If your daily existence is anything like mine you collect a decent number of items that need to – or at least should be – filed, stored or organized in some way. Whether they be downloaded PDF documents or saved purchase records, grocery store receipts or just important physical papers these items are probably either buried in your wallet, purse, messenger bag or numerous drawers (for physical records) or strewn across a dozen or more directories on one or more drives (for electronic records). If you’re in sales or own your own business, you know how important it is to keep records of your transactions and if you’re just a consumer, your receipt may be the key ingredient to receiving replacement products during the warranty period. The challenge for everyone is finding an easy and convenient way to keep these critical documents organized and safe.
Having done quite a bit of traveling for our move from Pennsylvania to Washington state, I was inundated with advertisements for ways to keep business cards, documents and travel receipts electronically organized. Unfortunately, none of these products worked on the Mac. In my quest to get organized and also to prepare for tax time I searched for an equivalent all-Mac solution and here’s the combination that has worked best for me.
Step One: The Hardware
I debated for quite a while on whether I should buy a new scanner since I already own a decent multi-function device. I suspect that many readers do as well and, while I cannot say that a special scanner is absolutely required, I do need to point out that receipts can be tricksy little items. There are no fixed/standard sizes and you never know when or where you will need to turn them or other paper items into digital documents. With that in mind I sought out an inexpensive, compact, Mac-friendly device with TWAIN support and settled on the Pentax DSmobile 600:
While Mac support was a key factor, I wanted something that was highly portable (it comes with a travel bag) and that did not require external power – the Dsmobile 600 is powered solely through USB (cord provided). I deemed TWAIN support critical since I wanted to ensure compatibility with existing software and I hoped that my receipt-organizing solution would support this standard as well. I bookmarked the Pentax (I did not want to spend $115-135USD on it before finding the key element in my quest) and pressed on.
Step Two: The Software
While a specialized software package was not absolutely necessary – one could use a manual solution composed of a well-crafted Numbers spreadsheet, organized directories and decent file naming conventions – the goal was to make this task easy. Since my receipts were already somewhat disorganized, introducing more manual tasks into a new process would doom it from the start.
The most basic description of ReceiptWallet is that it is a document organizer & repository similar to Papers in that it can store almost anything you throw at it. This makes it great for user manuals or other items you just do not wish to transcribe. While it can store everything, the true power of ReceiptWallet lies in the ability to import, interpret, itemize, report on and export financial data associated with receipts. After playing around with the demo version, I was confident enough in the software to warrant the purchase of the Pentax (it turns out that the model I chose is also one recommended by the developer – always a good thing) and a license for ReceiptWallet and started organizing my paper mess.
Working With Receipts & Documents
When you first start the program you create a new “library” that is either used for organizing documents or receipts. Each library type presents unique fields with which to categorize entries. Receipts have an associated merchant, amount, method of payment and potentially itemized entries whereas documents have titles, categories, URLs and other taxonomy elements. Fields are completely customizable in any library you create, but I suspect most users will settle on the defaults provided by the author.
My main goal was to manage receipts so I began with a receipt library and started scanning any merchant slip I could scrounge. The software does an admirable job when attempting to discern the date and amount of the purchase. It is no easy task since every receipt is different and the condition that some where in was far from optimal. After taking a guess, the program allows you to make corrections, itemize any detail you wish to capture and tag the entry with a note. Again, you can add more fields to accommodate any level of detail required (e.g. department number, employee number, etc) and all this captured data is available via built-in reports and can be exported in a formate that most spreadsheet and financial programs can read.
Not Limited To Scanning
Organizing paper receipts was my primary goal but it turn out that that task is only part of the story. Much of what I/we purchase today is either delivered electronically or at least has a receipt which is delivered on-screen or e-mail. While OS X provides a handy “Save PDF to Web Receipts Folder” option in the Print dialog, ReceiptWallet lets you take this one step further and lets you create Droplets for each library as well as ReceiptWallet itself. Rather than hunt around in e-mail or use Spotlight to find old receipts or even license keys you can put those documents/elements right into an organized database with full searching & reporting capabilities, all by just “printing” them! The software would be worth it for just that feature alone. Imagine having all those Amazon, Apple Store, eBay & PayPal records immediately accessible or never having to submit a replacement request for a lost license key. Remember, though, that the software is not limited to receipts. You can save any HTML page or any document from any program as PDF and store it directly in an organized document library within ReceiptWallet.
Integrating It Into Your Personal Workflow & Mindset
ReceiptWallet doesn’t come with a magic wand that will turn you into an well-organized life form. You will need to find the best way to integrate it into your daily/weekly workflow. That’s easy for electronic documents and receipts but requires a bit of discipline at first when dealing with those bits of paper you quickly tuck away into bags or pockets each week. I suggest using a physical drop box where you place any receipt from any purchase during the week and then designate some small period of time during the week to process the data from the past seven days. That way you have a focused task for brief period time that is long enough to mentally allocate without considering it a distraction (which would probably be the case if you performed the task daily).
The title of this post includes the word “budget” and ReceiptWallet can be a powerful tool when it comes to helping develop and stay on a budget (which is one of the best ways to get started managing your finances). If you are diligent in scanning, importing & itemizing your expenditures, then you will know just how much you are spending on, say, groceries in general or even specific items and use that to change behavior (if necessary). You’ll know and have a record of anything that you can deduct from your health spending account (if you have one). You’ll even get a good picture of what you spend each week on eating out (this can be a real eye opener). You can use all this data to develop a baseline of what you think you should be spending and then use it to keep yourself honest. I guarantee you’ll save enough in one year to pay for the cost of the scanner and software if you use it to create and stick to a budget.
One final feature that I’ll mention (there are more facets to the software than I’ve touched on) is that the IRS (for those in the US) will also accept scanned receipts as evidence during audits, and ReceiptWallet makes it simple to keep solid backups of all your key data in the event the government comes-a-knockin’ at your door.
If you’ve been using ReceiptWallet for a while or have come across another solution for organizing your receipt and document mess, please drop a note in the comments if only to help the next pilgrim in search of the best means to getting his/her life in order.