Going Paperless: Advanced Backups

Do you remember that receipt you put in your pocket last week? Sure you do. Pull it out and the ink will most likely have faded to the point that half the receipt is gone. Now imagine that happening to your birth certificate or pink slip of your car. Sucks right? Backups can (and should) be more than just your digital life; you have physical documents that are way more important.

This post is a continuation of my ongoing quest for the perfect backup. I’m now reasonably happy with the system I have in place for my digital files and have turned my attention to my physical files. So how did I get to this point?

Warranty issues

A while back I bought some new appliances for my kitchen; a new dishwasher and microwave to be exact. My warranty information was printed on the receipt and the girl who gave me the receipt told me that I should scan it into my computer, because the ink was going to fade before the warranty would run out. I’d never really thought about this, but without that little piece of paper, I had no warranty from the store at all, since I couldn’t prove I actually bought the items there. So I did as she said and decided to keep the paper receipt in my wallet to see how fast it would fade. The wallet was an especially bad choice, because due to friction and warmth all of the ink was gone in two weeks. That’s right, two weeks! So your Costanza-wallet doesn’t just make you sit at an angle, it also does absolutely nothing for all of those receipts you’ve crammed in there.

Nothing is eternal

The best example I can give is my recent trip to Washington. I went to see the Declaration of Independence, arguably the most important document in the history of the United States. This document was written in 1776 and is housed in the National Archives amongst other important documents. While the archives do absolutely everything they can to protect the document, including lasers and low-intensity lighting (don’t act like you haven’t seen National Treasure) there is almost nothing left to read. Like that receipt in your wallet, the ink has faded.

Declaration of Independence


While Thomas Jefferson and his buddies had a good excuse since it would be about 230 years before smartphones will be invented, we have no such excuse. Now take a moment to think of things you have on paper you might not want to lose.

Your inventory

So what did you think of? Probably that receipt that you’ve had in your wallet for years and some other notes right? Did you think of you birth certificate? How about the deed to your house? College degrees? All of these are infinitely more important to back up than your last e-mail thread with your buddy arguing if Stallone or Schwarzenegger would win in a fistfight. (Schwarzenegger, obviously.) So while you’ve got your digital backups distributed over three different drives, one off-site location and a cloud-solution, the actual important information is in a drawer in your desk fading to nothing or waiting for a fire to break out in your house. Imagine your wallet being stolen; sucks right? You have to call all the companies whose card you carry to cancel it and go though hours and hours of paperwork to get them replaced. You don’t even want to find out how easy those tasks seem to be when the documents you’ve lost are the documents that prove you are actually you.

 Now what?

Ok, I’ve scared you enough, it’s time to get scanning. To get you going, run through this list of thing you might want to back up:

  • Legal documents
    This one is a no-brainer; your birth certificate, passport, drivers license, mortgage papers and college degrees need to be digitized as soon as possible. Anything that includes the words ‘legal’, ‘diploma’ or ‘certificate’ should be a trigger to scan/photograph. This will be the most important set of digital documents you will ever own and could save your life someday. (maybe you’ll get your identity stolen and these files are the only way to prove you are you.)
  • Receipts and warranty information
    I don’t need to explain this one right? You want the warranty, you need the papers.
  • Lists
    I’m a huge fan of lists. I have a list of movies I own, a list of dates when something major happened to my house (like new roofing, for warranty purposes of course), a list of addresses I send Christmas cards to and even a list of electronic devices in the house including their serial numbers. I found out the hard way that law enforcement will only return your property if you can provide them with the serial number. Guess where that number is: only on the actual device, nowhere else. If you want you stuff back, you need these numbers.
  • Physical items
    Your trip to Starbucks yesterday is on Instagram, but if you’re like me your baby-pictures are actual physical photos, and they are decaying at an alarming rate. These are the pictures that matter; your first steps, pictures with your (grand)parents that may or may not have passed away and even old pictures that you’re not even in because you weren’t born yet. You might also want to consider taking pictures of things like that pendant you inherited from your grandmother. If it ever gets stolen that photo might be the last thing you have.

Time to digitize

You now probably have a huge pile of stuff you want to digitize and backup. If you have a lot of papers, and you do if you’ve used my list, you might want to treat yourself to a Doxie. These things are seriously awesome and let you scan without using a computer. Park yourself in front of the TV, watch some Breaking Bad and scan away, you don’t even have to look at what you’re doing. For non-paper items I recommend Evernote and it’s camera functions. If you have any sensitive information you want to put in a list check out 1Password; make yourself a secure note and you’re good to go.

Backing up the files that you’ve just made works exactly the same as my previous post. For some things, like your birth certificate, you’ll never have to think of the file again. If you’re worried about security, I’ve got you covered: Get yourself Dropbox with 2-step verification and upload your sensitive documents as a password-protected zip-file. If someone knows your Dropbox password they’ll still need your phone, if they’ve also got your phone they’ll still need your zip-password. That’s 3 layers of security, which should be enough.

Work these methods into your standard backup routine and you’ll sleep a lot better knowing that all of your data is backed up and safe, no matter what. Happy scanning.

image credit

Header image: NBC
Declaration of independence: Gerard van der Leun on Flickr