Do you use Evernote? I do. In fact, over the past few years, Evernote has evolved into my “goto” place for storing and retrieving all kinds of information.
It’s not perfect — no solution ever is — but Evernote is a very powerful tool tool for information management.
For those who don’t know what I’m talking about, Evernote is a cloud-based data storage, synchronization, and retrieval system. But that sort of generic description doesn’t really do it justice.
What is Evernote?
In essence, Evernote seeks to be a sort of “offboard brain” where you can store and retrieve text notes, web pages, photos, pdfs, voice memos, etc. The storage and synchronization parts of this aren’t that novel — Dropbox and many others do this quite well. Where Evernote shines is when it comes to information retrieval.
The front-end software (desktop, mobile, and web) lets you manually organize and categorize your information if that’s your cup of tea. But what makes Evernote special is the back-end processing that makes everything highly searchable.
Raw text is, of course, indexed but so are images, pdfs, etc. In fact, their optical character recognition (OCR) even handles handwriting, so your chicken scratch becomes (somewhat) searchable once you load it into Evernote.
The end result is a searchable database of stuff that requires minimal organization. Yes, you can tag and sort things to your heart’s content, but that’s not necessary.
Evernote usage scenarios
So… How do I actually use Evernote in everyday life? Lots of ways, many of which are at least tangentially related to finance. Here’s a quick rundown of my finance-related usage scenarios, in no particular order.
- Storing retail receipts. I’ve gotten in the habit of snapping a photo with my iPhone of any retail receipt that I might reasonably need in the future and uploading to Evernote.
- Tax-related documents. While I don’t trust Evernote with sensitive financial documents, there are all kinds of (relatively) non-sensitive documents that come in handy at tax time. These get stashed and tagged in Evernote, making retrieval at the end of the year dead easy.
- Important work numbers. I need regular access to a variety of (non-sensitive) account numbers, etc. for work. I say non-sensitive because they’re all internal and useless to almost anyone but me. Having them in Evernote gives me ready access to this info wherever I am when I need it.
- Business cards. I sometimes run across people offering a service that I might need in the future. It’s not worth the trouble of adding all of these people to my address book until we have an established relationship, but I don’t want to lose their info. Thus, I stash a photo of their card in my “contacts” notebook.
- Allowance notes. We pay our kids an allowance to help them learn to manage money. I have a note in Evernote where I keep track of when we last did allowance, how much they have, etc. I also make notes of any “on the fly” spending when we’re out and about and they don’t have cash on hand.
- Recipes. If you have any go-to recipes that you haven’t committed to memory, snap a picture and toss them in Evernote. Having this info in your pocket makes grocery shopping much easier and more efficient.
- Images of semi-regular purchases. There are a number of things that I need to buy semi-regularly, but infrequently enough that I can never remember the details (odd light bulbs, water filter cartridges, and so on). Whenever I run across this sort of thing, I snap a photo of the packaging and file it away. This saves trips to the store and protects me against guessing and buying the wrong thing.
- Product model and serial numbers. Whenever we make a major (or not so major) purchase, I snap a photo of the relevant details. For example, most electronics have a tag on the back with the model number, serial number, etc. Snapping a picture makes it easier to comparison shop, buy accessories, etc.
- Product user manuals. Related to the above, whenever we buy a reasonably complex item, I snag the user manual in pdf form (just Google it) and file it away in Evernote. What’s easy to find today may not be easy to find as the product ages. Have you ever needed to re-program a universal remote three years after buying it? Without instructions, you may wind up buying a new one.
- Automotive details. For each of our cars, I’ve taken pictures of the license plates, the stickers on the front door frames, etc. Thus, I have ready access to our VINs, paint codes, tire details, etc. wherever I go.
- Auto service records. Similarly, I scan in all receipts related to automotive maintenance. Having all this info on hand makes it far easier to keep track of our service history, and it also helps when it comes time to sell your car.
- Home maintenance records. Whenever we have work done on the house, I scan the invoice and stash it in Evernote. As with automotive records, this helps us maintain a service history, and comes in handy when things go wrong.
- Random notes. Finally, as sort of a catch-all category, I also store a lot of notes in Evernote. If, for example, I need to call a service provider, I jot down anything relevant and store it away for future reference. Depending on the circumstances, I either type on the fly or write by hand and snap a photo and upload.
As you may have noticed, the common theme here is that I mainly use Evernote for archival (and retrieval) purposes. Only rarely do I use it for active information management — the allowance note being one of my very few “active” notes.
And really, the above uses are just the tip of the iceberg. I also store school-related documents, sports schedules, etc. Just about anything that I might need to recall in the future in Evernote where it can be recalled at the drop of a hat.
For the longest time, I viewed Evernote as something of solution in search of a problem. I loved the concept and dearly wanted to use it, but it wasn’t until I started using it the right way (for me) that it really clicked.
By far the biggest limitation (for my purposes) is the lack of server-side file encryption. Yes, you can encrypt plain text notes and yes, your data is transmitted securely, but file attachments are not encrypted on their end.
If this were to change, my usage would skyrocket. Perhaps there’s a valid technical reason for not offering this, but I’m reticent to load it up with financial or medical documents until they make things more secure.
Note: Yes, I’m aware of offline notebooks, but that defeats the purpose of Evernote. And yes, I’m aware you can encrypt attachments before uploading, but that’s a significant extra step that discourages consistent usage.
For now, I store sensitive documents (financial statements, tax returns, and the like) in an encrypted TrueCrypt archive that lives in my Dropbox.
My Evernote workflow
As for my workflow, I mostly use the camera on my iPhone or a Fujitsu ScanSnap scanner to get files into Evernote. Either that, or I download things and drag them into a notebook. And, of course, I (rarely) type out notes the old fashioned way.
For filing, I have a dedicated “inbox” notebook which is where everything lands by default. This removes a significant barrier and makes me more likely to add stuff to Evernote. I can always deal with sorting things out later.
Speaking of sorting… I have a rather granular organizational system, with a number of “high level” notebooks (receipts, contacts, reference, automotive, homeowner, etc.) different types of information. I do tag some things, albeit sparingly. Mostly, I rely on the search functionality to find things.
Finally, I should also note that there are two service levels, free and premium. The premium level ($45/year) offers a significantly larger upload quota, support for larger file sizes, offline notebooks, pdf search (for free users, pdfs don’t get OCR’d on their end), and a few other things.
After being a free user for several years, I upgraded to premium a few months ago and haven’t looked back. And no, I don’t have a financial relationship with Evernote. I’m just a (mostly) satisfied user.