The pros and cons of paper receipts vs. digital copies
Like many soon-to-be empty-nesters, Vered DeLeeuw and her husband have been thinking about downsizing. Surveying her garage, DeLeeuw noticed boxes of documents, pay stubs, bills, credit card statements -- 20 years worth -- and realized the harsh truth: She was a paper pack rat.
Using a paper shredder, it took her two months to trash everything. "I don't want to do this again in 20 years," she says. "That's why when a business asks if I want to go paperless or receive a receipt by email, I think, 'Why not?' "
There was a time when your only checkout decision was paper or plastic bag. Now, the question is "paper or digital receipt?" We must decide whether we want to collect all the receipts we need -- for tax purposes, warranties, insurance benefits, mail-in rebates and more -- in paper or virtual file folders. And we need to make the same choice about bills and all kinds of statements -- credit card, bank, investment and insurance -- as well as health records.
"The world is changing into an expectation of convenience, what I call 'B-To-Me' (business to me). Thanks to technology, not only can we bank through our smartphones, but receive bills and receipts digitally," says Alice Frazier, president and chief executive of Bank of Charles Town in West Virginia.
Digital bills, statements and receipts alleviate the costs of handling and processing for businesses. For customers, digital receipts save space and allow them to look things up quickly. And overall, digital bills, statements and receipts are friendlier for the environment, because they waste less money and require no physical delivery. The use of paper receipts consumes more than 3 million trees, 9 billion gallons of water and generates more than 4 billion pounds of carbon dioxide and 302 million pounds of solid waste during production, according to the 2019 report from Green America, a nonprofit group focused on environmental issues related to consumerism.
Roberto Castaneda, program director for Walden University's online master's in finance degree, says, "As we move into a digital world, we will see more retailers, medical offices, businesses and a host of venues taking advantage of digital processing of transactions."
Still, many of us grew up with paper, and it's hard to let go. You shouldn't beat yourself up if you like paper, says Eileen Roth, co-author of "Organizing For Dummies." "For bills that change monthly, like credit cards, I like the paper version to match to my paper receipts from the store. I could print a digital bill, but why do I want to spend my ink, my computer space and my time when the company will mail me the bill for free?"
Whether you prefer paper or digital, you need an organizational system that works, especially for receipts. Otherwise, you risk turning your disorganized receipt-stuffed cardboard shoe box into a digital one. Here's a look at both options.
• Provides a sense of security because the process has been in place for a long time.
• Accurate paper trail at your fingertips.
• No need for computer or smartphone.
• Printed bill is a reminder when bills are due.
• You're more likely to look at it.
• Take up space.
• May make it difficult to find a specific receipt.
• Receipt may deteriorate over time.
• Not environmentally friendly.
• Slower response time between payment and confirmation of receipt.
• Could get lost in the mail.
Tips for handling paper receipts, bills, statements:
Roth suggests a two-pronged approach: one for bills and statements (bank, brokerage, credit card), and one for receipts. Label one large plastic file folder "To Pay" in which to sort all incoming bills. Once a week, open this file. Mark each bill with the date paid. Sort paid bills into paper file folders labeled by category, such as utilities, insurance, medical, donations and warranties. Place statements in appropriately labeled folders for future reference.
For your receipts, buy a 12-month check file folder. This is where you will temporarily store all your small paper receipts. Sort by categories such as groceries, restaurants, office, gasoline, hardware stores, hobby/craft. Each month, when your credit card statement arrives, match the receipts to your statement. After matching, you can pitch grocery, restaurant, car wash, gasoline and similar receipts. Pull out any receipt for warranties and place it into the appropriate folder. Staple the remaining receipts to your credit card statement. After a year, shred or destroy the statement and attached receipts.
You can toss warranties when you no longer have the product or the warranty expires. Hang onto bank statements for one year until you file your taxes. However, says Roth, if you have no write-offs, there is no need to keep them more than two months once you have balanced your statements.
Castaneda advises keeping investment and brokerage statements until six years after you've sold your stocks or bonds. Likewise, retain physical receipts of the purchase of your home and remodeling costs for, at minimum, six years after selling your home and filing your taxes.
Though Castaneda prefers digital records, he does print and store tax return documents in a large envelope marked "Tax Return" and the year. "Many organizations provide digital copies of tax documents such as W-2s, brokerage and mortgage statements, and real estate taxes, which I also print and store in my tax return file," he says. "Keeping tax documents in one folder eliminates the hassle of trying to gather them later if the IRS calls."
• Reduces clutter.
• Eliminates the need for shredding.
• Environmentally friendly.
• Searchable from your computer.
• Can file and store receipts in multiple categories.
• Can confirm your payment was submitted properly and received on time.
• Access from anywhere.
• Easier to overlook or miss a bill payment.
• Requires general technology skills.
• Often requires signing into a website to view.
• May require a scanner to digitize receipts.
• Risks someone compromising your data.
• Could lose data in case of a computer crash, unless you store your data in the cloud.
• May require an online storage service or external hard drive large enough to hold your data.
Tips for handling digital receipts, bills statements:
Robert Berger, deputy editor of Forbes Money Advisor and author of "Retire Before Mom and Dad," figured converting from paper to digital was as simple as buying a scanner to digitize his receipts and bills, giving each a unique name, then putting them all into an online folder. "Because I was selling my house and moving into a new one, I became super-focused on decluttering and finding an organizational method that worked," he says. What sounded good in theory didn't pan out. "My paper mess became a digital mess," he says.
His solution: Create an online filing system involving Dropbox for storage and several Google docs organized by topic, such as "house" or "medical." Invoices, receipts for large purchases and bills that come as attachments instead of embedded within an email get scanned and converted to a PDF, as do any important paper receipts such as his home inspection and deed. Either the email or PDF is saved to Dropbox. A link for each is copied and pasted into the appropriate Google doc.
"I can see every service call for home repairs by looking at one master document. If I need the receipt, it's one click away," says Berger, who adds that you can even give your master document with embedded links to receipts and statements to your accountant come tax season. There's no need to send credit card statements or similar documentation unless your tax preparer asks for it.
For those who prefer what Frazier calls "a virtual file cabinet," consider downloading statements and/or investment reports to your online storage. Categorize them into labeled folders such as "retirement" or "Visa card." Another option is to use a free online financial management tool -- for example, Mint, which can automatically connect to and import your financial data, including credit cards, bank and retirement accounts, into one easily accessible place.
DeLeeuw's two-month shredding slog was worth it. Now she stores all her bills and receipts on an external hard drive in folders sorted by topic and year. "It was amazingly scary to shred all that paper," she says, "but once I got started I realized, 'Who needs a 20-year-old utility bill?' "