This is my second post on decluttering to downsize. The first post was about getting started with letting go.
This post tackles two specific issues in two separate parts.
- The first issue is papers and files and how to cut them down to size.
- The second issue is making some order out of the chaos we’ve created with photos and digital images.
If you are reading this post, I am guessing that you are anticipating a downsizing move and have been busily pairing down your furnishings and knick-knacks. You’ve been parting with parts of your past and making good progress. Then you hit a brick wall! Your file cabinets and family photos. One of the biggest issues people have is how to declutter papers, files, and photos. It can feel like walking through mud to get through it all.
The thing about paper is that it is insidious stuff. One piece of paper doesn’t take up much room. But pieces of paper have a tendency to multiply like bunnies. Worse still, nothing makes a home seem more cluttered than too much paper. The same holds for family photos. Particularly in the digital age where people take more photos than ever before. If you are a print junkie, the number of photos taking up space can easily get out of control.
So here are 11 decluttering hacks designed to help you tame your files and papers. Taking care of this issue before you downsize your home, will make settling into your new space much easier.
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Know what papers you actually need to hang onto…
To keep for the current month only…
- Receipts that are not required for tax purposes
- Current bank and credit card statements
- ATM receipts and Deposits
To keep for one year…
- Pay Stubs and checkbook reconciliations
- Mortgage statements
- Insurance policies
- Purchase warranties
To keep for all time – take these right to the grave with you…
- Birth certificates
- Adoption papers
- Social security cards
- Military Records
- Marriage/divorce decrees
- Wills and Trusts
- Death certificates of family members
- Tax returns – conventional advice is 7 years/ conservative advice is “forever”
Keep until no longer relevant…
- vehicle titles – for as long as you own the vehicle
- Home deeds – for as long as you own the home
- Home improvement receipts – until you sell your home
- Loan documents – keep for the life of the loan
- Tax-related documents – 7 years
Decluttering hack #2 – Get rid of dated files…
Over the years we keep filing away our canceled checks and bank statements. The trouble is we never seem to actually get rid of our older files, we just keep accumulating. For the most part, you can get rid of files and statements after 7 years. If you have lived in the same home for a long time, getting rid of these old files and canceled checks can make a really big dent in your paper pile. This one simple step can bring sanity to many an overstuffed file cabinet.
Tip: Don’t aim for perfection here. At least not from the get-go. You can make tracks by getting rid of vast chunks of paper that you obviously don’t need. Do you really need that 5-year-old canceled check you have from a local pet shop? Discard the things you obviously don’t need first. This pares the pile to a more manageable size and makes deeper purges easier to tackle.
Disposing of files properly…
We live in a time where identity theft is the fastest growing crime in the U.S. and one of the fastest-growing crimes throughout the developed world. So when you are disposing of personal files, it needs to be done properly.
If you have a lot of files, you will either need to invest in a paper shredder or take the old files to a “public shredder”. Where I live in Westchester NY, there is a county-sponsored mobile shredder. Which is great. They have several events a year where each family can bring up to four file boxes of confidential papers to be shredded. However, if you have lived in your home for a long time and have collected multiple papers, you will probably need to invest in a personal shredder.
This AmazonBasics 12-Sheet High-Security Micro-Cut Shredder pretty much does it all. It is not a bargain, but if you are doing a major decluttering, this shredder pretty much has it all. There are several features which I like for people undergoing a major clear out.
- It allows for 12 sheets at a time
- It micro-cuts the paper
- You can shred credit cards AND CDs (to the youngsters – yes, we used to back info on CDs!)
- It has a nice pull-out bin which some other models don’t
The pull-out bin is really an important feature. I know it sounds trivial, but the mechanism of the shredder is HEAVY. If you are doing a substantial amount of shredding, lifting that mechanism up to empty the bin over and over again is a royal pain. This is particularly true if you have back issues! Please trust me on this issue because I’ve been there. If you are doing a major cleanout and have lots of files, I wouldn’t even think of getting a shredder that didn’t have this feature. For lighter, more occasional use there are less expensive options as well.
Decluttering hack #3 – Do not try to cull 20 years of files in one day…
I tried this and it was a big mistake. I’m one of those people who wants to attack a problem and cross it off the list. When my father died, I had about 25 years of papers to go through and I tried to tackle the whole thing in one day. Never again. I promise you it is not worth the satisfaction of getting that one thing checked off a list. Here’s why:
- It’s boring enough to drive even a piker like me to drink. I had a major date with a bottle of red wine that night, and I’m not a heavy drinker.
- You will find yourself swamped with piles and piles of shredded paper. My famous shredding binge generated somewhere between 25-30 bags of shredded paper. Until I was able to recycle it, we were constantly tripping over all the bags while trying to clear out the rest of the house.
- When you push hard on a tedious task like this, it increases the likelihood that you will make a mistake and shred something you may need later. Yes, I did that. I only did it on one document but was cursing the day that I was born when I had to spend the better part of a day tracking down what I shredded by mistake. Looking back on it, I was lucky that I only messed up on one document.
Decluttering hack #4: Ditch paper versions of owners manuals…
Last summer I bought a portable AC unit and it came with this massive amount of instructions and information. As I attempted to stuff it into my ever-growing file of users manuals, I realized that this was a huge waste of space. You can find these manuals online. They are usually in downloadable PDF versions. Keep them on your hard drive and you’re done. These are easily retrievable.
Decluttering hack #5: Digitize, digitize, digitize!
True confession: I hate paper. Give me a PDF any day over a pile of paper. I guess I’m naturally messy with paper. When I have a small pile of bank statements and paper receipts I always end up making a mess. The faster these things find their way to a digital format, the better organized I am. Bank statements are generally available as downloadable PDF’s. You can print them if you need to, but saving them on your hard drive saves a ton of space.
Now, be aware that hard drives can lose data, be corrupted or simply die. So, of course, you back up all these documents!
Backing up using an external hard drive…
Personally, I prefer to back up my hard drive to an external hard drive. This is a personal preference. Cloud storage can become like an ever-expanding file cabinet if you let it. Having a finite space (even if generous) forces me to cull things every so often.
I like the LaCie USB-C, USB-3 portable 2 TB Hard Drive which is pictured here. Since I’m a photographer, I prefer to have at least 2 TB. These hard drives come in 4 sizes 1,2,4, and 5 TB. I have found that 4 TB allows me to save more high-density images than my regular Desktop HD could ever manage. Now, I am an avid photographer with a LOT of high memory images. For most people, 2 TB is probably more than enough.
LaCie is popular because it’s dependable and sturdy. Though I wouldn’t leave it outside in a hurricane, it is also rain-resistant as well as drop and crush resistant. LaCie also has a two-year warranty which includes Rescue Data Recovery Services.
Backing up to the cloud…
For those who prefer cloud storage, DropBox is probably the most widely used. If you want to step it up a notch for your documents, you can also consider a DropBox Business subscription. I’ve used DropBox for additional image storage and to share images with family, friends, and clients. I’ve never had an issue with it and it is excellent for sharing large files with others. The price is reasonable even if you have significant storage needs and there is a free trial. There is also GoogleDrive which gives you 15 GB for free and very reasonable price points to up that storage. For those with Macs, there is always iCloud. iCloud gives you 5 GB for free, but the pricing to the next level is currently very reasonable.
You can also keep certain vital documents in cloud storage while also backing up to an external hard drive. This provides extra security without the monthly “fee creep” that happens when you just keep storing more stuff in the cloud.
Decluttering hack #6: Scan items that you only have in paper format…
If you want to save paper receipts and other (particularly) tax-related documents, the best thing to do is to invest in a scanner. These days scanners often come in the form of 4-in-1 functional units (a printer, copier, scanner, and fax machine. Truth be told, for simple documents, this is all you are going to really need. They are inexpensive, don’t take up much space and if you are in a small space, they are compact.
This HP Office Jet 4650 printer, copier, scanner, fax combo is what I have in my own home office. This is not a long-term product that is going to last for 10-15 years. But it works well, has all the functions that I need, and takes up very little space. It’s extremely effective for people working in a small home office. It is also relatively inexpensive unless you do a great deal of printing. The cartridges are not cheap, particularly the color cartridges. But if you are doing a great deal of printing, especially in terms of photos, this is probably not the printer for you anyway. Just an FYI: I don’t use this for photos!
If you are going to scan large numbers of documents, like 20 years of tax returns and large numbers of dead files, you are going to need a sheet feed scanner. Whether you go this route or not depends on your needs. Sure, it would be great to digitize literally everything. But whether or not it is necessary is another matter. Using the flatbed scanner or even the small paper feed found on the combo unit above is like water torture if you are scanning multiple large files.
For this sort of intensive business scanning, you need something like the Fujitsu Image Scanner ScanSnap iX500. This scanner can handle any type of document work you could throw at it. It comes with PDF creation software. It can also generate password and digital ID attached PDF files. I have not had the need for such a major scanner, but it has been recommended by several sources and has very strong reviews on multiple platforms. It’s been described as both reliable and intuitive. The satisfaction rate is very high.
Just be aware that this is a pretty pricey item meant mostly for heavy-duty users. I include it here because there are people who will want to digitize 20+ years of filing, particularly if they are downsizing to a smaller space. Anyone doing that much scanning will find your typical flat-bed scanner entirely insufficient.
Decluttering hack #7: Have a goal in mind for your photos…
We are now switching gears to photos. Photos are very unlike important papers. When it comes to papers and files, what you need to keep is more cut and dried. Making decisions about physical photos and digital images is far more personal. After all, photos and digital images are like a history of your life in images…
These days family photos can run the gamut from old prints that are over 100 years old, to all the random selfies you put onto Instagram with your smartphone. For most of us, the sources are endless. They can take the form of old black and white photos from our parents and grandparent’s childhoods. There can be snapshots taken with polaroids or more traditional but simple cameras. Then there are the negatives…Don’t forget those! By the beginning of the 2000’s, we switched to digital cameras ranging from simple point-and-shoots to complex DSLRs. Then along came the SmartPhone camera.
The explosive growth in camera usage in all its variations makes cataloging your photos far more complicated than it used to be. Before you start putting literally everything you have onto a hard drive or in the cloud, you need a game plan. Otherwise, your need for storage is going to explode.
- What images do want to have on display?
- Will these images be mostly virtual or prints?
- Do you want photobooks of certain events, trips or celebrations?
- Would you be framing some images as large prints? If so, which ones?
Working out these kinks will help you define your goals and make the task a whole lot easier.
Decluttering hack #8: Purge the easy stuff first…
This applies to digital files as well as physical photos. Purge images that you will never use. Get rid of the following:
- Duplicates – do you really need 10 copies of the same photo?
- Almost duplicates – So you took 100 photos of the same thing to capture the “best” image. Once you’ve found the best 1 or two images, it’s time to let go of the rest!
- Blurred images – even with photoshop, these can be very hard to fix…
- Overexposed and underexposed images – I have salvaged such images – but you need a high-density image and good photoshop skills to pull this off. Unless the image is very special, it is not worth the effort.
- Images with serious composition problems – It would look great if only you had been 50 feet closer to the subject…
- Miscellaneous images of people you don’t know or places you don’t recognize – Seriously, it’s time to let go…
Decluttering hack #9 – Find the right photo-scanner for the job…
If you and your family are casual photographers that want to preserve the memories you have in your print collection, keeping it simple makes sense. You need a decent flatbed scanner capable of imaging photographs up to 8″x 10″ cleanly.
On the other hand, if you are trying to restore old photos or if you are a professional or semi-professional, you probably need to go to the next level. For this type of photographer, quality is more important than speed. This also holds if you are the family archivist. Every family should have at least one archivist that preserves the history and memories of the family. If you want very high-resolution prints or are planning to make prints of images that you have enlarged, then you need to go to the next level.
For this type of scanning the Epson Perfection V600, Flatbed Scanner has rave reviews. It scans photos, film, negatives, and documents. This is a particularly good scanner for archivists because it can scan slides, negatives, and film. It can scan up to 6400 x 9600 dpi which allows for a photo enlargement of up to 17″ x 22. The strong reviews include quite a few professional photographers who put this scanner through its paces.
Decluttering hack #10 – If you are downsizing, prioritize your photo archiving…
This is just for the sake of sanity. You in the middle of a major move. Decide how much photo organizing need to be done before the move and what can wait until after.
When my mother passed away, I had to vacate the house very quickly. I was also entering a medical school as a graduate student. This meant that even though I was doing work that I loved, I was entering the 7th circle of hell in terms of time and sleep deprivation. It wasn’t planned this way, but my life was being disrupted on every possible side you could imagine.
Then I ran up against the photos. There were 4 generations of photos crammed into numerous boxes scattered throughout the house. It was 2 weeks before I had to matriculate into my graduate program when I finally felt it was “now or never” with the family photos. This was in the pre-digital age of the late 90s. No scanners or digital files that could be left for later.
I decided to take action and bought 6 photo albums. I sat cross-legged on the living room floor for about 12 days culling, categorizing, purging duplicates and putting together a family history of 4 generations. It worked out, and perhaps the urgency pushed me through the process more effectively then if I had had unlimited time, but it isn’t an experience that I would want to repeat.
Today I would suggest that anyone in the throes of moving you should deal with their hard copies by scanning them and storing them properly before the move. These are too easily damaged or lost during the process of the move. You also need to make sure you have all the digital files stored either in the cloud or on a dedicated hard drive. Sorting and displaying the digital files can become a nice project to tackle when you are finally settled in your new digs. Just realize that this is something you need to attend to. Files like this will continue to grow and become harder and harder to deal with as time goes on. Remember that the goal is to enjoy and share your photo collection. It’s of no use or joy to anyone sitting on a hard drive.
Decluttering hack #11 – Scan older photos that are in danger of fading…
This isn’t so much a decluttering hack, but more of a preservation hack. If you have very old and personally valuable photos, you want to preserve the quality. These photos deserve some TLC and should be scanned so that when they fade, you have a scanned image that has better resolution. Believe me, the effort is worthwhile.
This photo was scanned by my aunt. It helped preserve this publicity photo of my Dad with his father. My Dad was in South Korea, and got to see his own father in South Korea because he was part of a USO tour. By scanning the photo and sharing it, my aunt not only preserved an old “jem”, but the process allowed it to be shared with many family members. No need for negatives and multiple prints.
Decluttering hack #12 – Create polished photobooks for special events…
For special family celebrations or for that wonderful trip you took to Spain, there is nothing like creating a photo book to put your most prized memories in one place. Photobooks can act as a link allowing an entry point for the world of physical prints into our digital world. Among the most popular of such services is SnapFish, Shutterfly, Mixbook, Blurb, and AdoramaPix. The best thing to do is to look at the pricing and options and decide which service is best for your project. This will organize your special photos and display them all at the same time. They also can make wonderful family gifts if you are the family curator.
Having organized photos allows everyone to enjoy them. Scattered photos almost never see the light of day. And photobooks are a great way to do this. The display below is far easier for family and friends to appreciate, than scattered random photos.
I know that all of this can seem a bit overwhelming. Remember that these are projects that are best taken piecemeal. If you are downsizing to a new and smaller home, the digital files can be just as easily dealt with after your move.
Remember that the end goal is to make sure that your files and photos don’t overwhelm you. There is less space to stash boxes of unorganized items when you live in a smaller space. The final goal is for you to create a space where you can find what you need and want to preserve easily. When it comes to family items, including photos, the things that you decide to keep you need to be able to enjoy yourself and with others.
All the best until next time…
A pack rat’s guide to shredding…
No brainer things to toss during a paper decluttering session…
No brainer photos to toss during a photo decluttering session…
Buy the right scanner for your needs…
The best photobook services online in 2019…
Other Articles in this series…
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