The Paperless Home Office

As a home office worker, I have a lot of paper that comes through my office space. Bills, receipts, statements– everything. I get contracts to be signed from clients, then signed contracts returned. Printouts of proposals. Bills for my cell phone service, Feedburner, my web hosts, dues renewal notices. Not to mention the receipts– for every bill, there is a receipt somewhere. Then my bank sends a statement each month, so I know those receipts came out of my account. When I finish working on a project, I generate an invoice, to be sent to the client, who then sends me a check.

And then there are the numerous unsolicited/unnecessary bits that come in. The bill for services I didn’t want or need. The membership offer I didn’t ask for. The reams of paper addressed to my business name, proof that these companies are skimming the Doing Business As list for contact information.

How’s a writer to manage so much…. paper?

For starters, I take any bill with an electronic option and subscribe to the e-bill option, using my secured, nobody-has-it-on-a-website, super-secret email address. This is the one without a spam filter, the one I only give out to friends (and which, therefore, “only” gets ten spam messages a day). There are three important folders in my mail program: Receipts. Invoices. Statements. Receipts for online purchases/services go in the Receipts folder. I don’t have to file by date, because it’s automatically sorted by date. Incoming bills from companies go into the Invoices folder, again sorted by date.

On my hard drive, I have a folder called “Paperless” which contains several folders, particularly: Receipts, Invoices, and Statements. Under each of these, I have folders by date, starting with the year, then the month (example: “Paperless/Receipts/2006/10” for receipts I received in October, 2006).

The Invoices folder here is different from the one in my mail program– it’s for outgoing invoices, not incoming. I should probably make a folder for “Bills-Incoming,” but I find that most bills are really account statements anyway, so they go into the Statements folder.

At least once a week, I do the following paperwork for my business:
Login to my bank’s website and check my account. Find any transactions I forgot to enter into Quickbooks and enter them.
Gather up all my receipts. Scan them into the computer using my flatbed scanner (it was about $50 and well worth the purchase). File the scanned images into the Receipts folder under this month’s date.
Gather up any bills or statements I’ve received in the mail and scan them in as well. I tend to put this off a lot, but you can receive most bills electronically now. You don’t have to save old bills and bank statements after you’ve paid them off or reconciled your statements, but sometimes it helps to have them if you need to look something up.
I enter my hours on my timecard in Quickbooks as well.
This is also a good time to write any progress reports for my clients and submit them.

The scanning and filing takes about twenty minutes, usually less. The majority of the time is spent removing stuff from on top of the scanner and finding the receipts, so if you keep all your receipts in one place, it would be closer to five minutes or less.

At the end of the month, I generate invoices for my clients using Quickbooks. I use a Mac, so when I go to print the invoices, I just print them as PDFs and save them in the Invoices folder under today’s date. I number my invoices by the year, so my next invoice will be “200703,” because it’s the third invoice I’ve created this calendar year. Generating invoices is always easier than I think it should be, and takes less than five minutes. Most of my clients accept invoices by email, so I can just send the PDF to them as an attachment, and save a stamp. I do check the PDFs before I mail them out, though. One time I wasn’t so careful, and ended up sending a PDF of my account balance summary instead! Very embarrassing.

The end of the month is also a good time to search my bank’s website for all transactions in that month, and save them as a PDF as well.

There are only a few things I keep in paper. Signed contracts, for example, get put in a special hard-copy folder in my office. Also, my taxpayer ID number is something I often need, but don’t want to keep on my computer. So it goes on a piece of paper next to my desk. Finally, I don’t scan and file anything I don’t want to keep– instead I throw it away right then!

After doing all this, I toss everything into the shredder for disposal.
By capturing everything electronically as much as possible, my desk can be cluttered with computers and cameras, pens and paper, iPods and remote controls, instead of stacks and stacks of paper and file folders.

Updated January 24: Thanks to Dawn for reminding me about the backup policy! Every month, I burn a CD of my financial papers and store it in a CD folder (I should do this daily, I’m sure). Off-site backups, as long as they’re secure, are another option. And a tip if you like Quicken: the new version of Quicken (Deluxe and Premiere) can link a transaction to a file on your hard drive. Sadly, Quickbooks doesn’t offer this.

6 thoughts on “The Paperless Home Office

  1. I think it’s a great idea to digitize any paperwork that you can and get rid of the mounds of paper we all end up with. Hopefully, you’re backing up your info on CDs, DVDs, or portable hard drives. Otherwise, you run the risk of losing it all if your hard drive decides to quit on you. It happened to my brother several years ago when he had his own business. Luckily, he had paper copies (yeah, it was waaaaay back before portable hard drives), so he could enter the info back in to his computer when he got the drive replaced in his computer.

    Great article by the way! Would you mind if I mentioned it on my blog at, if I provide my readers with a link back to you?

  2. Why not add Amazon S3 to your backup protocol? It’s only $0.15 per GB-Month of storage used, and $0.20 per GB of data transferred. With tools like Jungle Disk and “S3 Backup,” it’s ridiculously easy to move important data over to it as well.

    Worried about encryption? For the Windows/Linux users, there’s TrueCrypt. For OS X, there’s OpenSSL. Wrap all your financial info up into one compressed file, encrypt it, and send up to Amazon S3. Presto! Reliable, secure backup of all your files for less than $5 annually.

    Of course, Amazon could fail, too, so you might as well have the CD and/or harddrive backup, too. But isn’t

  3. Wonderful website. Plenty of helpful info here. I am sending it to a few pals ans also sharing in delicious. And obviously, thank you for your sweat!

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