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Take Control of Your Digital Clutter

In this guest post, our friends at Puget Sound Consumers’ Checkbook offer tips to prevent your personal data, financial information and happy memories from getting buried in a digital heap.

In our not-too-distant analog past, bills, correspondence and photos were physical stuff. Snapshots we arranged in albums. Account statements we filed in cabinets. Love letters we stashed in shoeboxes. Today, we're bombarded with digital clutter: mountains of vacation photos and a sea of email, from account statements to must-keep tax documents.

It's enough to eat all your hard drive space — and it can weigh on your mind. If you don't keep track of it all, you risk losing important personal data, financial information, and even some happy memories.

Here are some tips to help you corral your digital life.

Take Control of Your Email

What's a quick way to reduce email? Consider using the free app Unroll.Me. When you sign up, you'll see a list of your email subscriptions. The app then asks what you want to do with each. Go through the list and choose whether you want to unsubscribe, keep or send future emails through Door no. 3, Unroll.Me's "Rollup" digest that diverts and groups emails into a single daily summary.

Then, stop subscribing to so many lists! When buying online, at checkout, be diligent about unticking boxes with offers to keep you informed about retailers' often-phony sales and new arrivals.

If you want every email newsletter for your favorite fly-fishing/shoe-selling/Mandalorian-fan-fiction websites, set up a separate email address devoted to promos, which will remove tons of clutter from your primary inbox, preventing those important messages and documents from getting buried.

Organize your email by sorting messages into categories. With Microsoft Outlook, for example, you can right-click on messages and sort them into preset categories (Bills, Documents, Family) or create new categories. Try setting up rules so most of your email gets presorted. Most email clients let you do this (in Gmail, rules are called "filters") so that all mail from your friends hits your main inbox, while your retirement account statements get shuttled to "Finance" and so on.

Set aside a block of time each week to go through your emails to sort or delete them. Unless you have magical superpowers like my boss, give up on an inbox-zero objective. (Note from Checkbook's editor: I don't have magical superpowers. I'm just super-diligent about my inbox.) Most of us have so much stuff going on that we're always going to have dozens of emails lingering in our inboxes. Cut yourself a little slack: Most emails don't take up a lot of room, and if you completely clear your inbox, you'll lose the benefit of it acting as a helpful reminder system.

Managing the Important Stuff

For financial, legal, and tax documents, know what you need to keep and what you can delete — and what you should print out and stash as a backup. Keep paper records of tax returns (for at least five years, but the longer the better); real estate records; birth certificates; Social Security cards; divorce decrees; and death and marriage certificates. But quit your file-clerk second job and sign up for electronic delivery of banking and investment account statements, insurance policies, credit card or utility bills, charity receipts, payroll info, and most other financial documents.

Remember to shred any unneeded paper documents using a cross-cut shredder to protect your personal information.

For items you save to your computer, make searches easy. Consistently label filenames, incorporate dates for statements and bills (for example, "Amex_2021_February") and use long, descriptive names ("recipe_peanut_brittle.doc") to help you easily search for and find random files. And, of course, use folders to keep everything sorted, rather than stashing it all on your desktop.

Back It Up

There's a saying among tech pros: If it doesn't exist in more than one independent place, it doesn't exist. Your devices are doomed to fail eventually. Unless you have a backup plan, there's a danger they'll drag your work, tax returns, and all those adorable photos with them into a digital doomsday. Set up your computers to automatically back up important data to an external drive or to a cloud-based service. The advantage of using the cloud is that you eliminate the danger of a fire or robbery destroying both your computer and its backup device, and you're less likely to run out of storage space on your hard drive.

A big advantage cloud services have over physical drives is that you can log on from anywhere. Take a picture with your phone, save it to the cloud, then use your computer (or a friend's) to log on to the cloud and download it. You can access the computer's backed-up files from any device.

Get a hard drive or cloud storage service that offers a syncing feature. When you plug in a backup drive or log on to a cloud service's website, these devices or sites automatically scan the folders you want backed up, examine them for changes and save new or altered files. As long as you correctly designate the folders where you've saved your files, you don't have to do anything else. Caution: If you enable syncing features, don't treat cloud backup as a secondary storage device if your computer runs low on space. If you upload a file onto your cloud account, and then delete the copy from your hard drive, the service will notice the deletion while syncing, assume you deleted it because you no longer want it, and delete the uploaded copy.

Before signing on for terabytes of backup space to stow your music and movies, check with the vendors who sold them to you. Most digital music and movie sellers allow you to re-download content you own, so backing up these files is unnecessary.

If you're a technophobe, or just don't have time to do these tasks, consider hiring a personal organizer to do it for you. Many now specialize in unraveling clients' digital clutter. They can clean up your virtual mess in just a few hours and set up systems to keep it tidy. Reasonably priced services charge $75 to $125 per hour.

About Consumers' Checkbook

Puget Sound Consumers' Checkbook and Checkbook.org is a nonprofit organization with a mission to educate and help consumers. Checkbook also evaluates local service providers — home improvement contractors, doctors, dentists, veterinarians, stores and more. It is supported by consumers and takes no money from the companies it evaluates. BECU members can try Consumers' Checkbook for 30 days for free.