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A guide to digitising your personal documents

Computers are very good at searching. Computers are also excellent at retrieval. No matter how fast and efficiently you think you can find and retrieve information in your house from pieces of paper, rest assured, computers can do it much faster.

That is the number one reason you should digitise many of your personal documents.

There are other reasons, too – for example, if you happen to be unfortunate to have a fire which destroys those paper records. And there are plenty of occasions when it might be handy to have a digital document accessible from your laptop, smartphone, or tablet when you’re away from home, maybe on holiday.

Here's another reason: You've changed doctors and pharmacies several times in the last few years, and the pharmacist now needs to know you if you've ever taken a certain medication. Wouldn't it be useful to log into some secure system that has records of all the prescriptions your doctors wrote because you snapped them with your phone's camera before getting them?

Or maybe you're motivated to digitise more of your personal documents simply to get rid of clutter. The reasons for doing it are endless, and the excuses for not getting started are equally so.

Here a few tips and tricks that will leave you with no excuse for putting the task off any longer.

What to Digitise

Before you can reduce the amount of paper in your home, you have to decide which documents would be useful to have in digital form.

In many cases, you'll want to keep the original documents, making the digital one essentially a backup. This list might help you generate ideas:

  • Taxes
  • Tax-deductible receipts
  • Pay slips
  • Deeds and leases
  • Warranties
  • Passports (many countries have very specific rules about making copies of passports; check with your government)
  • Family archives, such as birth certificates, adoption papers, marriage certificates, death certificates, and immigration papers
  • Insurance forms
  • Medical and dental records, and prescriptions

If your employer doesn't provide electronic pay slips, you should absolutely keep the originals for at least six months, if not a full year. Banks and landlords often require these documents, in addition to tax forms, when completing financial or housing paperwork.

With passports and some other official legal documents, be careful about the rules for making copies. It's usually a good idea to shrink or enlarge the image by at least 10 per cent (so it doesn't look like you're trying to counterfeit it).

Even if you don't think you'll ever need to provide replicas of any of these documents, there will certainly be times when you need to reference your passport number (for an application, say) or some other piece of data from them. It's so much more efficient to search for that information from your computer than to start digging through a closet full of papers.

What not to digitise

Manuals. One batch of papers you can likely toss is manuals. PDFs of most manuals for appliances and gadgets are available online through the manufacturer. Occasionally there's value in keeping a copy, however. I've found that in reselling items (particularly self-constructed goods from a popular Swedish purveyor of furniture), I have more negotiating power if I can provide the buyer with the instructions, warranty, and receipt. If there's a chance you might resell a purchase down the road, take the time to scan the documents and save a copy.

UPCs. Sometimes, to cash in on a warranty, especially for small appliances and consumer goods, you might need to summon an original UPC code (barcode), and because you would never need a UPC for anything else, it's a clear example of a "document" that would have zero value in digital form.

Some receipts. Receipts are tricky. For any tax-deductible purchase, keep the original receipt and scan or photography a copy. (You might also log the purchase in a spreadsheet and note the file name of the scanned copy or photo in the sheet). I hang onto receipts for things that I might reasonably find faulty, but I don't keep a backup copy. The effort it would take doesn't meet my threshold for payoff – but I do keep backup receipts for big-ticket items. And I do save digital copies of receipts for online purchases because that work is already done for me. All I have to do is save and rename the file.

How to make a digital copy

Multifunction printers (or MFPs) can be your primary scanning device (see our guide to buying the right MFP here). When you have a stack of papers to digitise, use the feed function as much as possible to make the work go quicker.

You can tackle your scanning project in batches, based on the type of document. Scan tax forms all at once. Make copies of insurance certificates and deeds at the same time. Treat fragile documents separately when you can take extra care to ensure a clean and dry work area.

Receipts should be taped to standard-sized paper (A4 in the UK). Group relevant receipts together and write or type on the top of the paper what they were for; for example, "2012 April business trip to Munich," or "2013 Q2 office supplies."

As much use as you'll get out of a good MFP, don't discount the power of your smartphone's camera. For spur-of-the-moment record keeping, it's your best tool by far.

How and where to store digital copies of documents

Save your files to the hard drive of your primary home computer. Hopefully, you back up your files regularly. Regardless of whether you back up your files to a secondary source, do yourself a favour and add a cloud-based file-syncing service to your system anyway.

When I decided to write this article, I got nervous about whether it was wise to tell people to put copies of their passports and pay slips on a cloud-based server. So I asked my colleague and security expert Neil Rubenking for some advice. "It totally depends on the service," he said. "Here's the best scenario. Your file-syncing service encrypts whatever data you send at your computer, sends the encrypted data via SSL, and keeps it in encrypted form on the server. When you want the data, it transmits back to you via SSL and decrypts it at your endpoint. The vendor has no access to the data, no way to decrypt it."

But, he cautions, that's not how all services work. "Here's what sometimes happens instead. The data gets transmitted as-is, but the vendor says it's secure since they use SSL. It's encrypted at the vendor's end. When you want it, it gets decrypted and sent back to you via SSL. There's potential to intercept the transmission. It's possible that a data breach at the vendor's end could expose your data. So, for your personal stuff, the main thing would be to investigate how the solution you're using protects your data during the whole trip from your computer to the server and back."

For important personal documents, here are two services that we feel have adequate security. There’s SugarSync (its iOS app is pictured right), which offers a 90-day free trial with a 5GB limit – you then have to subscribe and pay £4.50 per month (or £45 for a year) for 60GB. Trend Micro's SafeSync for Home is our other recommendation, which also offers a free trial, and is cheaper to subscribe to at £25 per year – but that’s for less storage space, 20GB to be precise. It all depends how much you need, really.

What to do with the originals

When you don't need the original papers anymore, shred them and recycle them.

When you do need to keep the original documents in addition to the digital file, you'll need a tight and clean system for storage. Actually, you need a system for storing papers that tend to pile up quickly and frequently but aren't a high priority for scanning, too.

Family archives. Delicate documents that you intend to pass down through generations, like original birth/marriage/death certificates, deserve special treatment. I'm no expert on preservation, so see the US National Archives' paper preservation tips instead. In addition to protecting those documents from light and moisture, you might also invest in an inexpensive fireproof lock box.

Short-term storage. For bits of paper you collect frequently and don't necessarily want to digitise on the spot, such as receipts and monthly invoices, I recommend using a very low-tech solution that doesn't create clutter but is very easily accessible. In my house, I have a few places where I tuck paper out of sight until I have a chance to scan it. An ordinary cardboard shoe box in my linen closet houses warranties for small appliances. I keep receipts in a plastic folder – one side for everyday purchases and the other for receipts from vacations and travelling. I have another folder where paper-based recipes go until I have time to scan or type them. For all my short-term storage needs, I've used simple solutions that are easily accessible so that I never have an excuse for leaving a slip of paper on the kitchen table. The folder is just over there, on the bookshelf, and it will take me approximately six seconds to file it away until I have more time to scan it.

Longer term storage. Once you scan and make use of the documents in short-term storage, you can likely shred or recycle them, or in the case of tax-applicable papers, move them to longer term storage.

If you have a filing cabinet at home, use it. If you don't have a filing cabinet (I don't), buy a simple accordion organiser for a tenner or so from any office supply store or supermarket. Accordion files blend right into bookshelves and fill the same role as a filing cabinet, just far more unobtrusively.

DIY document digitalisation

So many businesses want you to pay them to digitise your documents; just mail it all in and they'll take care of the rest. But why should you? It's not terribly difficult to do it yourself if you approach the project in a well-reasoned way, and the benefits can be enormous. Also, you won’t have any security worries that you might experience when sending your important stuff off to a third-party…