Mystery shopping can generate a lot of paperwork. Keeping hard copies of every bit of it can take up a lot of space. But digitizing can take time. Let’s look at what you can do to minimize the amount of mystery shopping paper you keep around.
Start by not printing things you do not have to print. Although it is necessary to thoroughly read and understand the guidelines, you may not have to print them out for every shop. I sometimes save them as PDFs (if they are not already in that format) and send them to my iPad to read and review. When you do need a hard copy, consider printing double-sided (if your printer is capable).
Many mystery shopping companies’ websites allow you to save your report as a PDF. Saving a PDF of your report gives you a record of what you submitted without using paper and toner to print it out. The PDFs do not take up a lot of space on your hard drive, so you can keep them indefinitely. Just to keep your hard drive in order, you might want to purge reports older than six months or so once or twice a year. Of course, because the digital files do not take up much room, you may choose to keep them longer than that.
In general, you should keep all paperwork from a mystery shop for at least 90 days. Beyond that time, you probably will not need guidelines, forms, shop notes, etc., but you will need to keep receipts and other documentation needed for your tax return. Receipts, mileage logs and other tax documents should be kept as long as you keep other records associated with your tax return. Many experts recommend keeping the actual tax return (1040 and other forms) forever, and supporting documentation (such as receipts) for seven years after date the return was filed.
The IRS will accept digital copies of documents, so you do not have to keep the paper. If you have access to a scanner with a feeder it is easy to scan receipts and other paperwork and keep all of it in a folder on your computer. No scanner? An alternative is to take digital photos of important documents (such as receipts) and save those. Make sure they are sharp and clear, but you do not need to save them at full resolution.
Be sure to regularly back up your computer and store the data in a safe location so you do not lose your financial records in the event your hard drive fails or your computer is lost or damaged. You can save backups to the cloud or to an external hard drive. If you save them to an external hard drive, store a copy offsite. When your backup is on the desk next to your computer, it is not safe from a fire, flood, burglary or other hazard. Keep the offsite copy in a safe deposit box or other secure location.
You may not keep your computer for as long as you need to keep tax records, so make sure your data files get transferred to a new computer or external device when you upgrade. You could burn a CD or DVD with each year’s financial records, or copy them to a USB drive. Be aware that formats change, so as you get new computers, make sure you can still read your old files.
One last note on paperwork: When disposing of papers that include personal information of any kind, it is probably a good idea to shred them. Some experts even suggest shredding things like veterinarian bills. Why? Because they will have your pet’s name on them, and many people use a pet’s name as their password! When in doubt, shred it.