Q&A: Digital is safer than paper

Dear Liz: You’ve advocated for going paperless. My preference for paper financial documentation over electronic versions is that paper provides “proof” in the event something compromises online or email reporting. What am I missing?

Answer: Proof of what, exactly?

That’s not a rhetorical question. If you don’t understand why you’re retaining a document, and what the alternatives are, you risk burying yourself in paper.

Consider your bank statements, for example. Your paper document is just a reproduction of the digital files that the bank securely stores and regularly backs up. If you do the same, regularly downloading statements and backing them up to secure storage, there’s no reason to convert the files to paper. Paper is in fact more vulnerable, since it can burn up in a house fire, be destroyed in a flood or simply have its ink fade to illegibility. In the rare circumstance where you actually need to provide a paper document, you can simply print it out.

Many people don’t even bother downloading their statements. Many financial institutions allow you to access five or more years’ worth of statements for free, which is as long as you’re likely to need such access.

There are a few documents you should keep in physical form either because they’re most useful that way (passports and driver’s licenses, for example) or because accessing or replacing them can be a hassle (birth certificates, citizenship certificates, divorce degrees and military discharge papers, among others). Even these documents, though, should be scanned and stored securely in case they’re lost or destroyed.