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Downsize and Safeguard Your Digital Documents

I've been putting off this post about digitally backing up (or replacing) your files for a while, but there's no time like the present to get organized. And I realize that we all have our own organizational methods and preferences, so I'll try to keep the focus more on the "what" and "why" with less emphasis on the "how". When I say files I mean any document or photo that is either physical or digital.

Why back up your important and irreplaceable files? The answer's in the question: they're important and irreplaceable. You see it in the news every week: houses & lives destroyed by natural disasters, accidents, and other events outside of our control. Being in the Foreign Service, we not only have to contend with possible evacuations as well as being under a maximum weight for shipping our household effects halfway around the world every couple of years.

"On the plus side, now there are no files left to back up."
Philip and Karen Smith/Photographer's Choice RF/Getty Images
So, there are a couple of things to consider in your back-up plan. I try to approach every plan using the P-A-C-E planning method:
  • Primary: These are your original documents. Keep them in a fireproof safe and/or on your computer. 
  • Alternate: These are copies of the originals that you don't keep next to your originals (because that's like keeping all your eggs in one basket). Consider keeping a copy of really important papers (Birth Certificates/IDs/etc) at a relative's house and photos on a removable harddrive or spouse's computer in case you drop your laptop.
  • Contingency: Let's say you kept both your primary and alternate files are in your house and it caught fire or flooded. I keep electronic copies (scanned if they were originally hardcopy) in the cloud (Microsoft OneDrive, Google Drive, DropBox, etc.) Compare the best cloud services here. There are also several photo storage options on the cloud, but know what their download/recovery policy is. For example: You have to pay Shutterfly to get them back (but it's totally worth it if they have your only remaining copy of the photos). 
  • Emergency: This is less about having a filing system and more about having access to your info if all else fails. What if your Apple account gets hacked? I recommend using an independent, alternate cloud system (ie, if you use Apple as a primary, use DropBox but don't use your AppleID email as your log in...because you would no longer have access to your Apple account). Also, I've found that emailing myself the scanned copy of files allows me to keep one record in the email as well as wherever I downloaded it...this has come in handy a number of times when the only access I have is to my email and the information was needed ASAP.

Ok, so that more or less covers storage location and media types. So, what is it that you really need to keep (and for how long)? Well, USA.gov has put together a really good guide to Managing Household Records that is quite throrough and I recommend using that as your guideline.

Now for the second half of the post, downsizing. The previous information was all about what you need to keep, for how long, and some ideas on how to do it. But there are still so many other "unimportant" things you want to keep in some form or fashion as well. This is particularly relevant every time you need to move. Why move stuff you don't need? Tip: For all your kid's school artwork that you like but know you aren't going to keep long term, take a picture of it (It will last longer).

Since we have to move overseas, every pound matters and needless to say, we needed to downsize to make weight. It took me two iterations over two years to feel like I could let go of my decade old college textbooks (which I honestly never look at, but kept around because the might come in handy one day). I got past keeping it "just in case" using this box method:
Read more about my move-specific advice
Also, with all the moving around, it can be tough to track all the accounts, addresses, passwords, etc. I recommend keeping a password-protected spreadsheet for those accounts that you'll need to open or close when you move. I make a new page for every location (so I also retain the historical data, just in case) that has the following columns:

Account NameAccount NumberAccount OpenedAccount ClosedWebsite / PhoneAddressUser name Password Reminder
Bank of Awesome1234501/01/01 09/09/09URL / #Home 1:)Password Reminder
Bank of Just Okay6789009/09/09 OPENURL / #Home 2:(Password Reminder

One of the most challenging parts of document management is making sure your hardcopy and digital binders mirror each other. That just takes diligence, and I admit I could be better at it.

Programs and Recommended Applications:
  • Google Keep: Good for quick notes that I frequently reference, or anything I copy and paste from a lot because of how it works with Chrome.
  • Evernote: I prefer it for the less-frequent how-to's (Processes, Personal clothing sizes, blog ideas, recipes, personal projects) because it's more organized than Keep, but takes longer to get the info.
  • Google Drive (or other cloud storage) for record archives as mentioned above. I particularly like how you can print and save documents as PDFs to Google Drive using your gmail, as it means no scanning required. I can also share certain folders on Drive so that family can get to them if required.
  • DropBox works best for me to share photos with the extended family, but I only post copies and not originals because family might accidentally delete them. It's a sharing platform, not a storage platform.
  • Wiredrive: Built for video. Unlike file sync, FTP, and consumer video hosting, Wiredrive was built for professionals who produce, manage, and pitch video. While probably not a good fit for individuals managing their home movies, it looks like it would work well for on-line collaborative efforts (which is pretty much teleworking). It also integrates with Adobe products and Dropbox.
So that's it. Good luck, and may you never need to use your backup.

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