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4 Ways to Get Your Receipts Out of the Shoebox

4 Ways to Get Your Receipts Out of the Shoebox

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    I find receipts in the craziest places: not only do I find them in wallets and purses but it’s not uncommon to fish them out of the filing cabinet or out from behind the couch. After all, those tiny slips of paper can slide away the moment your back is turned. The only way to keep them in line is to have a simple organizational system. For years, the classic approach has been a shoebox stuffed full of receipts. It’s a great way to ensure that all of our bits of paper are in one place, but it still leaves something to be desired. Come tax season, we get the choice between handing that box to an accountant or sorting through them ourselves.

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    There are other plans that can make more sense: we can eliminate a lot of the work that goes along with tracking expenses with a little technology. The options below can simplify the situation and make for a smoother tax season.

    1. Stick to plastic

    If you can make all of your purchases with a credit or debit card, you may be able to eliminate your receipt collection. Most bookkeeping software packages can retrieve your account information for your accounts — and interpret it to a certain extent. There are certain drawbacks to relying entirely on your card statements, though. Most don’t specifically identify just what you’ve purchased and it can be hard to remember whether a particular payment to the bookstore last year was an education expense. Cash payments can also through a big wrench in the system — there are plenty of opportunities for expenses that you need to keep track of that will be cash only (think splitting a meal with a client). There are other specific issues that go along with whether you decide to use a debit card or a credit card.

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    You can annotate your expenses in most bookkeeping programs, though, so as long as you keep up with your receipts, you can avoid organizing and categorizing your receipts beyond once a month. It’s not a perfect solution, but it won’t make your accountant cringe the way that shoebox of receipts does.

    2. Pick a service

    For a fee, services like Shoeboxed will take your receipts and scan them in. They use a system that not only recognizes the text and puts it in a format you can use but it can also automatically categorize your receipts. Because Shoeboxed and other services typically operate on a monthly basis, the number of receipts you can get scanned between now and April 15th may come up short. However, you can do a brief triage on your receipts and eliminate all those that don’t actually affect your taxes: groceries, movies and what not may not need to be scanned, unless you’re working on getting all of your expenses and your budget under control.

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    Pricing can vary on such services. Shoeboxed has plans that go from $9.95 a month up to $49.95 — I consider that a deal. It’s significantly cheaper than paying someone to scan in your receipts for you.

    3. Scan in your receipts yourself

    At first glance, it might seem that scanning in your own receipts is a step backwards from paying a service to do it for you. But with the right equipment, you can pretty much automate the process at home. In this case, the right equipment is a scanner meant specifically for receipts: I’ve been using the NeatReceipts system and actually find it easier than packaging up my receipts and sending them off. I sit down in front of a television show or movie and feed my receipts into the scanner. Its optical character recognition is very good — for the majority of receipts, the scanner extracts all of the pertinent information and puts it in a format that I can dump it into my bookkeeping software (as well as saving it as a PDF).

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    Whether the price tag that goes along with purchasing a scanner just for your receipts is worth it can depend on how many receipts you plan to process: depending on where you pick up the scanner, the price can be more than the cost of a year’s basic plan at Shoeboxed — but less than a mid-level plan. Use it for more than a year, or scan more receipts with it than a service allows for, and it’s not actually all that expensive. And, as long as you’ve got the receipt, you may be able to write off the scanner on your taxes.

    4. Going Old School

    If you’d rather not spend the money on tools or services to take care of your receipts for you, there’s always the old school approach. You can enter your receipts into Excel or another bookkeeping option by hand. But it’s worth noting that such an approach isn’t just expensive in terms of time: it requires more discipline than most people are willing to devote to managing receipts. If you get even a little behind, it can seem absolutely impossible to catch up.

    Other Services and Tools

    I mentioned tools and services that I’ve actually had the chance to use and found reliable. But I know there are many other options out there — if you’ve used a service or tool to organize your receipts that you’ve particularly liked, please share a link in the comments.

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    Last Updated on September 18, 2019

    How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

    How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

    Note-taking is one of those skills that rarely gets taught. Almost everyone assumes either that taking good notes comes naturally or, that someone else must have already taught about how to take notes. Then, we sit around and complain that our colleagues don’t know how to take notes.

    I figure it’s about time to do something about that. Whether you’re a student or a mid-level professional, the ability to take effective, meaningful notes is a crucial skill. Not only do good notes help us recall facts and ideas we may have forgotten, the act of writing things down helps many of us to remember them better in the first place.

    One of the reasons people have trouble taking effective notes is that they’re not really sure what notes are for. I think a lot of people, students and professionals alike, attempt to capture a complete record of a lecture, book, or meeting in their notes — to create, in effect, minutes. This is a recipe for failure.

    Trying to get every last fact and figure down like that leaves no room for thinking about what you’re writing and how it fits together. If you have a personal assistant, by all means, ask him or her to write minutes; if you’re on your own, though, your notes have a different purpose to fulfill.

    The purpose of note-taking is simple: to help you work better and more quickly. This means your notes don’t have to contain everything, they have to contain the most important things.

    And if you’re focused on capturing everything, you won’t have the spare mental “cycles” to recognize what’s truly important. Which means that later, when you’re studying for a big test or preparing a term paper, you’ll have to wade through all that extra garbage to uncover the few nuggets of important information?

    What to Write Down

    Your focus while taking notes should be two-fold. First, what’s new to you? There’s no point in writing down facts you already know. If you already know the Declaration of Independence was written and signed in 1776, there’s no reason to write that down. Anything you know you know, you can leave out of your notes.

    Second, what’s relevant? What information is most likely to be of use later, whether on a test, in an essay, or in completing a project? Focus on points that directly relate to or illustrate your reading (which means you’ll have to have actually done the reading…). The kinds of information to pay special attention to are:

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    Dates of Events

    Dates allow you to create a chronology, putting things in order according to when they happened, and understand the context of an event.

    For instance, knowing Isaac Newton was born in 1643 allows you to situate his work in relation to that of other physicists who came before and after him, as well as in relation to other trends of the 17th century.

    Names of People

    Being able to associate names with key ideas also helps remember ideas better and, when names come up again, to recognize ties between different ideas whether proposed by the same individuals or by people related in some way.

    Theories or Frameworks

    Any statement of a theory or frameworks should be recorded — they are the main points most of the time.

    Definitions

    Like theories, these are the main points and, unless you are positive you already know the definition of a term, should be written down.

    Keep in mind that many fields use everyday words in ways that are unfamiliar to us.

    Arguments and Debates

    Any list of pros and cons, any critique of a key idea, both sides of any debate or your reading should be recorded.

    This is the stuff that advancement in every discipline emerges from, and will help you understand both how ideas have changed (and why) but also the process of thought and development of the matter of subject.

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    Images

    Whenever an image is used to illustrate a point, a few words are in order to record the experience.

    Obviously it’s overkill to describe every tiny detail, but a short description of a painting or a short statement about what the class, session or meeting did should be enough to remind you and help reconstruct the experience.

    Other Stuff

    Just about anything a professor writes on a board should probably be written down, unless it’s either self-evident or something you already know. Titles of books, movies, TV series, and other media are usually useful, though they may be irrelevant to the topic at hand.

    I usually put this sort of stuff in the margin to look up later (it’s often useful for research papers, for example). Pay attention to other’s comments, too — try to capture at least the gist of comments that add to your understanding.

    Your Own Questions

    Make sure to record your own questions about the material as they occur to you. This will help you remember to ask the professor or look something up later, as well as prompt you to think through the gaps in your understanding.

    3 Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

    You don’t have to be super-fancy in your note-taking to be effective, but there are a few techniques that seem to work best for most people.

    1. Outlining

    Whether you use Roman numerals or bullet points, outlining is an effective way to capture the hierarchical relationships between ideas and data. For example, in a history class, you might write the name of an important leader, and under it the key events that he or she was involved in. Under each of them, a short description. And so on.

    Outlining is a great way to take notes from books, because the author has usually organized the material in a fairly effective way, and you can go from start to end of a chapter and simply reproduce that structure in your notes.

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    For lectures, however, outlining has limitations. The relationship between ideas isn’t always hierarchical, and the instructor might jump around a lot. A point later in the lecture might relate better to information earlier in the lecture, leaving you to either flip back and forth to find where the information goes best (and hope there’s still room to write it in), or risk losing the relationship between what the professor just said and what she said before.

    2. Mind-Mapping

    For lectures, a mind-map might be a more appropriate way of keeping track of the relationships between ideas. Now, I’m not the biggest fan of mind-mapping, but it might just fit the bill.

    Here’s the idea:

    In the center of a blank sheet of paper, you write the lecture’s main topic. As new sub-topics are introduced (the kind of thing you’d create a new heading for in an outline), you draw a branch outward from the center and write the sub-topic along the branch. Then each point under that heading gets its own, smaller branch off the main one. When another new sub-topic is mentioned, you draw a new main branch from the center. And so on.

    The thing is, if a point should go under the first heading but you’re on the fourth heading, you can easily just draw it in on the first branch. Likewise, if a point connects to two different ideas, you can connect it to two different branches.

    If you want to neaten things up later, you can re-draw the map or type it up using a program like FreeMind, a free mind-mapping program (some wikis even have plug-ins for FreeMind mind-maps, in case you’re using a wiki to keep track of your notes).

    You can learn more about mind-mapping here: How to Mind Map: Visualize Your Cluttered Thoughts in 3 Simple Steps

    3. The Cornell System

    The Cornell System is a simple but powerful system for increasing your recall and the usefulness of your notes.

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    About a quarter of the way from the bottom of a sheet of paper, draw a line across the width of the page. Draw another line from that line to the top, about 2 inches (5 cm) from the right-hand edge of the sheet.

    You’ve divided your page into three sections. In the largest section, you take notes normally — you can outline or mind-map or whatever. After the lecture, write a series of “cues” into the skinny column on the right, questions about the material you’ve just taken notes on. This will help you process the information from the lecture or reading, as well as providing a handy study tool when exams come along: simply cover the main section and try to answer the questions.

    In the bottom section, you write a short, 2-3 line summary in your own words of the material you’ve covered. Again, this helps you process the information by forcing you to use it in a new way; it also provides a useful reference when you’re trying to find something in your notes later.

    You can download instructions and templates from American Digest, though the beauty of the system is you can dash off a template “on the fly”.

    The Bottom Line

    I’m sure I’m only scratching the surface of the variety of techniques and strategies people have come up with to take good notes. Some people use highlighters or colored pens; others a baroque system of post-it notes.

    I’ve tried to keep it simple and general, but the bottom line is that your system has to reflect the way you think. The problem is, most haven’t given much thought to the way they think, leaving them scattered and at loose ends — and their notes reflect this.

    More About Note-Taking

    Featured photo credit: Kaleidico via unsplash.com

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