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Unraveling the role of paper

Box Overflowing With Money

By Joel Dresang

I glimpsed a man running from a van parked across from our house. The van’s side door was open. I could see stacks of material inside.

On his way back to the vehicle, I caught him and handed him the phone book I found on our stoop. No thanks, I said, we don’t want this.

Times have changed. I have no use for phone books now, but I used to covet them, keeping an extra in my car trunk in case I ever needed to pull over and look up an address. That was before I had infinite knowledge of the universe on a phone in my pocket.

I have an evolving relationship with paper. It comes to the fore every tax season, when I’m most confronted with the role of paper, as I sort through reams of records, receipts and reckonings we’re preparing for tax returns. Each year, I weigh whether we’re better off staying stuck on paper or giving in to all-digital documents.

Of course, not keeping track isn’t an option and would imperil my family’s financial well-being. It pays to pay attention.

“One of the best ways you can protect your investment portfolio is to monitor your holdings and activity,” says a recent alert issued by the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA). “You should make it a habit to review online or paper account statements and trade confirmations on a regular basis.”

The question is online or paper?

Paper is core to my upbringing. My family’s village was named after the paper company that built the local mill where my father worked alongside most of the dads I knew. Our high school teams were called the Papermakers.

I have mixed feelings toward paper. I made a living from newspapers for nearly 25 years, and although I prefer reading a printed periodical, I subscribe to four daily publications online. I write almost exclusively using computers, but I like editing hard paper copy.

My approach to paper statements and bills also varies—and changes. I receive a number of documents via old-fashioned snail mail, but I also get some delivered electronically.

I am not alone in my ambivalence.

  • FINRA reported that 49% of Americans would rather have paper financial disclosures mailed to them than receive documents by email (27%) or access them online (6%). The older the respondents, the more they preferred paper. Among those 55 and older, 54% wanted mailed disclosures, vs. 37% of adults younger than 35.
  • Consumer Action found that for each of nine types of bills and invoices, a majority of Americans preferred receiving paper over digital. Despite that preference, 55.6% said they would rather pay their bills online. The survey itself was conducted online, suggesting respondents weren’t just Luddites.
  • Social Security has gone back and forth on paper and digital. It stopped sending annual benefits estimates to workers in 2011 in favor of individual online accounts. It resumed mailing to two age groups in 2012, then added six more in 2014, then cut mailings back to one group again in 2017.
  • As part of a long-term initiative that includes “how to make better use of 21st century technology,” the Securities and Exchange Commission is making it easier for mutual funds to simply post certain investor reports on their websites. A number of groups—including the National Consumer League and associations representing paper makers, printing companies and letter carriers—tried to sue the SEC for more concessions to investors who don’t want to go paperless. A court dismissed their lawsuit.

Both paper and digital have benefits, of course, making it harder to decide between them.

Reducing the role of paper

  • Start with the future. Switch to online delivery for all the regular paperwork you no longer want to get by mail. Landaas & Company clients should talk with their advisor team if they have not yet set up a secure Morningstar web portal for sending and receiving documents. To change delivery preferences for Pershing statements, sign in to your account and click “Communications” and then “Settings.”
  • Secure your computer. Be safe online. Protect your passwords. Back up your information in more than one location. Read more, view our videos and link to more information.
  • Copy and file. Don’t just look at documents online. Make electronic copies for future reference, and organize them in a filing system in your computer that makes sense to you, with consistent folders and file names.
  • Keep current. If you change your email address, inform your financial providers. Check your junk mailbox regularly for misrouted documents.

Digital documents amount to less clutter. They don’t cost anything for printing or mailing. And they’re more convenient. For instance, rather than waiting by the mailbox for 1099 tax statements for our investment accounts, I can get them online when they’re available and securely download them for our accountant.

The main advantage of paper files is comfort. If you don’t have the technology to receive online documents or lack the ability or willingness to learn to use it, then paper is an easy choice.

Comfort, though, is a moving target. Just as I replaced the phone books in my trunk with the phone in my pocket, I am gradually reducing the clutter of paperwork and increasing my use of online documents.

I have made a list of which bills and statements I receive online vs. those for which I get hard copies through the mail. For the bills, I made further note of which I pay automatically.

What I learned from the exercise is that the paper copies are mostly monthly bills that have a lot of variation—chiefly from credit card issuers. I find that I tend to examine traditional mail right away and take care of any discrepancies.

Ever since I discovered that my identity was stolen, I have been more vigilant about skimming my monthly financial statements—especially credit card bills—and scrutinizing anything that looks amiss.

However, I am not as good at checking bills and statements I receive online, a couple of which are subject to variability. For instance, we have a seldom-used credit card through our credit union, and I rarely go online to review its monthly statements.

I do peruse the customized investment statements posted in our Morningstar portal each month, though, so there may be hope for me.

Other Money Talk articles from Joel Dresang

The bottom line is that I don’t have to be all in on paper or on digital. I can mix and match according to what I feel works best for me. But I also should be flexible and open to try new approaches.

I’m sold on the plusses of being paperless. Each tax season nudges me to get more comfortable with digital media.

Joel Dresang is vice president-communications at Landaas & Company

Learn more
When Should I …check my investment accounts?
It pays to pay attention to your brokerage account statements, from the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA), the North American Securities Administrators Association and the Securities Investor Protection Corp.
It pays to understand your brokerage account statements and trade confirmations, from FINRA
10 tips to keep track of your investments, from FINRA
Protect your wealth from cyber scams, by Lisa Lewitzke
Keeping Your Account Secure: Tips for Protecting Your Financial Information, from the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority
Providing for your digital survivors, by Joel Dresang
Online, en garde, by Joel Dresang
CLICK HERE for the Landaas & Company YouTube playlist on personal financial security online.
(initially posted Jan. 29, 2020)

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