Going Paperless: Making Life Better at Home and On the Road

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You may be asking yourself how a post on going paperless fits on a travel blog.

To that I would answer that one of the biggest advantages to going paperless is access to personal and financial documents on any computer or mobile device – anytime, anywhere. Does this sound like a traveler’s dream come true?

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James shows the officer his iPad at Angkor Tom, Cambodia.

We dipped our toe into the paperless pond a few years ago on our last RTW. It was convenient and great peace of mind having our critical files at our fingertips anywhere we had wifi. We’ve come late to the full-on paperless party, but over the past few weeks we’ve managed to pull it off, and this post provides a few tips for how you can do it too.

Living in a paperless world offers many advantages, and the one you’ll hear most often is helping the environment. I’m as green as the next person, but I suspect that like me, most people are more interested in the personal perks that result from making the change.

Less paper means less clutter, and with less mail to go through you’ll save time.

Redundant backups mean your data is more secure, and digital files mean total portability.

And last but not least, you can get rid of that ugly, boxy file cabinet. Was that a collective Woohoo! I heard from the decorators out there?

File Cabinets

It only takes three steps to achieve your own paperless nirvana.


Step 1: Keep Paper Out

This step, which is probably the easiest and has the greatest impact, is to keep paper from coming into your house in the first place. Banks, insurance, utilities, investment and credit card companies have been pleading with you for years to go paperless. Now’s the time to take them up on it. Call or go on every company’s website and instruct them to send all your communications electronically. Sign up for e-Statements, online bill pay, or autopay. And while you’re at it, tell them to take your name off all mailing lists that aren’t required by law. Grit your teeth, be tough, and don’t take no for an answer.

And of course, there’s that pesky junk mail. If you haven’t already, go to one of the opt-out services and remove your name from junk mail lists. There are lots of services out there, but this comprehensive site is a good place to start.

File Folders

Step 2: Purge The Paper

Going through existing files and purging paper is a bit more labor intensive but equally as effective. If you’re like us this will be a multi-day task, so find a cozy corner where you can make and leave a mess, and get to it. When culling your files you’ll: toss; scan and toss; and scan and keep

  • When it comes to the tossing, be brutal. Do you really need a 3 year-old bank statement (which you can probably access online anyway)?
  • The scan and toss will take a bit more mental adjustment. Remember those Money Magazine threats about keeping 7 years of tax records? Have you also noticed that when you e-file your taxes the IRS is perfectly happy with an electronic version of your forms? And why exactly are you not comfortable with a PDF?
  • And last comes the scan and keep. It’s difficult, and sometimes ill-advised, to go totally paperless. Some of the original paper documents we keep are: birth certificates, original-signed legal documents (wills, etc.), social security cards, property deeds, and car titles. There will also be personal mementos which have an emotional attachment; marriage licenses and diplomas for instance. But just because you have the paper original, doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be nice to have a scanned version backed up somewhere in the cloud or on an external hard drive.

Step 3: Make It Work

Your files and other important documents are now officially paperless, but don’t pop the cork on the bubbly just yet. There are a few steps remaining which will ensure that the system is useful and easy to maintain. You need to be able to locate and backup files, as well as deal with incoming paper.

  • Create an effective filing system. Books have been written about filing systems, so I don’t have much to add; except to say that whatever system you use, make sure that it’s logical, easy to understand, and works for YOU. If you’re comfortable with your old paper filing system no problem –  just adapt it to the digital world with the same folders, labels, and organization.
  • Develop a data backup routine. Every how-to computer book ever written talks about “not if you lose data but when you lose data.” So to be safe, develop a routine for backing up your files. It doesn’t matter whether you use the cloud or an external hard drive, or both. The important thing is to back up. We have an external hard disk that makes automatic backups every few hours, and we have a second external hard drive that we back up to every couple of weeks, in addition to selectively uploading to Dropbox. This may sound over-the-top, but after a visit from a sticky-fingered burglar, not only were our computers missing, but our external hard drive was as well. Data gone forever. Never again.
  • Deal with incoming paper. As to maintaining the system, we have an inbox where all incoming paper goes, and we scan once a week – or as often as one of us feels motivated.

So that’s how we went paperless. And even though it took a good deal of work, knowing that we have our paper under control is liberating. We’re both big believers in simplicity and minimalism, so we were chuffed when we finished this project, and looking forward to years at the paperless party.

Happy Scanning,
James & Terri

P.S. I deliberately excluded any discussion about the gear needed to go paperless; which type of scanner, do I need a shredder, should I use an external hard drive or the cloud? The answers to these questions will depend on personal preferences, and there’s lots of great advice and recommendations online. And truthfully, in this case, the destination is more important than the journey. But I will say, we already had a flat-bed scanner, but we bought a small wand-scanner just for this project, and it’s the bomb.

P.P.S Alison made an excellent and helpful comment about privacy statements and opting out. Read the details in her comment below. After that, go and check out her excellent blog.

Last updated June 12, 2019

Photo Credits:
1. veggiegretz
3. Grafixar
4. Dvortygir via Wikimedia Commons
5. Ladyhear
7. Marcelo Costa via Wikimedia Commons

Author: gallivance.net

We're Terri and James Vance - high school sweethearts who went on to international careers and became world nomads. Today, 65 countries later, we're still traveling ... and still in love. Check out Our Story for more of the backstory at gallivance.net.

61 thoughts

  1. James and Terri a very interesting post. We had a computer crash and some data not retrievable years ago so back up has become top of mind. We would love to know how you have managed the automatic backing up every few hours. That sounds like the cat’s pyjamas.

  2. We went (almost) paperless in 2012 when we began our full-time travels. We have a few documents in a safety deposit box and a few slow mails still arrive at my sister’s home, our official mailing address. We scan, backup to Dropbox and shred. Works great and who wants to carry all that paper? Anita

    1. Anita, as I said in my post, the original motivation for going paperless was for traveling. As you know from your travels, the advances made in technology have made travelers’ lives sooo much easier. It’s hard to imagine how quickly it’s all changed and how incredibly convenient it’s gotten. ~James

  3. Going paperless is similar to getting rid of clothes you like but haven’t worn fora long time so more clothes keep piling up 🙂 Love the idea but I think if I were serious about it fully I’d still keep a couple of boxes of paper stashed away to satisfy my olkd-fashioned preference for paper:) Ah!

    1. Ina, there are all different levels of comfort when it comes to personal records, and possessions as well. They run the gamut from minimalist to packrat, and everything in between. I know that it took us a while to finally get comfortable with the ideal. But the great thing about computer technology today is that everyone has a choice as to how paperless they go. ~James

      1. Thanks, James – I do see so many benefits of going paperless and it will take us a good while to get comfortable with it – old habits die hard sort of thing – but it so happens we started talking about it only last week so your post came in very handy 🙂

  4. After a career in waste management and recycling I agree with you 100%! I will have to keep the drawings and paintings that my grandchildren frequently present to me!

    1. As I said Andrew, there are always going to be a few paper records that are important to keep, especially something as important as mementos. You should try to convince your grandchildren (and their parents) that they need a digital sketchpad, or maybe this could be a grandfather’s gift idea. 😉 ~James

    2. Andrew, I scanned my grand kids’ best art to my computer and it’s lovely to pull up and show them. They marvel that I’ve taken the time to take care of their art as well as what they were capable of at a younger age. 🙂

      1. I can’t take credit for this enlightened thinking. I believe I watched one of those downsizing show on television and this was a suggestion for parents and other family members because no-one can keep all kids’ art as you’d soon run out of living space. 😀 😀

  5. Good for you! I could handle paperless, but Steve just won’t do it. When my parents were full time RVers, the mail service they used would do all of the scanning. It was great, anything they needed to keep would be sent to them general delivery wherever they were and t he rest would be shredded.,

    1. Old habits are hard to break Laura. Our system has been in place for a while, and I find myself keeping paper that could easily be scanned. For me, the hard part is keeping the routine going. I’ve had to put a reminder on my laptop calendar that lets me know weekly when I need to scan the inbox. And I’m a list maker, and even though those tiny notepad notes drive me crazy, I can’t seem to get away from the habit – but I’m working on it. ~James

  6. We really don’t have a postal system here to talk of; especially in rural areas. We’ve not had more than 4 letters in 10 years by snail mail 🙂

    1. Then Spike, I’d say that you’ve conquered the going paperless challenge. As time passes and our paperless system advances, it’s surprising to me how few business and personal interactions actually require paper these days. And as far as I’m concerned, that’s a huge step forward. ~James

  7. I have a bag of shredded paper ready to go to the kerb. I so hate junk mail. It fills the recycle box as well as the daily newspapers and advertisements. Grr.
    I scanned my grand kids’ best art to pdf and they marvel that I cared enough to do so.
    Great post. We must all try harder, me inclulded. 🙂

    1. You are one high tech granny Tess, and good for you! The problem with junk mail, at least here in the US, is that it’s impossible to turn some of it off. We get once a week ads that are all rubbish, and this comprises about 95% of my paper mail. And I agree: Grrrr! ~James

    1. Thanks. I totally agree. I just completed a residential property transaction, and most of it was done by email and pdf. The buyer was in another town, and we never saw him. It’s pretty amazing really, when compared to the bad ol’ paper only days. And it makes it all so much easier. ~James

    1. Peggy, being paperless has to be brilliant for a traveler like you. It makes it all so much easier and is great piece of mind when you’re on the road. I’m not sure how we made it before. ~James

  8. Great advice! I love the tip on the opt out list. We recycle so much stuff, but it’d be nice to limit what comes in! We have a tiny house with limited storage space, so getting rid of paperwork has been a major project for us lately. Tiny, minimalist house = more budget for travel!

    1. I can tell you have your priorities straight Megan. We also are big believers in small space living, and we keep our paper files in the closet. And as you know, closet space is prime real estate in small houses, so less paper means more closet space … and more travel. Yay! ~James

  9. I, too, would like to know what you’re using for auto backup. i can’t get the Windows backup program to work on my desktop, and have been doing it manually. Unfortunately, I have no faith in info in the cloud remaining secure, so it’s hard drive only for now. The hard drive will go in my safe deposit box when i travel.

    1. Kathy, we’re Mac people and the software we use is called “Time Machine” and the hardware is an Airport Time Capsule. I don’t think Mac has this software for PC, but there must be an app out there that works on PCs. If you can get it working it’s wonderful. The software automatically backs up your entire system as frequently as every hour. The backup runs in the background and you don’t have to do anything, nor will it interfere with your work. The Airport Time Capsule is also neat because in addition to being an external hard drive, it’s also our wifi router. So that eliminates another piece of gear and backups are done wirelessly over our wifi. I hope you can find the PC version because it’s effective and great piece of mind. ~James

      1. Thank you very much for the research! If I could get Windows Backup to work I wouldn’t have a problem, but the fixes I have found online don’t help. But do you really need to backup every hour? I was figuring every week would be good enough, especially as I back up Quicken separately.

      2. Kathy, hourly backups aren’t usually necessary and I only do it because it’s automatic. The only time I deviate from this is if I’ve been doing a lot of work on something (a post for instance) and I do a manual backup. The really cool thing about the Mac system is that is looks at your hard drive and only backs up the items that have been added or changed. ~James

  10. Fabulous post! You’ve inspired me to look for ways to backup files and then go paperless. Great ideas along with specifics. We have a whole closet filled with paper, so it will be nice to have that real estate back as a closet! Best wishes for more spring cleaning and more posts showing us how.

    1. Rusha, the early stages of the project are labor intensive and take time, but once the system is in place, you’ll be so pleased and proud of yourself. And as I said to someone else, closet space is prime real estate, so getting that back will be an extra perk. Let me know how it goes. ~James

  11. We went paperless several years ago, when we moved away from a sticks and bricks home. It was a huge project but felt great when it was finished. So much better for the environment too!

    1. LuAnn, I can imagine that no matter what size RV you live in, space is at a premium. And access to files anywhere on the road is incredibly convenient. I assume that you are still paperless. Have you made improvements or learned any lessons since you initially went paperless? ~James

      1. We went paperless or mostly several years ago when I worked on a paperless project at work. I’m not sure I could pinpoint any new revelations since we began down that road. There are probably many things we could do more efficiently. Terry is all about space and weight with the RV so staying paperless in the RV was a no-brainer.

    1. Lots of folks agree with you Lucia. A letter represents a more personal touch, and postcards are always fun. But to be honest, I don’t remember the last time I received a handwritten letter. In fact, most of my family and friends send more texts than email these days. The techno times are a changin’. ~James

      1. Yeah it’s something that we’re losing for sure! I try to write handwritten letters to my friends but I haven’t been able to do it since I moved back to Colombia because sending a letter costs around 40$!

  12. As you can imagine we’ve been doing the paperless thing for years as much as we can, but we still got back from our latest 5 month journey to quite a big pile of mail, none of it junk mail since we got our names off the lists years ago. I see from your excellent article that there is still more we can do such as scanning our tax records. Thanks for this reminder and for some great ideas.

    1. Years of brainwashing had convinced us that a tax audit was just around the corner, but it has never happened. And there we were keeping paper copies of 7 (yes 7!) years of tax returns on the off chance we got a call from the tax man. One of the best things that the IRS (tax collectors in the US) has done is to let us efile. We’ve been doing it for years and the tax program we use generates a PDF file, which it what we now keep. Brilliant. ~James

  13. Excellent post! It’s so crazy to me that one of the hardest things about living and traveling abroad is dealing with the mail and the paperwork! It’s ridiculous! Aside from going paperless as much as possible, I still pay for a mail forwarding service in the US that will field, scan and shred whatever finds its way to me. I wish I could stop the flow entirely but it seems to be nearly impossible. Your efforts and success are admirable!

    1. Thanks Kelly. Like you, we’ve struggled with this issue for years. We also have a PO Box/mail forwarding service that works well, but honestly, I’ve come to believe that there isn’t really a way to totally shut down paper mail. Our years of dogged determination to cut down paper have paid off, but we still get a few pieces now and then, and sometimes they’re important. We can blame some of this on the federal government (US), because regulations say that some things must be delivered annually (privacy statements, etc). So my biggest hope now is when I get mail from the PO Box, there aren’t bad surprises there. ~James

      1. James! OMG, I know exactly what you mean! Whenever I get a notice from the mail company that mail has arrived, I get a little worried and hope it’s not something unexpected from the government (state or fed). They’re not very supportive of us expats and travelers — California, especially. Thanks again for a great post.

  14. Sounds like you two have it all sussed! We’ve gradually gone paperless over the last 10 years of being ‘homeless.’ Trying to maintain accounts in two countries (bank, investment, credit card, etc.) would have been . . . I was going to say a nightmare but I really think it would have been impossible. Himself shredded some redundant documents when we left the States only to find that Customs wanted to see them before releasing our goods. Your ‘scan and toss’ advice would have been helpful then! Not helpful that they didn’t inform us at the beginning of the process. But for the most part, we haven’t come unstuck. It was just a matter of trust. We struggled with that ‘Go Paperless’ button the first few times.
    Great post and advice!

    1. First Carol, let me say that I have a more positive term for your being homeless. We’ve have years of roaming around without a base and we say we’re “home free.” As to maintaining accounts in two countries, I can relate. We lived in London for 3 years and it produced a situation much like the one you describe. We lost some serious money in currency exchanges moving pounds to dollars and the reverse. We’ve also had a couple of custom scrapes, and my position has always been that it’s about intent. Am I trying to deceive someone or did I just make a dumb mistake? This is easy to write, but not so easy to deal with standing in front of an officious customs inspector. ~James

  15. It’s amazing how modern communication enables up to keep in contact and keep up. But I do miss there old days of being out of contact on occasion. It was a freedom that is lacking in our present age of instant everything. –Curt

    1. I know what you mean Curt. In the old days it was a struggle to keep in touch (remember the Africa days?), and now we have to struggle to stay out of touch. But, I don’t hesitate to turn off the cell phone or just let it go to voicemail. ~James

      1. I try to leave it at home, but I don’t get away with that one. 🙂 Can you imagine kids that are now texting dozens (hundreds) of times a day? My mind boggles, James. –Curt

  16. What great information. Thanks. I hadn’t seen the opt-out for junk mail before. Since we recently moved, I was thrilled to have the chance to leave behind some unrequested mail that always got delivered. Unfortunately, all our mail followed us to the new place, even though we had requested nothing be forwarded. Maybe the junk mail opt-out will help.

    1. Thanks Susan. We move around a lot, and this seems to help scrape off lots of junk mail. But even with the best of efforts we eventually get on new mailing lists. Junk mail is one of my pet peeves, so I’m aggressive about calling companies that put me on their list (Land’s End is one of the worse offenders). They apologize but always say that I may get a few more catalogs before it kicks in (Grrrrr! I especially like it when they send me the women’s only catalogs). But, as I said to someone else, it takes dogged determination to stay on top of it. Good luck. ~James

      1. Agreed. I just spent the better part of yesterday afternoon using your links to eliminate junk mail. I hope we’ll see some results. Thanks again for helping me take care of this pesky irritation.

  17. Great post. I’ve been fighting to reduce mail for many years. I didn’t see this on anyone’s comments so I thought I would mention that nearly every entity that you do business with has a Privacy Statement on their website. Click on that and check “no” or “opt out” on everything you can. This keeps them from selling/providing your name to others. This is especially important to do for credit card companies. I also use a free service on the web that will harass those 3rd class mailers who ignore the federal opt out and continue to send me mail. Once I turn the name over to the free service, it has generally been rectified.

    1. Excellent point Alison and one I hadn’t thought of. This is great info and I’ll put a note in the post to refer our readers to your comment. I didn’t know that about third class mailers, and I’m glad to hear that it’s effective. Thanks for a very helpful comment. ~James

  18. I’ve always been rather reluctant to embrace storage-in-the-cloud for privacy and security reasons – I’m just not that trusting – so I’ve been relying on layers of external drives. I thought I had myself covered with redundant backups, but you’ve made an excellent point about theft. It’s always a risk, isn’t it. You’ve given me something new to think about.

    … not to mention I need to create an automatic schedule for my backups. My current method of whenever-I-think-about-it is just too sporadic 🙂

  19. Great tips! Being away from home without access to important documents can be inconvenient and even detrimental to getting back home in some circumstances. Having a back up of important documentation is necessary when traveling the world. There are a lot of things that can be handled while traveling with the right safeguards in place.

    1. Thanks for the comment Peter and for dropping by the blog. As we said in the post, our first motivation to go paperless came as a result of planning for an RTW. Technology has advanced to the point that, for travelers, it couldn’t be easier and more convenient to access files anywhere in the world. Sometimes I wonder how I made it before the internet and mobile computing, and digital files fit seamlessly into the scheme. ~James

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