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Turn Extra Paper Into Useful Digital Files

Didn’t scholars predict that we’d be a paperless society by now? I read that in a magazine article once, but don’t ask me to find it… it’s probably under the mound of bills, school papers, receipts and magazines that used to be my dining room table.

The paper clutter in my house has been a constant source of angst. Popular productivity books taught me how to “process” piles until they were no more. File away the things you need, toss the rest—that’s what they said.

What I’ve found, however, is that it’s not the filing that’s the challenge, it’s the retrieval.

• Where’s that receipt file for our accountant?
• Where did we file those pictures from our honeymoon?
• Why can’t I find the %!*#$ file with the Kindergarten class roster in it?!

I yearned for a way not just to clear my counters, but to instantly find any important document or precious memory without upturning my entire house.

Then I started scanning the paper around my house. Now, important docs rarely go missing, and if they do, I type in a few keywords to find them.

I can dial up any document from any computer, smartphone or tablet. Everything is safe and secure. And the mound of paper that once consumed my dining room has become cross-cut shreds that line the cage of my daughter’s class guinea pig cage.

The results in my life from something as basic as scanning papers have been dramatic. I feel so much more together and I waste so much less time.

Here’s a few tips to get you started.

Select a scanner that works in your budget.

There’s a scanner at every price point, from the JotNot app for the iPhone, the CamScanner for Android (free), to the super-slim portable scanners like Doxie and NeatReceipts, to the deluxe Fujitsu ScanSnap.

As you go up in price, you get a faster scanner and the ability to scan piles of paper without having to feed them in one at a time, which can be agonizingly slow.

Many of the options above come bundled with OCR (optical character recognition) software, which turns your document into editable, searchable text. If your scanner doesn’t, you can upload files to PDF OCR, a free online app that will convert files for you.

Storage and Backup

It’s a bit of a leap to toss your paper and trust the digital realm to keep things safe, so it’s good practice (and will help you sleep better) to backup your files in at least two places. I backup important files to an external hard drive should my computer suddenly fall ill, but hard drive sometimes make it difficult to access files.

Cloud storage keeps files safe and easily accessible from anywhere; you can access them on any smartphone or tablet, which is like carrying a gargantuan filing cabinet with you everywhere. I use Evernote, where I can organize my scans into notebooks, kind of like I would in real life. Dropbox is also an excellent cloud storage system.

Okay, those are the basics. Now, what to scan?

How about every piece of paper that isn’t easily dubbed “trash,” yet isn’t so important that it needs to be tacked to your refrigerator door? To start, here’s some ideas:

• School/Sport/Work Rosters

I used to slave away entering everyone’s address into my address book each September. Now I just scan the roster and in seconds the information is accessible whenever I need to call it up. Huge time-saver.

• Tear Sheets

I used to keep tons of home design magazines with dog-eared pages—inspiration for a future remodel or landscaping job. Now, I tear out the pages that I want to remember, and store each scan so I can access them in the future. (It’s also a good idea to first check if the article is also online, then pin it to Pinterest or bookmark it elsewhere.)

• Art and Schoolwork

Some special pieces of your kid’s artwork is best appreciated in its original form. For the rest of the heap, there’s scanning. Scanning liberates me from having to decide what to keep and what to toss, and the house is free from being overtaken by construction paper art. Now I save everything, including report cards, written assignments and certificates.

• Tax Preparation

Our one file for tax receipts was always a bulging mess when it came time to itemizing. Now we scan them in a bit at a time, and when tax time rolls around, everything is digitized and easily exported to a spreadsheet for our accountant.

• Home Documents and Inventory

Scanning insurance documents, warranties, appraisals repair history and receipts, as well as keeping digital photo records of the valuables in your home, is a great way to keep a record of your belongings in the event of a natural disaster or burglary.

• Business Cards

When the gentleman who cleaned my gutters (Thank you, Mr. Munoz!) leaves me his business card, who knows where it will have disappeared to in a year when I need to call him again. If I scan it, I can search “gutter” and find it, even if I forget his name.

• Photos

Digital photos are easier than ever to store and share online. But what about old photographs? You know, the ones printed on paper? Scanning old photos means I can pull them up and enjoy them anytime which, last time I checked, was the whole point of taking photos.

Once you’re done scanning, it’s great to shred all that paper before you recycle it to keep your privacy intact when you toss it all. Simple shredding scissors are an inexpensive option, but I use a cross-cut shredder, which makes the perfect cushy bedding for Blackie, the class pet.

p.s. Here’s another alternative for dealing with paper.

Reading Time:

4 minutes





  1. Jenny

    How do you scan the larger artwork for your kids? Do you just take a picture or do you have another trick?

    • Carley

      I take pictures. I usually make a pile and just blow through a bunch on one day. Works really well for 3D art too.

  2. TuxGirl

    And… once again, I’m going to make my constant plea. If you are using cloud storage for sensitive documents, *PLEASE* encrypt the files. Please. I don’t want to hear about anybody having identity theft because they stuck their tax documents up on a cloud someplace completely unencrypted.

    Sure, you don’t have to encrypt your child’s schoolwork or artwork, but your tax documents have a lot of data in them. Really, it’s enough for someone to steal your identity pretty completely. And, even if you trust the employees of the company where you host your documents, you never know whether they’ll be hacked, or if some crazy employee will decide they hate the company, and are going to get some private data before they quit.

    Yes, I know most of the cloud companies say that they encrypt the data for you. But, I don’t trust them. If they’re doing the encryption and decryption for you, then they are capable of decrypting your files. And, there’s no way to know for certain what kind of encryption they’re using or whether they’re actually doing it.

    Please… Please! Encrypt your sensitive files before you send them off to the cloud!

    • Sarah B R

      How does one encrypt files?

      • TuxGirl

        find some software that can do encryption. Many zip-file creation tools can create encrypted zip files. There are also lots of general-purpose encryption tools. Uh… the one I use is called GnuPG, but it’s more for techies. There are some for non-technical users too…

        It looks like AESCrypt is free, and works on windows and mac. (AES is a type of encryption that is really good). Make sure you install the version for your computer that says “GUI”. GUI means “Graphical User Interface”, and that’s generally what you want… 🙂

        I actually just installed AESCrypt, so I can use that when I’m wanting to do a one-off instead of a large batch of files. 🙂

        • Sheila

          I was just going to comment wondering about the privacy of documents stored on Cloud – thanks for your info.

          • Carley

            TuxGirl— I think that’s really good advice. Thanks for sharing. These sites are safe (in that, once encrypted, it takes YOUR password to unencrypt), but there’s no reason not to put another level of protection in place. My best advice is that you create a STRONG password (ie. not the name of your dog, or the word “password”!) to protect your files. That’s your first line of defense.

  3. Erin

    Amen! I was getting bogged down with all the artwork coming home with my school-age kids. Now I snap a digital photo and they are preserved forever without taking up valuable space. Now, if I could just get my own box of mementos cleaned out….

  4. Al

    How to you sort your digital files? I’m trying to clean up all my scanned family pictures but I can’t find a good system. I’d like to sort it by event (christmas 2008, etc) but I don’t always know when and where some of these pictures were taken. Any advice?

    • Carley

      For new things going forward, it’s great to tag by person AND date AND event (software like Picassa or iPhoto can help you with the first two… many have facial recognition now). For stuff that’s nebulous, I guess do the best you can… the key is to tag it with whatever will make it easy for you to find it later. So, if you know you have that cute picture of your mom as a child with ice cream melting down her arm, make sure you tag with “ice cream” and “mom” so that it’s easy to locate later.
      Hope that’s helpful!

      • Tessa

        I have folders in my Photos directory and I label them by date. Such as “1110 – October 2011” I start with the YYMM so they sort properly, then add the Month, Year so I can read them quickly. This where I store all of the random pictures I take every day. Millions of pictures of my kids 🙂 I also create separate folders for particular events like trips or holidays. Still keeping the YYMM beginnings so they fall in line chronologically. For example, 1112 – Christmas, 2011

        In Picasa (and probably other software) you can add tags to make it easier to find photos of specific people or things. I haven’t done that yet, but I really should!

  5. Sheri

    Carley, thanks so much for your post! I am an organizational nightmare which is why I subscribed to Tsh’s site in the first place and purchased her book! I never thought of scanning, it’s a great idea. One thing I might add to include in scanning are menus. I really get tired of searching through my junk drawer for the menu to my favorite Chinese or Pizza restaurant. I don’t have any space to tack it on the fridge and some of my favorite places don’t have a website so that I can view the menu on line. So, that’s what I would add.

    • Carley

      Sheri— Yes, menus are a great idea! lots of restaurants have a PDF of their menus already, so no scanning necessary. I have a “menus” folder in Evernote— love it!

      • Sheri

        Oh yeah, that’s true. I live in a small town though so some places do not have that available. Funny, I was just looking at that app on my HP Touchpad to see if I wanted to download it. Do you like Evernote?

        • Kelly

          I just got my Nook Color and Evernote works with that. I’ve just started using it, but I see lots of potential and love how easy it is! I would recommend it. I’m wondering how it’s different than Pinterest, which I have not even begun to explore, as I don’t need yet another online distraction! LOL

          • Carley

            Kelly— Pinterest is great for collecting photos that are already online, and making “boards” of them. I love it and use it mostly for fun, to create inspiration boards of foods I want to try, gadgets I want to buy, or home decor ideas. Evernote is more for note-taking and storage, and has more practical applications. They’re both great, but Pinterest is definitely more in the “online distraction” category. 🙂

        • Carley

          Sheri— LOVE Evernote. Use it everyday.

          • Kelly

            I’m using Evernote to store recipes from blogs I follow-isn’t that what Pinterest is about too? See-I hardly even know what it is! I followed a link from someone’s blog one day and the images I saw were NOT ones I’d want to promote or keep. The blogger is a conservative mama, and I think I ended up at the general pinterest site rather than hers, because I know she wouldn’t have saved those images. It was probably a bad first “exposure” if you’ll pardon the pun, but I haven’t had any desire to go back. Except that I keep hearing about it.

  6. MaryJo @ reSPACEd: Budget Organizing

    I’m all for going paperless, but two things give me pause: Is there ever a situation where for legal purposes, only original paper documents would be accepted? Of course, we wouldn’t just scan the deed to the house or original birth certificates and then toss the originals, but are there other situations where we would need to keep the paper originals?

    And my second concern: How do we keep from turning paper clutter into digital clutter? Is it any more TIME-efficient to have to page through folders and hundreds of files digitally, than it is to search through tangible filing cabinets physically? It seems like going paperless is pointless without a super stupendous digital organizing system plus regular deleting of old files.

    I would love everyone’s take on these two issues. Thanks!

    • Erin OK

      I wonder too, if spending the time scanning and developing this digital organizing system would be unreasonable for me. And backing it up on a regular basis, because computer files can get lost awfully easily when a device or site fails.

      • Carley

        Erin OK— It’s definitely a personal decision. And there are definitely some things that I have wanted to remain in the paper world. For me, I reached a tipping point. There were things I scanned and things I didn’t. And slowly over time the value increased for me to have everything accessible from any device.

        The other day I went into a bank and opened an account with no paper. All the documents I needed (my Business Tax ID, etc.) were on my phone, stored from scans. Another day recently, I needed the phone number of a woman whose kids were in my kids class… 2 years ago. I had the old roster in Evernote and found it in an instant. For me, it’s those moments that make the scans so much more valuable than the piles on the floor.

        • Carley

          Oh, and one more thing: Backing up files is ABSOLUTELY a huge part of the system. We can all get lulled into a false sense of security about a digital collection of files. I just find that, as I upload things to the cloud, I also put them in a separate folder on my computer. When it’s time to back stuff up, I drag that folder to an external hard drive. Now I know I have 2 copies, and that helps me sleep at night.

    • Becky

      Great points of concern! I am currently in just such a dilemna. Honestly, sorting through papers is MUCH easier than through file names on a computer screen. Easier on my eyes. It is much simpler, for me, to place papers in piles on the floor or desk than to attempt sorting file names in a list. Maybe that’s just me though. The easiest solution to ridding our home of paper clutter was for me to discipline myself to take dominion over this area and put the papers in their correct “homes” immediately, whether I felt like it or not. A few seconds now saves hours of sorting later. Whether using paper or going paperless, without self-discipline, there will still be a mess to sort.
      Each one of us is different, so I figure, whatever works, use it.

    • Carley


      I have some insight:

      1) I think you’d want to check with your accountant on originals vs. paper documents. I certainly am not an expert on legality and tax stuff, but it’s my understanding that the IRS is accepting digital copies of receipts and the like.

      2) I see “digital clutter” as a HEWGE step in the right direction from paper clutter for 2 reasons: 1) it takes up virtually no physical space, and 2) most digital files are searchable or tag-able. That means that it pretty much organizes itself. When I first started using Evernote (my digital filing cabinet), I was meticulous about putting everything in folders so I’d know where to find it. What I realized is that it was taking me so much time to create that “stupendous digital organizing system”, when really, if I needed something, all I had to do was search for a keyword and it would pop up. Now I’m much less concerned about where the stuff goes, only that it’s digital and searchable. And I guess the last thing I’d say is that if you aren’t going to use one space (on the cloud or offline) for everything, you’d need to ensure that you have good records of what information is on what hard drive or CD, so that it’s easy to access it later. A good way to do that is to print the file directory structure, and store THAT as a PDF on your hard drive.

      That’s my take!

  7. Sharon W

    I love the idea of scanning to lessen my paper clutter. My first thought, though was that we don’t have a scanner. But, I’m glad to know that they are available in a variety of price ranges.

    I love the search function (go to start, click “search” and type in what you are trying to find) on my computer and use it on a regular basis. That way I don’t have to remember what folder I filed something in.

    I don’t use any online programs that offer to store things for you. I am way to leery of hacking or someone who works for that organization getting my info and using it illegally. I am all for keeping my personal information on my own computer and/or burning stuff to a disk periodically.

  8. Sarah Lee

    My husband is absolutely going to love this! It’s probably his biggest pet peeve of me that I can never get our paper under control. I just downloaded JotNot to my phone. Can’t wait to start scanning!

    Thank you!!!

    • Carley

      Sarah Lee— woo hoo! Let me know how it goes. Just so you don’t get overwhelmed o frustrated (cause using an app like JotNot is not exactly speedy), I’d choose a particular category of paper to start with (ie. Takeout menus, Business cards, class rosters, etc.) so that you can get through it and feel a sense of accomplishment. Good luck!

    • Carley

      Angie— Good luck! Let me know how it goes!

  9. Sheryl

    How about recipes?

    • Carley

      Sheryl— Recipes are GREAT to scan! Especially in the handwriting of friends and relatives… I love seeing the original print of, say, my grandmother. Of course, that takes away the search-ability of it, but makes it more of a memento. Also great for tearsheets from magazines… now you don’t have to keep the whole book around, and you can tag files, or name them well, so that they’re easy to find. In a cloud-storage system like Evernote, you can scan a recipe in and attach notes (“this took longer to cook than on the recipe”) or pictures of what you’ve made to enrich the documentation. Hey, I just had a thought: My mother-in-law is always sending me great recipes in the mail. Maybe I’ll get her a scanner and she can start emailing me PDFs instead!

      • Ginny

        The great thing about Evernote is that jpg’s become searchable. So, if the handwriting in the recipe is reasonably good, the software will OCR the words in the picture. It’s really an amazing benefit to using Evernote.

  10. Anna

    My children will be so thankful to you., honestly. They are really sad (me too) when I do not have time to have more games and so just because of the school….Thank you:)I will try ti and I will write my opinion about it:)

  11. Kelly

    I don’t have a smart phone, so am guessing the apps aren’t going to help me. I do have a regular scanner as part of my printer, but as you’ve said, scanning large piles of papers is S.L.O.W. Do the apps for smart phones allow scanning by simply taking a picture of it? If so, would I be able to do the same thing with my digital camera and install the app on my computer?

    I so love the notion of a paperless society, but it seems since that prediction was made, we have MORE, not less paper. Even though all of my bills are paperless and I pay them online, I am still inundated with paper coming from the mailbox. I hate that! 🙂

    • Carley

      Kelly— Yes, I think that would work! PDF OCR ( works with all kinds of image files (including the JPEGs that would likely come out of your camera), and makes them “searchable”. Most of those apps, though, have tools that help you take the shadows out of the pictures of your documents so that they can get a clean read, so if you do take your own pictures, I’d make sure they’re straight and clear. Take a few test pics and see how they do! Good luck, and let me know how it goes!

      re: mailbox overload— have you tried heading to to axe some of that incoming mail? Check it out!

      • Kelly

        I have tried the catalog site-seems the people I get mail from aren’t on that service. I’ve also intentionally taken time to find an email address for the stuff I don’t want and politely ask to be removed. It works for some, not for others. I’m trying to make a habit of quickly scanning thru the new mail and pulling out all the junk to go into recyle immediately. There are times that I’m not sure w/o opening if what’s inside is something I might need though. Thanks for the suggestion!

        I’ll eventually get around to trying the scan programs. 🙂

      • Kelly

        I finally got a smartphone! Looking at the scanning apps now, thanks!

  12. StephanieB

    Good idea… This month I have been working on our file cabinet and getting rid of stuff I don’t need. I found a great list from about what to keep and how long. Thankfully, my husband and I have only been married a few years with no kids, so there isn’t much clutter yet! Once I have the paper organized I will scan stuff.

    • Carley

      StephanieB— Great start! Helps to be organized BEFORE the paper Tsunami hits. 🙂

      Think of it, too, not just as a way to get organized, but a way to have all kinds of things ON HAND wherever you are.

  13. Tessa

    What format to all of those scanned files end up in? Do they all go to one program (I saw EverNote in the comments above) or do you have PDF files with menus, etc. and class rosters in some sort of contact management application, and business cards in… some other application? Do they all end up as PDFs and you just save them in named folders on your computer?

    I understand the scanning part, but not the “what next” part 🙂

    And how do you back them up? Do you have a process running that automatically backs up ALL new files? Or do you have to remember to find and back up each new file after you scan it?


    • Carley


      Really, really good questions. And there are many options. Here are the three I mentioned in the article, explained further:

      Evernote will take your scanned PDFs and store them in a way you can browse, from any device. You get a storage system AND backup in one, because it makes a duplicate in the cloud. Evernote is great for note-taking too, so in addition to scanned PDFs, you can write things in there (lists, ideas, etc.), as well as store photos and audio files, that you can see and hear from any device. Evernote also has the OCR capability, so files are “searchable” and easy to retrieve.

      Dropbox, which I also use, looks just like a folder on your desktop (identical file structure, etc.) but it’s a storage locker in the cloud. Put things in there, and it REMOVES them from your desktop, so you have the backup there, but not the original (unless you make a copy). I use Dropbox for things I need to share with members of my team at Digitwirl (rough drafts of episodes we’re working on), or members of my family (large folders of pictures that are too big to email). Think of it like an external hard drive or backup CD-ROM, that lives in the cloud.

      If you’re a Microsoft girl and use Windows Live Mail (Hotmail) and the online version of Windows Office, Skydrive is a great option. It has limited features, but it essentially offers you 25GB of storage space for free.

      Hope that’s helpful with the “now what?” problem after you’re done scanning your stuff (and let me know if you have more questions!)

  14. Ann Marks

    Carley, I’m curious what type of scanner you use? If I haven’t done it before, what would you recommend?

    • Carley

      It really depends on your budget. The Mac Daddy scanners that I’ve tested are the Fujitsu ScanSnap S1500 and the NeatDesk, which each make scanning a breeze and can hold large piles of paper at once, which means you don’t have to nurse it to scan each page at at time. I use the ScanSnap S1300, which is a bit smaller and has a sheet feeder for 10 (not 50 like the bigger ones above) pages, and I love it. I’ve also tested the NeatReceipts portable scanner, which is great for scanning on the go, takes up almost no desktop space, but has NO sheet feeder, so everything must be put in one at a time. All good options for different price ranges.

  15. anastasia @healthy mama info

    Why did I never think of scanning the artwork I didn’t have the heart to throw away? Thank you!

    • Carley

      Anastasia— No regrets! Just get scanning (and tossing) from today forward! 🙂

  16. Hannah D.

    Such a helpful post, and one that may actually get me to not just click and nod my head, but DO IT. Thanks for the tips, Carley!

  17. Jennifer Tyner

    I am so lost! I looked at Evernote, but it doesn’t seem to be geared towards home records organization. I want to be able to scan all receipts, kid’s art, school papers, etc., and upload them onto a site who organizes it into appropriate folders for me. Where do I go to do this?

    Thank you. You are my tech idol. 🙂

  18. DuQuoi

    does the Fujitsu ScanSnap S1500 (0r 1300) work for scanning books or magazines that you can’t put through a paper feeder? If not, what do you use for that?


    • Carley

      DuQuoi— I’m not sure I’d ever scan an entire book— seems like a lot more work than I could ever stand! But I used to keep tons of dog-eared magazines (ie. A recipe or a craft idea here and there in a Martha Stewart Living), that took up tons of space. One afternoon, I went through all my dog ears, ripped out the ones I still cared about, and scanned each of those pages. That’s what I’d recommend. To scan a book you don’t want to destroy, you’d have to use a flatbed scanner, which would take as long as photocopying an entire book… not fun. 🙂

  19. Londi Murray

    what about receipts? im inundated with receipts!!! i dont want to throw them out in case i need them later- and you generally need the original if you were to need to return something, so seems like that would nix scanning. any suggestions?
    thanks! love your website carly!!!

    • Carley

      Londi— at some point your purchase goes from returnable to not, right? At that point you could scan it and keep it for reference and tax time. Another idea is to keep your receipts in a filing system for 3 months or so, and then spend an hour a month scanning everything that’s going from “filed original” to “scanned archive”. Hope that’s helpful— and thanks for the kind words about!

  20. Kate

    I am in school working on an education degree and was wondering what your thoughts are on scanning all my lessons, worksheets, favorite bits of advice, etc. into Evernote. I’ve JUST started (since reading your posts lol) and am trying to figure out what the best way to save (pdf vs jpeg) and organize these kinds of things would be. Right now I’ve just uploaded a few things so I can play around with it more or less but after awhile I can see this growing into something big. Is Evernote even the best program out there for teachers or am I just super behind the times?

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