How to Digitize Your Life to Reduce Paper Clutter

Use technology to shrink those pesky piles of paper everywhere in the house.

Junk mail
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Paper can be overwhelming. There is so much of it that enters the home and it piles up on every surface, forcing you to assess each piece and determine whether or not it should be kept. I've realized over the years that one can either get really good at purging paper (an endless, thankless job) or take steps to prevent its entry into the home. The latter requires more work upfront, but it will make your life much easier.

The key to reducing paper clutter is a combination of (1) switching to digital versions, and (2) opting out of receiving superfluous things. The following list is far from exhaustive, but it's a good place to start the process of reducing incoming paper and digitizing your life.

Receipts

Receipts are handed out as proof-of-purchase after items are bought. They serve an important purpose if you need to make a return, but they can pile up quickly. Learn to refuse receipts for low-value purchases or for anything that can be tracked using online bank statements. Ask to have receipts emailed and consider creating an email account for that specific purpose. You can also download a mobile app that allows you to scan receipts you need to keep and store them digitally. Avoiding thermal paper receipts is healthier, too; they are often contaminated with BPA, which you don't want on your skin.

Magazine and Newspaper Subscriptions

Reading physical copies of magazines and newspapers has its appeal, but they pile up quickly, filling shelves and recycling bins. I've had to unsubscribe from some of my favorite cooking publications because there's no more room on my shelves. Most subscriptions include (or can be adjusted to allow for) digital access to all the same articles, which keeps you informed without the accompanying clutter. 

Banking Information

It's easy to opt out of paper statements from your bank. You can find the option in your online banking account or speak to a teller the next time you're in. Be sure to remain diligent about checking your account activity and monthly credit card statements to ensure that nothing is amiss, just as you would with a paper statement. 

Discover the wonders of e-transfers. I haven't owned paper checks in years because it's so much easier to send money electronically than write a check, pay to mail it, and then wait for it to arrive and get deposited by the recipient. It also makes it easier to track all outgoing payments because it's stored in account history.

Children's Artwork

Anyone with young children knows what a tsunami of paper artwork and crafts comes home from school on a regular basis. It's helpful to establish a system for dealing with this. Intercept the projects as soon as they come in and sort through them with your child, deciding which ones to keep and which ones not. I like to display the nicer ones for a few weeks, then toss them or stash them in a designated box in the basement. Involve the child in this decision-making process, as they deserve to have a say. Some parents like to take pictures and store them as digital files for future reference or show them in a digital picture frame for all to enjoy. 

Extra tip: While not exactly a digital solution, I recommend buying children their own spiral-bound notebook for writing and drawing. This keeps random papers from circulating around the house. More tips here on decluttering children's artwork.

School Communications

Again, if you have young children, you likely receive incessant communication from their school about various important dates and deadlines, fundraisers, and, of course, COVID-19. Hopefully you already get these in a digital format, but if not talk to your child's teacher or the school office about switching to email. If you have multiple children at the same school, request that paper communications be sent home with just one child.

Photos

Smartphones have made taking pictures nearly as easy as breathing. This results in a lot of pictures, all of which are now stored digitally. But that doesn't address the backlog of old printed pictures from years gone by that most people have stashed somewhere in their homes, whether in boxes or old photo albums. These can be scanned and converted to digital files and organized in easy-to-find online folders. Be sure to back these up to the cloud or to an external hard drive.

There's something to be said for having a few physical photos to look through and hold. While they may fade with time, they're not prone to the obsolescence that besets every new technology at some point. Fellow Treehugger writer Lloyd Alter contemplated this in an excellent post on the challenges of bequeathing one's digital memories:

"I keep thinking that we should perhaps print out the best dozen photos we have on archival paper, frame a set of them and pack some small prints in our bug-out bag for when we have to hit 'The Road.' And I suspect that if I picked very carefully among my 23,000 digital pictures, a dozen is all I would really need to define a life."

Instruction Manuals

Fortunately you don't have to hold onto manuals because they're typically available online, on the manufacturer's website, particularly if the item is newer. Search using the product code of the item you need to research. If you're unable to locate the PDF, contact the store where you bought the item for assistance.

Business Cards

Although far fewer business cards are circulated nowadays than in former times, some still contain valuable contact information. There are mobile apps that allow you to scan business cards into your phone, or take a picture with your phone and store it in a designated folder for future reference. If you lose business cards, don't fret; so much information is now available online that you'll likely be able to track the person down.

By following these tips, you'll be well on your way to reducing superfluous paper clutter at home and creating compact digital storage that's quick and easy to find. 

View Article Sources
  1. Porras, Simo P. et al. "Bisphenol A Exposure Via Thermal Paper Receipts." Toxicology Letters, vol. 230, no. 3, 2014, pp. 413-420., Elsevier BV, doi:10.1016/j.toxlet.2014.08.020