The technology to go paperless has been around for decades, but it’s one of the applications that has been the slowest to adopt. It doesn’t matter if it’s a mistrust of the technology or the inability to give up the comfort of holding paper in your hand. For many, it’s just hard.

But “going paperless” means different things to different age groups. Let’s look at them:

In your 20s and 30s: You don’t have to “go” paperless. You’ve never believed in anything that doesn’t fit on your smartphone, tablet or laptop. (And you have no idea what a filing cabinet is.)

In your 40s and 50s: While you didn’t grow up with computers the same way as the younger group, you barely resist getting your bills electronically and paying them online or through autopay. The papers you keep are mostly legal or historical, such as contracts, closing documents on your purchased home, wills and other estate-related documents, and copies of tax returns. You may have seen parents or grandparents file documents in filing cabinets with some organizational system – and you may have one of your own.

In your 60s and 70s: It was the 1980s when IBM’s Acorn and Apple’s Lisa were born, and computers spent the next 15 or 20 years becoming an integral part of our lives. By then, you had already gone to school, married and started handling your financial life “the old way:” receiving paper bills, mailing paper checks and keeping copies of everything. So the conversion to paperless depends entirely on how much you use and trust computers – and you may still be battling every attempt by your bank or cable network to go paperless. 

In your 80s and beyond: If you’ve made any move to paperless, it’s likely because some of your vital services – like cellphone or electric services – demand it. Even if you’ve kept up with basic computer usage, you may be concerned about how fast things are moving and changing, but you’re holding your own. If not, your children or grandchildren may have set services up on autopay for you, but you probably don’t like it. (Senior Forums.com asks, “Is anyone else bothered by paperless billing?” The answers include, “No, no, no…I need that paper bill IN HAND!” and “I’ll just keep things as they are … until I’m forced.”

But the comment that reflects some significant resistance is this one: “I’ve always kept the paper billings because I’m OLD and whoever will pay my bills when I’m gone needs the papered billings!”

Reasons for going paperless

The resistance to going paperless has its arguments. You can overlook an emailed statement if your mailbox is full. If you ever change email addresses, you must change the settings on every account. You could be more vulnerable to ID theft if you access statements from a computer that isn’t yours. And you have to manage all those account passwords.

On the other hand, there are some obvious benefits to going paperless. You create less waste and less clutter. It avoids late or lost statements in the mail – making them available anywhere with internet access instead. And it makes it easier to gather information at tax time.

The most practical reason, though, may be to help an aging family member. As a parent or relative ages, skipping bill payments can result in power shutoffs and late fees. And becoming overwhelmed by using a computer can open the senior to online scams – or simple-but-costly mistakes. 

But if that senior allows access to a trusted person – even if long-distance – both parties can enjoy tremendous peace of mind. And when the time comes that the loved one passes, there is already a backup in place with full knowledge of that person’s day-to-day finances, complete with working passwords. 

Seven steps to going paperless at home

Whether you are going paperless – or helping someone else do so – it can take a little time and planning. Here are the main steps:

  1. Sign up for electronic billing and notifications everywhere possible to minimize the paper entering your home.
  2. Set up a simple filing system of folders on your secure (antivirus- and antispyware-protected) computer where you save the documents you want to be able to access. Any system will work as long as you use it – and use it consistently. Download important attachments to incoming emails and save them in the appropriate folder, including confirmations of transactions.
  3. Once your system is set up, document it in writing (including passwords) and find a secure location for the information other than your computer. Let at least one trusted person know how to find it. You – or a loved one – may someday need to access your “digital life.”
  4. Keep essential documents in two places in case something happens to your computer. A second place could be a hard drive or cloud storage. And legal documents? Keep a physical copy of titles, deeds, wills, birth certificates and others in a fire-proof safe or safety deposit box.
  5. Invest in ample storage, such as cloud storage with state-of-the-art encryption, where you can park any scanned or saved documents other than on your computer. (This is especially important if you scan existing papers to clear out filing cabinets and accumulated paper piles; each file can be large.)
  6. Back up your computer regularly. By having a schedule – such as every Monday morning – you’ll never lose more than a week’s information. If you think you’ll forget, consider automatic backup software.
  7. Get a good crosscut or confetti shredder and shred any important paper that comes into your home – after you’ve scanned and filed it in your computer.

Going paperless won’t happen overnight. The process will depend on how far back you want to digitize and shred old papers – and how complicated your financial footprint is today.

You may want to get all future billing and transactions paperless first – to halt the new accumulation of paper in your home. Then chip away bit by bit at the backlog that’s already there.

One thing is for sure: it’s never too early, and it’s never too late.

Bill Harris is a Retirement Management Advisor® (RMA®), a CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™ practitioner (CFP®), a Master Elite Ed Slott Advisor, and author of ‘Inheriting Your Spouse’s IRA’. He is President of WH Cornerstone Investments, a financial advisory firm located in Kingston, MA. Learn more at whcornerstone.com/.

This article originally appeared in Old Colony Memorial.

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