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Practical Computer Advice
from Martin Kadansky
Volume 7 Issue 4April 2013
Going Paperless, Carefully: Print to a PDF!
It was about a year and a half ago. I had just printed out a receipt for something I had ordered online and was filing it. As I closed the drawer in one of my two relatively-full filing cabinets, I wondered how soon I'd need to buy a third. I thought to myself that it might be time to find another way.

I briefly thought about what it would take to review and discard the papers I no longer needed to keep, and then scan every sheet of my remaining paper records into my computer. As tempting as that was, since my schedule was already full with other projects, I decided instead on a more expedient and less time-consuming approach: To focus on minimizing the additional paper I would store going forward, and deal with my past accumulation of paper later.

With that goal in mind, here's my advice based on my experience with "going paperless, carefully."

The solution: Instead of printing something to paper, consider storing it on your computer as a PDF
If the information you want to keep (without printing) is not already in a document or an email (e.g., it's on a web site or in a special program or format), one good option for storing that information is to create a PDF (Portable Document Format) document, and to put that PDF file into a folder that you can find later.

To do this, once you have the information you want to save on your screen, you would create a PDF document using the following special technique:
  • Choose File->Print, just as if you were going to print in the regular way.
  • Then, instead of printing to your inkjet or laser printer, you would choose to "print to a PDF file" (more on this below).
  • When prompted, pick the folder to save in and enter the name of your new PDF file.
  • Click Save.
The details depend on what type of computer you have:

On Macintosh: The ability to "print to a PDF" is built in:
  • After choosing File->Print, the Print dialog will appear.
  • Don't click "Print"! Instead, at the bottom left corner, look for the "PDF" button and click it.
  • In the pop-up menu that appears, click "Save as PDF..."
  • You'll see a standard Save dialog. When prompted, enter the name of your new PDF file (e.g., "Bunion ointment receipt.pdf" or "Chicago hotel reservation.pdf"), and then pick the folder to save it into (e.g., "Documents" or "Amazon purchases" or "Travel receipts").
  • Click Save.
On Windows:
  • First, you'll need to download and install a "virtual printer driver" to add the ability to "print to PDF" to your computer. Two free ones that I recommend are CutePDF and PDFCreator. See "Where to go from here" (below) for details.
  • Once you've installed that software, whenever you want to make a PDF you would start by choosing File->Print, which brings up the Print dialog.
  • Don't click "Print" yet! Instead, look for the name of your virtual PDF printer (e.g., "CutePDF"), then click to select it instead of your regular inkjet or laser printer.
  • Now click "Print."
  • Your virtual printer driver may offer some fancy options (author, keywords, security, etc.), but eventually you'll see a standard Save dialog. When prompted, pick the folder to save it into (e.g., "My Documents" or "Amazon purchases" or "Travel receipts"), and then enter the name of your new PDF file (e.g., "Bunion ointment receipt.pdf" or "Chicago hotel reservation.pdf").
  • Click Save.
Exception: If you use the Google Chrome web browser, it's got the ability to "print to PDF" built in, but its Print dialog is different and nonstandard.

When would you use this "print to PDF" technique?
I recommend starting by asking yourself:
  • Why am I printing this out?
  • What am I going to do with the printout?
  • Would it work to store this printout in the computer instead printing it to paper?
Here are some perfectly sensible reasons why you might print something out:
  • It represents an important thing that you need to do, and having that piece of paper helps make sure that you'll do it.
  • It's a form or letter that you have to mail or fax or bring to someone else, especially if you have to fill it in by hand and sign it.
  • It's important and you want to keep it and file it in your paper records.
  • It contains sensitive or private information that you don't want to send by email, since email is completely insecure.
On the other hand, here are some reasons for printing that could, with a little practice, benefit from this "paperless" technique:
  • If you don't print it now, you'll never see it again, like a receipt for an online purchase, or a certificate for an online course, or a hard-to-find web page, or a web page that may change or disappear later. If you could store it on your computer and avoid printing it, that would be great!
  • It's a receipt, so you'll print it now and then after you've received the item you ordered (or after you've come back from the trip, etc.), you'll throw it away since you won't need it for the long term or your taxes.
  • You don't know any other way to keep something for the long term.
And here are some situations where "printing to PDF" would be a really helpful option to preserve the "printout" in the short term:
  • You're away from your printer, on the road with your laptop, and have something on your screen that you would normally want to print.
  • Your printer has developed a problem that you can't fix right away, and there's something you need to print now.
Here are some common examples:
  • Printing web pages containing receipts, reports, emails, etc.
  • Printing tax returns from software like TurboTax
  • Printing registers or reports from financial software like Quicken & QuickBooks
In all of these cases, depending on the circumstances, printing to a PDF instead might be a better choice, or might be a helpful additional step to keep an exact record of what you printed.

If you're going to store that PDF on your computer instead of printing it, where will you put it?
The easiest place to store a new document is on your Desktop. That's fine for a small number of important items (or for the short term, until you no longer need the document and then delete it), but once you have more than a few documents, if you don't already have appropriate folders in which to store them, I recommend creating one or more new folders to group these new documents and keep them from becoming unwanted clutter.

Here's how I developed this for myself:

I started by creating a "Paperless receipts and statements" folder on my Desktop, and started putting my paperless PDF documents into it. As you might expect, I found that after saving 10 or 20 items into this folder, it was quickly becoming a mess inside.

So, I started creating subfolders for the different categories - personal receipts, bank and credit card statements, business cell phone statements, payroll, etc. That helped!

Then, when January rolled around, I realized that I wanted to keep each year's records separate.

So, my current folder scheme to hold my paperless documents looks like this:
  • A "Paperless receipts and statements" folder on my Desktop
  • Inside that are two subfolders: Business and Personal
  • Inside each of those two subfolders are subfolders by year: 2011, 2012, 2013, etc.
  • Inside each of those "year" subfolders are subfolders by category as appropriate: receipts, statements, payroll, miscellaneous, etc.
Under this scheme, next January I'll open those Business and Personal folders, create new "2014" subfolders, then create new category subfolders under those. Then, when I need to save my paperless documents, I'll already have a place to put everything.

Your system will probably be different.

"Print to PDF" tips for the longer term
Once you start collecting PDFs in this way, in addition to organizing them into subfolders, you might also want to think about the following:
  • Consider using a "naming convention" to further organize your PDFs. For example, if you buy multiple items from Amazon.com and you want to keep all of those receipts, you can't call them all "Amazon purchase.pdf". Better names might be "Toaster from Amazon.pdf" or "Amazon - Toaster.pdf" or "2013.04.25 Amazon Proctor Silex 2 Slice Bagel Toaster.pdf".
  • If you decide to send your PDF to someone else via email, remember that email is completely insecure, like mailing a postcard--anyone with access can read it without interfering with its delivery. So, stop and ask yourself if there's anything sensitive or valuable in that PDF file (social security numbers, bank account or credit card numbers, personal information about you or someone else, etc.). If there is, don't email it. (Or, when you create your PDF, use the "security" options in the Macintosh "Save as PDF" function or in PDFCreator for Windows, and add an encryption password to protect your PDF's contents.)
  • Review your PDF collection periodically to delete items that you no longer need to keep, like the receipt for that toaster you bought online back in 2013. On the other hand, PDF files are very small, and they don't take up any space in your real-life file cabinet, and it might be useful to have a record of when and where you bought that toaster, even if it did recently go up in flames because of a very dry piece of pita bread. Don't ask.
  • If you have a combination of paper and PDF records, or if you're switching some of your records from paper to PDF (like I'm doing), consider putting a note in your paper records that says something like "starting in 2013, see also PDF receipts, statements, etc. on computer in the XYZ folder," and perhaps also save a little document in your folder of PDFs saying "see also paper records in file cabinet, 3rd drawer."
  • Since you'll now be storing additional valuable information on your computer, this is another reason to set up a thorough, scheduled backup system, or to confirm that your current backup system is working properly.
  • On Windows, you'll now need to pay more attention to which "printer" is already selected in the Print dialog before you click the Print button, since some of the time you'll have recently picked the virtual PDF printer to make a PDF, and some of the time you'll have recently picked your regular inkjet or laser printer.
So, now that my first round of "going paperless, carefully" has gone reasonably well, I'm looking at the next round of things that I'm still choosing to print on paper (e.g., receipts for my business purchases) and thinking about what it would take to save them on my computer instead.

  • I don't like the idea of "going paperless" in every possible way without considering the consequences, especially when it involves important and timely financial issues like knowing which of my bills are due, having reasonably thorough records for my taxes, bookkeeping, and business, and other areas where paper just makes more sense for me.
  • On the other hand, I am finding that starting small with converting less-critical things to paperless PDFs (like receipts for personal purchases, personal statements for bank, credit card, and cell phone accounts) is working for me.
  • So, my advice is to start by looking at what you are currently printing out and ask yourself whether saving them as PDFs on your computer might work better for you in the short (or long) term.
Where to go from here
How to contact me:
email: martin@kadansky.com
phone: (617) 484-6657
web: http://www.kadansky.com

On a regular basis I write about real issues faced by typical computer users. To subscribe to this newsletter, please send an email to martin@kadansky.com and I'll add you to the list, or visit http://www.kadansky.com/newsletter

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I love helping people learn how to use their computers better! Like a "computer driving instructor," I work 1-on-1 with small business owners and individuals to help them find a more productive and successful relationship with their computers and other high-tech gadgets.

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