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The Recyclist: Where did all this paper come from, and what is it doing in my house?

February 8, 2010 | 11:47 am

During my recent cleaning spree, I happened upon the basket I use to stow old bills. Now, that's not where the statements belong, mind you. It's just where they stack up until I have time to file them. But as I flipped through the accumulated statements, it's clear I haven't had time to file in, let's see, about two years. I also realized that I have never, never, ever, not once, gone back to check an old statement. In other words, it's a complete waste of trees, a waste of space, a waste of filing time. (Or it would have been a waste of filing time if I had actually filed them.) And I have to admit that this basket of paper is just one of many piles that I have stacked up all around the house, supposedly making me feel like I am organized and instead adding to my stress level because I can't find anything when I need it.

It's time to go paperless.

For the longest time, I avoided the paperless billing, even though I pay bills online. If you asked why, I'd tell you that I fretted missing an e-mail alert since I'm not the best when it comes to checking my personal e-mail. (I am tethered to my work e-mail. The last thing I want to do when I get home is check another e-mailbox.) Besides, what if I needed to look up a past bill quickly? Wasn't it handier to have a hard copy?

But here's the truth: Paperless bills involve setting up online accounts, and online accounts involve setting up stupid new user names and stupid new security questions and stupid new passwords and stupid new PINs that I will inevitably forget. If there is anything driving me crazier than paper clutter, it's the clutter of user names and security questions and passwords and PINs. Sorry, username taken. Your password must contain at least one numerical digit. Sorry, username taken. What is your mother's maiden name? Sorry, username taken. What are the last four digits of your Social Security number? Sorry, username taken. What's your first pet's name? Your PIN must be no longer than four characters. Your password must be at least six characters. Hey, how many times do we have to tell you, username taken...  AAARRGH!

My husband, Mr. Methodical, has a very sophisticated approach to passwords and I think calculus is involved. He says: "You should have one very-difficult-to-crack password for sensitive material, such as banking statements, and an easier-to-remember password for non-sensitive material. Then, have a four-digit number that you'll always remember. Then, come up with a numerical sequence that you can append to the end of your passwords and ..." Blah, blah, blah. This is the point where I stop listening.

He's right, of course, but his method seems harder than my admittedly haphazard approach. I found this Slate article invaluable for coming up with a new and improved password formula -- even better, it will frighten you into doing so.

Empowered, I plunged in. I tried to find a way to make the process more enjoyable. I poured my favorite adult beverage (care to sign my "Make room on Mount Rushmore for Jack Daniels" petition?) and cued up back-to-back episodes of A&E's "Hoarders" for inspiration. I designated a notebook to keep track of all the necessary PINs and passwords, as well as a master list of bills. I know it's not 100% perfect, but I can add to it as some overlooked bills roll in. The whole thing took about three hours, and that was with a lot of dawdling, TV watching and laundry thrown in, so you can probably rip through it much more quickly.

Now, if you plan to do the same, here's a tip. You might consider altering billing cycles so that all your bills arrive, and are due, at roughly the same time once or twice a month. Do that and keep a master list of your monthly bills, and it is less likely that you will miss an alert. If a bill hasn't arrived in your inbox by a given date, you have time to call the credit card company or utility before a late charge accrues. (Two of my bills -- power and water -- revolved around meter reading and were on fixed cycles that could not be altered, so I coordinated the rest of my bills around those dates. Most of the credit card companies and carriers I spoke to, including MasterCard, American Express, Discover and Sprint, were able to accommodate my request. If you'd like more details, message me at rene.lynch@latimes.com, but I've probably bored enough people already.

Now, I'm not convinced I will ever run a truly paperless home -- at least as long as those annoying real estate agents, gardeners and security companies keep leaving their calendars, notepads, business cards and fliers on my doorstep. But this feels like a good first step.

Finally, a sincere thanks to all your suggestions for clutter-busting, including this one from miss_msry: 

...find imaginative ways to dispose of your "stuff." Donate to charities, to libraries for your books, hand off antiques to other family members, try not to buy ANYTHING for a year that can't be composted. ... Keep [just] one item that reminds you of a long lost friend or relative. Make it fit in your hand.

And if I start to slack off, I will circle back to this comment from Jane, who took me to task for secretly putting my overflowing garbage in my neighbor's bin and being such a clutter bug to begin with:

Your article was not amusing, it was just another story that happens in every big and little city in America and the world. There's even a new job created because of people like you, 'professional organizer.' Cluttered home, cluttered brain. Downsize your life to fit in what you can, in your typical day. Stop the constant flow of information coming in and not going anywhere.

I'm all ears if you have other suggestions for managing bills, passwords, paperwork, junk mail, you name it. I have a long ways to go. (I am attending a composting class later this month.)

-- Rene Lynch
On Twitter @renelynch

Photo: One of the many paperwork piles in my home. Credit: Rene Lynch / Los Angeles Times