No business is entirely paperless, but any LBM dealer can save thousands of dollars a year by shedding unneeded paper files and by generating fewer of them in the future.

Chances are, most of the documents you have relegated to file cabinets and off-site storage rarely see the light of day. The reason? You don’t need them.

For legal purposes, businesses often hold onto financial and personnel records for seven years. But it’s highly unlikely that anyone from your company will have reason to retrieve the reams of reports and records you created pre-2006.

North Fort Myers, Fla.-based Raymond Building Supply, for example, figures it saves $1,200 a month in off-site paper storage since it computerized its paper-intensive processes like ordering, invoicing, and estimating. In fact, when the LBM dealer added in the costs of paper, ink, and postage, and calculated how much it pays staff members to create paper documents, make copies, send them around to others who need to see them, and root through unwieldy files to find what they need, the firm’s paper-based culture was costing the business several hundred thousand dollars a year.

The leap to less paper won’t happen overnight; it’s a culture change. So whether you want to ease your impact on the environment, polish your company’s reputation as a good corporate citizen, save time and money, or just crave less clutter, start with small steps that will fit into your budget, allow your staff and customers to adapt at a comfortable pace, and eventually settle into a business model that considers paper unnecessary, at least most of the time.

Here’s how to start:

• Assess how much paper you have. It could be an overwhelming amount. Decide which, if any, of the forgotten files you stored away long ago would ever be relevant again.

• Hire a shredding service that will come to your lumber yard or storage space with commercial-size shredders and dispose of your out-of-date—but still sensitive—documents on your premises.

• Handle the chore yourself if you have a manageable amount of backlog. Just be sure you can afford to devote the necessary staff time to the shredding effort.

• Organize your “still necessary” papers according to subject matter: personnel files, tax documents, legal matters. Then, scan those records, save them to a computer file, and back up the file in the cloud, which will allow your team to retrieve the documents from anywhere, or onto a portable hard drive that you can safely store off-site.

You can hire a company to scan, save, and back up the documents, or you can invest in a high-quality document scanner—for less than $1,500—that will scan up to 50 pages a minute so your staff can do it in-house. You also can purchase software that will organize and index the files as you scan them, which will make them easier to search for if you want to retrieve them. Once the files are securely saved and backed up, destroy the paper originals. You won’t need them.

Two tips: First, document management experts advise business owners to hire out this project if you have thousands—rather than hundreds—of pieces of paper to scan and save. Second, if you do it yourself, save scanned files either in PDF format or as images, like TIFF or JPG files. The reason: If you plan to retain your documents for seven years—or more—there’s no guarantee that the computer software of the future will be able to open today’s programs. The experts agree that PDF and image file formats will likely endure.

An alternative, of course, is to leave the unneeded, outdated paper files where they are. Whether you shred or not, however, stop adding to those files. The day you stop creating paper files is the day you end your need to store more paper.

You can invest in a comprehensive software system that will automate everything from purchase orders, to shipping and receiving documents, to invoices. That will drastically and immediately reduce the amount of paper you produce and give on-screen access to anybody who needs it without copying, printing, mailing, or faxing.

Or you can take smaller steps to pare your business’s use of paper, including:

• Scan every piece of paper that lands on your desk. If a vendor is sending paper invoices or purchase orders, scan them, save them in a computer file, and shred the original paper. The same goes for shipping and receiving documents, even if they require a signature. As long as you regularly back up your computer files, you will not need the originals.

• Email or e-fax invoices and correspondence to vendors and customers.

• Print out receipts or other documents for customers who might be  uncomfortable with your paperless effort.

More from ProSales:

Separate Your Paper From Other Trash To Cut Your Waste-Hauling Bills

Move Services to the Cloud To Help Solve Storage Woes

Getting a Handle on Paper Saves Big Bucks at Raymond Building Supply