 200dpi or 150dpi and do it black and white. For something that I’m scanning that is going to live on the web and no where else, I usually just use 75dpi or 72dpi if I’m going to resize the image smaller.

  3. posted by Mike Hathaway on

    The list of what not to scan and shred is a little inaccurate. I have been asking tax professionals and some friends who work in the courts. If you scan to PDF using something like a Scansnap those documents are accepted by the courts as originals and there is no need to keep the originals. They all have told me yes it is acceptable. Basically the Scansnaps are accepted just like Microfiche, which here in the government we used to transfer all the HR records which companies are required to keep forever until we started scanning.

  4. posted by Mike Hathaway on

    I have been struggling with going paperless at home. The amount that flows in is insane. We have had to strike some balances. I have an inbox and my wife has an in box and a third coupon box. Things are sorted into the there as they come in. I try to scan and shred on a weekly basis but sometimes it just gets skipped. It can be painful to “catch up” when it takes 4 hours to get everything scanned in and shredded from the backlog. We have a holding pen. I scan, stamp it with the “scanned” stamp then throw it in a bin, and often shred a month later, mainly because I want to be sure my backup systems have worked and the scanned docs are indeed stored on my computer, backup drive, and offsite backup. Offsite can take a week to catch up if there are a lot of photos added to the computer.

  5. posted by Tori on

    Old passports? I’m Canadian and just renewed my passport. The process required that I relinquish my old one to the government so they could destroy it. Is that not the same process in your country?

  6. posted by Erin Doland on

    @Mike — The government has a law that states scanned documents ARE legal to produce during an audit. However, the accountant we discussed this with said that there are LOTS of old-school tax auditors working for the IRS who strongly prefer to work with physical documents and will print every page you have scanned for the audit. So, he still advises people keep the paper documents even though the law says you don’t have to. (In short, try as much as possible to please the IRS auditor.)

    @Tori — The US government sends them back to the citizen.

  7. posted by infmom on

    I wish I could afford a ScanSnap. Using our Canon all-in-one to scan stuff is time consuming and not all that convenient. So for now we’re mostly still saving papers.

    By the way, if you’re going to do a mass purge of old papers, don’t bother shredding them yourself. Take them to Office Depot. They will shred it all for $1 per pound.

  8. posted by The Antichick on

    I just wish the Neat or ScanSnap software was available without a scanner. I have a scanner I like and no need for new hardware. The Devon software mentioned in the article only runs on Mac, I need a Windows solution.

  9. posted by Erin Doland on

    @The Antichick — Have you tried OneNote?

  10. posted by Rahul on

    I’d like to add a couple other pieces of info:

    – First Canon has released some competitors to the SnapScan. I’ve tried both and like the Canon better. It doesn’t require proprietary software to be installed as the SnapScan does. (Actually it does, but the software resides on the scanner with a neat trick they do. There’s a drive within the scanner when you connect it and you run it from there).

    – Also there’s a great eBook (of course) called Paperless by MacSparky which talks about one lawyer’s experience with going paperless. He talks about how to file the documents, different scanners, different OCR programs, etc.


  11. posted by Anon on

    @Mike and Erin,

    In regards to the courts accepting scanned documents, I would caution readers to keep in mind the discussion here is primarily about scanned tax documents/audits. The idea that scanned PDF documents are accepted by the courts as originals I can see applying to things like bank statements, but there are times courts will want to see originals, and not having them could be detrimental to your case. I’ve personally experienced courts requesting original documentation for verification purposes when conflicting documents were presented.

    I would be very, very cautious about giving advice to get rid of original documents that someone might need in court without first talking to an attorney.

  12. posted by Bryan on

    I’ve been scanning all of my family’s papers for around 8 years now. There are times when the process is a little annoying, but they are completely offset by the ease and speed with which I can find any document I am looking for.

    I’ll just mention a few of the biggest lessons I have learned.

    1) A good file naming scheme is very, very, VERY helpful. Several years back, I settled roughly on this: “YYYYMMDD originator name subject amount.pdf”. So a typical electric bill (where my electric company is Puget Sound Electric, or PSE) would be named “20121229 PSE electric bill $61.pdf”. Or “20130106 Mom personal letter.pdf”. Starting with the date is crucial because it causes everything to list out in chronological order. I always use the date on the item itself rather than the date I received it. So if PSE’s billing date was 12/29 but I received in on 1/4 … then I use their billing date.

    2) Like Erin, I bought the Freedom Filer system. It really does help. I set up all the exact same folder names on my PC. This way I can file papers the old fashioned way, and scan them later when I am in the mood. There will never be more than two places to look for any given document.

    3) For me at least, the “filing cabinet” software that came with the ScanSnap isn’t really necessary. Given a good name scheme and folder layout, everything is easy to find. Do perform OCR on your documents if you can, though. That way you can perform a text search of the filesystem easily.

    4) Easy and reliable backup is an absolute MUST. Hard drives do die, so every file you will need later should be stored in at least two locations. I’m now scanning everything to my Skydrive folder, which is automatically replicated to Microsoft cloud servers. Very easy and very safe, at no cost (Microsoft gives you 7GB for free, and that is enough for several years worth of documents even when scanned at high DPI).

    I spend an hour or so every week or so scanning documents while listening to podcasts, or watching something from Netflix.

  13. posted by Bryan on

    Actually, thinking about it a little more, I’ll say you probably want to *avoid* filing cabinet software like that which comes with Neato or ScanSnap. Such software may or may not be updated as technology marches on. But a good folder structure and file naming schema should last for decades and many computer replacements.

  14. posted by Erin Doland on

    @Anon — Yes! You make another good point for keeping them as physical documents.

    @Bryan — I don’t use the naming system ScanSnap provides, either. My model is similar to yours but with underscores instead of spaces: YYMMDD_FileType_Specifics.extension So, for example, I might name a file 130112_Comment_ProcessingPaperProducts.txt On Macs, the spaces in title names can sometimes throw errors, so I stick with the underscores __

  15. posted by purpleBee on

    Documents and information to retain can also depend on your intended career.

    Just as an example, some personnel checks require the details of every overseas trip made by someone in their whole life. Old passports and/or travel records may be the difference between getting or missing a job.

  16. posted by Audrey on

    Perhaps I am missing something….
    Why would people still receive paper versions of utility bills, bank statements, or anything else that is maintained online?

    Why not leave all of that electronic?

    It is a startling day here when something “real” actually arrives by mail.

  17. posted by Alex on

    I use CamScanner on my Android phone for most things these days. I find it works great for scanning legal documents (sometimes off of microfiche machines), and especially business receipts, which I share out to Google Docs. It is very helpful in improving contrast, and deskewing things so they are readable. If I have hundreds of pages to scan at the courthouse, I use camera stand and a high speed camera, then run it through the open source unpaper. Yeah, sometimes I scan things with a sheet feeder too, but I find my Canon ImageClass multifunction printer does that with aplomb.

  18. posted by Victory on

    What do you think of the Doxie?
    I’ve been thinking of digitising my paperwork particularly with an upcoming move. Anyone has experience with it?

  19. posted by Mary on

    Best system for me
    A. Don’t scan anything that is already physical-go forward only. Dump most old bills and go paperless. Shred before you scan. Digital clutter is worse than paper clutter.
    B don’t scan anything someone else, bank utility, insurance co is keeping For You! Anthem blue cross keeps 10 years of stuff online so you can eliminate those EOB statements. Yay!!!
    C. Buy a dozen multi pocket Spiral bound folders, plastic—-they compress papers fabulously and are super easy to retrieve. Look good in cabinet too. Could use magazine holders on a shelf in a pinch .
    D. Put mortgage docs together, car titles, insurance policies, employment, retirement and social security statements, vitals— easy to subfile in each pocket. Medical and
    F. Put all cards in business card pages in a2 inch binder put the extras paper pin number stuff in a pocket or punch them. You’ll need only to clean this out a bit at a time. Permanent marker the sleeves so you’ll know when something goes missin,
    G. Use a42 inch wide lateral file. Mine is 1/2 full, replacing 24 drawers
    H. Keep 3 -5 years taxes, archive the rest out of office.. You’ll need paper, so don’t bother scanning .
    I. The only thing I file regularly are warranties and receipts, and business papers
    Scanning is a giant time suck. Take a photo of temporary aper objects you want to haul around, and email it to a sub folder in your gmail account. My scanners are lonely.
    Laptop sits at entry point for paper to process bills real time. Throw away paper.!!!

  20. posted by Danielle on

    Any recommendations for scanner apps for the iPad? We have a scanner but it feels like a chore to use. Something iPad based would certainly speed things up for us.

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