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Updated: Feb 4, 2023

This article was originally written for an published in The Business Bulletin.

These days we hear a lot about “being green.” And while I believe in being a good steward of the earth God has put in our care, I want to balance the impact of cutting out paper waste with the understanding of how the process would benefit my operation. To put it bluntly, I want to help the environment, but I’m not sure I’m ready to spend lots of time and money doing it, unless I’m convinced it’s a worthy cause. I would expect the same of you.

So here’s our story of going paperless: Back in 2003, we began to go paper-less (emphasis on having less paper, not eliminating it) in earnest. Prior to that we copied all the documents our clients brought us and bound them down on one side of a file folder. On the other side we bound down a copy of the printed tax return for that year. Our files were getting fuller and fuller and when we began to feel cramped for room, we would purge records. (we’re required to have copies for 3 years after the due date of all returns in our possession at all times). Invariably, after purging files, we would run into some need and the files were already destroyed. So we had the frustration of trying to balance not having enough room with not wanting to toss something we would need later.

So we began to scan old files and store them in our computers as PDF files. All new paperwork coming in was also scanned and saved, then returned to our clients. For this we use a program called an electronic file cabinet, or efile cabinet. Think of your efiling system as being a series of huge filing cabinets arranged in a room. Each cabinet would be titled with certain topics, like business tax clients, individual tax clients and payroll clients, etc. Each client is assigned an entire drawer within the cabinet. Finally, each batch of papers you put there (such as 2010 tax return or a Jan 2010 IRS letter) is a file within that drawer.

So what’s the big deal? What’s in it for me? That’s what I wanted to know, and it turns out there are plenty of reasons, many of which I didn’t realize until later!

  • Soon after we got our feet wet with filing our documents electronically and shredding the cabinets full of paper, my little family needed to be away from home for an extended period. I had to set up office in a little apartment across the border in Mexico while we were working on adopting children. I was able to take all of the tax returns copies, plus the work papers for three years, for every client on a single CD.

  • With my current set up, I can access my computer while away from the office, and look at any file, just as if I were there and grabbing a file out of the cabinet (and woe to those times where the file was not filed correctly in alphabetical order).

  • My computer is backed up nightly by an internet backup system, so in the case of a fire, I won’t lose all those important documents.

  • I have less back-aches from lugging around cartons of paper.

  • I burn less calories and spend less time looking for files and taking them back and forth to and from my desk. (Is that good or bad)?

  • My printers and copiers last much longer, and talk about toner savings!

  • Less trash to the dump, and less danger of somebody breaching security by reading something private about a client in the trash if we failed to shred it before tossing it.

  • Emailing and faxing files is a very easy process (usually one click).

  • If the program is set up correctly, files are searchable.

So, how about it, is it something you want to do? Take a little time to assess your own office to see if there would be benefit in going with an electronic filing system. Here are some questions to help you decide if there are benefits for you:

1. What are the steps a piece of paper takes on it’s journey through your system?

2. Are there documents that are not replaceable in case of fire that would seriously hinder your operation if they were lost?

3. Do you have plenty of physical space to store paper documents?

4. Do you often find yourself needing to locate a particular document and spending time searching for it?

5. Would it be of benefit to you to be able to access your files while you away from your office?

6. Do you need to share your documents often? Do you fax and email documents on a frequent basis?

7. Do some of your documents become un-readable in time, such as credit card receipts? I can readily see how a trucking company could use an efile cabinet system. Load tickets, fuel tickets, logs, etc., would build up to a tremendous amount of paperwork over time. These could be scanned and would be available later in case of an IRS or DOT audit.

A carpenter might keep a paper file for a job he’s working on, and when the job is over he could scan the documents and toss them. Later, that file can be searched electronically to see what materials or fixtures he used where, and even who worked on the job. This might come in handy figuring future estimates.

Car and equipment dealers work with quite a few forms, especially if they offer financing along with equipment they sell. Real Estate agents file contracts and records on properties. Farm supply, feed and hardware stores need to keep files on all customers that purchase goods tax exempt. In any of the above businesses and many more, there could be benefits of an efile cabinet system. Just stop and think of the most logical way you would file the documents in a physical filing cabinet and set up your efile cabinet system accordingly.

Here’s how you get the files into the system:

If you purchase an efile cabinet, it comes with a utility that looks and acts just like a printer. In other words, when you want to save an invoice, for example you simply print it to the efile cabinet. Instead of choosing your printer, you choose a printer the program has set up for you and your document is sent to the efile cabinet. A screen will pop up that will allow you to choose which cabinet and draw to file the document(s) in. The same thing happens with any document you’ve received in an email or opened in your word processor. For documents not originating in your computer, but received from your customers, in the mail, or wherever, you simply slip them in the scanner and scan to your efile cabinet. Your program will ask you which drawer to file it in and give you a chance to name the file. At this point you can usually choose if you want the document to be searchable or not. Searchable documents can be very useful, though they may take a little more disk space. If you are scanning all your bills as you are paying them, and saving them as searchable documents the computer will try to index all the words in the document for your future search. Later, when you wonder how many miles your car had when you bought the new tires, you would go to the drawer for 2010 bills and enter the word “tires” and any document with that word in it would come up. Or you might enter “Larry’s Lube and Tire” and all bills from him would show up. Then you could further narrow the search down to 2001 Chevy, etc. With my email program open on one side of the screen and my efile cabinet open on the other, I just open an email to a particular person, then select a document in the cabinet and drag it over to be dropped on the email. Bingo! It’s attached and with a click it’s sent. Since I use an email fax, I can fax the same way (see further explanation at the end of this article).

I use a little e-file cabinet program called FileCenter. It is very intuitive, quite easy to learn, has very powerful features and would work for almost anybody. It’s worth buying just to use as a program to make scanning and printing documents easier.


This could be another subject all of it’s own. If you have a decent internet connection and a good e-fax program, you’ll find your fax machine gathering dust on the shelf. The program I use is called Send2fax. Though there is a limited free edition, by paying a small fee, I get a toll free fax number and some other useful options. All faxes to that number come to me as emails. I can open them and decide if I want to print them, send them to my efile cabinet, save them somewhere else, or delete them right on the spot. They will still be available on the website for about 30 days. I can quickly send a fax to multiple recipients straight out of my contact program. Records of which faxes went through and which didn’t are always available. Delayed faxing can be set up if you’re working in the wee hours and do not wish to wake the recipient. The more you pay for, the more cool options you get. There are other e-fax programs out there, check them out and find one that suits your needs. I honestly think you will throw your fax machine and extra phone line away after you use some of these programs for a bit. Of course, this isn’t for everybody, but thanks for following my little story.

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