Benjamin Franklin said, “Nothing is certain except death and taxes.” And then five months later, he died. The date was April 17, 1790. I mean, seriously? Just two days earlier and he would have proven himself wrong.
What. A. Bummer.
And so 223 years later, I find myself once again treading water in a sea of receipts, deductions and W-2s, calling out to anyone who might hear me, “Send help! I’ll do better next year!!! I promise!!!”
The truth is, I say the same thing every year and every year I mean it. But sometime between the ball dropping on New Years and the rain falling in April, reality crashes down on me as it did for poor Mr. Franklin. I have resolved to make this year different than last — it’s time to make a few little improvements that will make a big difference when it comes time to file my 2013 tax returns. Here they are, in case you’re like me and can’t find a receipt to save your life.
Stand By Your Scan: It’s time to put the ‘shoo’ in shoebox — paper trails are so late ’90s! Many people don’t know this, but the IRS started accepting scanned copies of receipts as early as 1997 – leaving us free to shred and recycle all of those pesky pieces of paper.
The trick is to tag, sort and organize your scanned receipts so that you’re able to pull up the specific information you need when you need it. With the invention of OCR (Optical Character Recognition) software, the scanned files you create are now searchable. I can search for “Pharmacy” – tag all of the receipts I find and flag them so that I can find them easily later on when I’m creating a spreadsheet for my medical expenses.
Financial App-titude: I’ve long known that there are many great apps that can help me to master my taxes – but this year, I’m going to actually use them. Lemon and OneReceipt both focus on receipts you get via email from hotels, airlines, rental car agencies, and retailers. They’ll organize them for you, along with other receipts you take pictures of with your smart phone.
Manilla.com automatically retrieves and stores your bills and statements so they’re there whenever you need them. And Shoeboxed, Expensify, and Planet Receipt enable you to scan (or mail in!) paper receipts for permanent, online storage (which is fantastic if you have a big old shoebox and are too overwhelmed to scan and sort it yourself). Many of these tools also offer companion smartphone apps that let you snap pictures of cash receipts and other paper trails that normally don’t get backed up with credit card statements. All of this is sure to make me (h)appy come tax time next year.
My Hindsight Wears Trifocals: Let me tell you about my memory. Let me tell you about my memory. Have I told you about my memory? You get the picture. Whether I’m making an actual paper pile or an electronic “pile” of tagged scans, I always think to myself – “I know I’ll remember what that receipt was for. I’ll file that correctly later.” And then seven months later, I find myself staring at it, mouth open, wondering what the heck I bought at Office Depot last June. The real trick is to jot down or type out notes on each receipt as you go and then to set aside some time to sort and file new receipts every week. Setting up and sticking to a real routine will take the heavy lifting off your memory. And have I told you about my memory?
Back That Tax Up: So welcome to your organized, paperless future! And while it is wildly liberating to go digital and to ditch your receipts – there is one thing you must do before you fire up that shredder: Back your information up. Services like Dropbox or Carbonite are great places to drag and drop these files you’ve so masterfully collected. Then if something happens to the USB drive, laptop or hard drive you’ve been using, all of your hard work is safe and sound in the clouds.
Achieving Self-Taxualization: The best part of getting organized and taking care of my taxes the right way is that I’ll be able to take a higher level look at my finances. With a full picture of where my money went, I’m going to be able to make better choices about what I’m spending and saving for my family. And the first thing I’m going to do is to set aside some dough for a nice little vacation the week of 4/15/14 – because I am scheduled to be cool, calm and collected right about…then…
Carley Knobloch is a personal tech expert and host of Digitwirl.com. Carley scours the Web to find gadgets and apps that make managing life a little easier. Her Webby-nominated show “Digitwirl” offers up bite-sized tech tips and gadgets that save time and money. Carley also decodes Smart Home technology on HGTV.com. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, two kids, a springer spaniel, and myriad tablets.