How to Reduce Your Mail to Almost Nothing

February 13th, 2012 by Steve Pavlina

It’s been estimated that the average American will spend about 8 months of his/her life opening junk mail. Would anyone consciously choose to do that? Probably not. But how many will end up doing it anyway?

And this is just the average. Some poor folks actually spend years of their lives processing junk mail. This is especially common if you have multiple sources of mail, such as your home and a business.

Each piece of unwanted mail you process is a needless waste of your life. It’s also a major source of distraction that gets you thinking about things that are off course for you.

Even if you don’t open most junk mail, it still wastes time to pick it up, look at it, identify it as spam, and trash it. And if you’re ever tempted or tricked into opening some of it, it wastes even more time. Even if you’re way better than the average, and you waste only 10 minutes per week dealing with junk mail, it will add up to nearly 87 hours wasted over the next decade. That’s like working more than 2 weeks full-time just to process junk mail. And this doesn’t even count non-junk mail that you may also process.

Fortunately there are many simple steps you can take to reduce this unwanted nuisance down to almost nothing.

Raise Your Awareness

The first step is to assess how much mail you’re actually receiving. If you process your mail every day or two, it may not seem like a lot. But if you collect it over a longer period of time, such as 30 days, you may realize just how much of a waste it is.

When I started traveling more and had my mail held by the Post Office, I noticed just how much would accumulate during my absence. Also, as I would recycle all my mail, I could physically see just how much would pile up during the two weeks between recycling pick-ups.

I recommend stockpiling all your unwanted mail for the next 30 days. Then you’ll see just how much there is.

Alternatively you could compile a list of what comes through, but I prefer to let the physical pieces pile up for an easy visual assessment. The recycle bin is an easy place to do that.

Another reason to keep each physical item is so that you can use the information on them to cancel them from being sent in the future. More on that later…

Question Each Piece of Mail

Now for each piece of mail that arrives in your mailbox, ask yourself whether it needed to be sent at all.

I find that in most cases the answer is an obvious no.

I realized that there were only two types of mail I actually want to receive: pieces containing checks, such as royalties or affiliate commissions, and packages containing goods that I specifically ordered. Everything else is superfluous, at least in terms of sending physical objects through the postal service.

There are also some notices which I’m okay receiving by mail, such as bills and tax forms, even though I don’t necessarily need to receive them by postal mail.

If you didn’t need to receive it, and if you’re likely to receive something similar again, consider it a candidate for elimination.

Manually Opt Out

The next step is to manually opt out with each company that sent you something you didn’t need to receive.

Most junk mail will include a phone number or URL. I think the easiest approach is to call them. Phone them up directly, and get a live person on the line. In my experience this isn’t difficult. Then say, “Hi, I’d like to stop receiving all mailings from your company. Would you please add me to your opt out list? I’d really appreciate it.”

They’ll ask for your mailing address, do some database stuff, and that should do it. Usually these calls take about two minutes.

Sometimes it’s helpful to have the mailed item in front of you because if they have any difficulty finding you in their system, you may be able to give them an ID number or customer number from the address label. This makes it fast and easy for them to look you up.

When you do call, be as polite and friendly as you can. Most likely the person handling your situation is just some student trying to earn tuition money by working in a call center. I always get their name and use it when I talk to them. Don’t act like a jerk or treat them like dirt, or you may give them reason not to opt you out properly.

Often you can also opt-out online. Go to the company’s website, and look for a link to their privacy policy or a contact form. Sometimes the privacy policy will have a section with instructions on how to opt out of their mailings, usually a link to a form or an email address to use. Otherwise just use the contact form. I recommend the phone option, however, since it’s typically faster, and then you get confirmation that you’ve been successfully opted out of their mailings. If you email them, you may not receive confirmation that you’re opted out.

Note that you can even opt out of those coupon and local advertisement mailers. Just look for a phone number or URL on the front or back. Worst case you can probably find a number for their advertising sales. Call them up and ask to opt out.

Once you do opt out, give it a month or so to take effect. Don’t be freaked out if you still get something a couple weeks later. Often these companies have mailings queued up for weeks in advance. You have to allow time for their physical mailings to sync with the database update.

Be sure to call companies you’ve done business with, such as your bank, to ask them to opt out of mailed solicitations. For me one of the worst offenders has been Cox Cable (a major ISP in Las Vegas). They sent junk mail constantly to promote their Internet phone service, cable TV, etc.

Sometimes if you just get one nasty mail spammer to stop, it can save you a few hours over the course of a year. Realize that even 5 minutes per month processing junk mail is still an hour per year, and 10 hours over the next decade. Take two minutes today to save those 10 hours later.

My #1 nemesis when it comes to junk mail has been DirecTV. Sometimes I’d receive two junk mailings from them per week. I’m glad to be opted out now, but their incessant spamming has convinced me to never do business with them. They gave me the mental association that DirecTV = spammer. Their service is obsolete anyway, so perhaps that’s the reason for their desperation.

Ask for Maximum Privacy

Additionally, ask these companies to set your account to the maximum privacy settings possible. Tell them you don’t want your info shared with anyone. It’s common for companies to share customer data for marketing purposes, so this step can cut down on a lot of junk.

Be sure to call:

  • your bank
  • mortgage lender
  • credit card companies
  • insurance providers (auto, home, life, health, etc)
  • phone companies
  • investment account holders
  • cable company
  • Internet provider
  • any other mail-happy company with which you have an account

Watch your mail to see who’s mailing you.

One annoyance I had with Cox Cable is that they told me I could only opt out of their mailings for one year at a time. I thought that was incredibly lame, so I pushed back, but the guy told me their system is actually programmed to force him to enter an expiration date with a maximum of one year out. So I gave up and just added an entry to my calendar to call them again in one year to refresh my opt out.

Switch to E-Statements

Many vendors such as banks, credit card companies, and utilities now allow you to receive statements by email or via their websites, so mailing physical statements isn’t necessary. It’s cheaper for them, so sometimes they’ll incentivize you to switch to e-statements, or they’ll punish you with a “statement fee” if you don’t.

You can still print out hard copies if you need them.

Do whatever you think is best, but you can always try e-statements for a while and then switch back to paper if you don’t like it.

Opt Out of Direct Marketing

The Direct Marketing Association has a website that makes it easy for you to opt out of common catalog and junk mailings in one place. Their members use this service to screen their lists, and they have a lot of members.

Just visit DMAChoice.org and follow the instructions. You have to create a free account to use this service, but the process is quick and easy.

Opt Out of Credit Card Offers

If you have a credit file with the major credit bureaus (which happens by default if you open any line of credit such as a bank loan, student loan, or credit card), you should know that they share your info with other companies that may result in your receiving credit card and insurance offers by mail. I’ve probably received hundreds of these offers.

If you’d prefer not to receive such spam, it’s very easy to opt out. Just call 1-888-5-OPT-OUT (1-888-567-8688), or go to www.optoutprescreen.com and follow the instructions.

You can opt out for 5 years or permanently. If you want to opt out for 5 years, you can do that by phone or online. If you want to opt out permanently, go to the website above; you just have to print and sign a short form and mail it.

I did the permanent opt out.

If you ever want a new credit card or some insurance, it’s easy to find vendors and apply online. There’s no need to deal with distracting junk mail for the rest of your life due to spam that originates from having a credit file.

Add Yourself to the Do Not Call Registry

Americans can also reduce or eliminate unsolicited telemarketing calls by visiting www.donotcall.gov. It should take about one minute to add your numbers to the registry. Just remember to do this again if you ever change phone numbers.

I used to get spam calls several times a week by telemarketer scum, but after adding my numbers to this list, it’s down to virtually nothing now.

For good measure you may want to add your fax number too if you have one. I don’t see how it could hurt.

For more info on this, see the Do Not Call Registry FAQ.

Kudos to the Federal Trade Commission for providing this service.

Don’t Use a Forwarding Address

When you move it’s tempting to leave a forwarding address with the Post Office, so they’ll automatically forward mail from your old address to your new one.

This is convenient, but if you want to reduce your junk mail, I think it’s best to avoid using this service. It makes it too easy for the spammers to stay in touch.

Let the important mailers know your new address. Let everything else die.

Be Vigilant When You Move

When you move to a new place, you’re likely to get some junk mail from vendors who target move-ins, especially if you just bought a house. Bed, Bath, and Beyond comes to mind. Furniture stores are another typical source.

These mailings are often addressed to “Resident.”

Let the junk pile up for a few weeks after you move in. Then take 30-60 minutes to call everyone to opt out. Otherwise you may become a permanent addition to several new mailing lists, and this will waste hours, if not days, of your life down the road.

Close or Recycle Unneeded Mailboxes

I’ve often maintained a PO box for my business, usually for receiving mail orders. But the longer I’ve held such mailboxes, the more spam they accumulate, especially if I list the address on my website. After a few years of having such a box, the mail they receive can become 95% spam.

Last month my current PO box, which I’ve had for a few years, was due for its annual renewal. I was about to cut the check when I paused and asked myself, “Wait a minute… do I really need this box anymore? What would happen if I dumped it?” It was probably getting about 65% pure spam, but nearly 100% of the mail received there was unnecessary.

Originally I opened the box to receive mail orders and for people who wanted to send feedback by mail. But for all the workshops I’ve had, maybe one person has ever registered by mail. And I’ve read enough feedback on my writing to last a lifetime, so I really don’t need the letters either. It was a fairly easy decision to close the box, which means less mail henceforth.

When I turned in the keys, I was handed a stack of packages that I never bothered to pick up, all of them sent by publicists hoping I’d review their stuff on my website. More fodder for the recycle bin. Henceforth this PR spam will end up in limbo.

When I first started blogging, I thought it was cool that publishers and their publicists would send me free personal development books in the mail, hoping to get a review on my website. But after several years of that, it gets pretty stale. Today, however, I’ll be happy to give them my PO box address. ;)

Alternatively, if you don’t want to close your box, consider recycling it. Open a new box, and redirect your mail there till all the important stuff is shifted over. Then close the old box. This is a good way to periodically reset your spam to zero. I recommend doing it once every few years, or whenever the spam volume gets too annoying.

If having a consistent address is important to you, like if there are lots of places where your address is listed (i.e. old catalogs), then you may be stuck with the same box for a while. I preferred a stable mailing address when I sold shareware games during the 1990s since the mailing address was included in the free demos, which were spread all over the Internet. Changing my box would mean losing some orders from older demos.

Keep Your Mailing Address Off the Internet

While this isn’t always possible for businesses, if you can keep your mailing address off of public Internet sites, it should help reduce the amount of junk mail you receive. I’ve seen plenty of evidence that if you do post a mailing address online, you’re probably going to invite some additional junk mail.

It’s okay to enter your mailing address on online order forms when you want to buy something, such as from Amazon. Just don’t post it where it will be displayed publicly, like on a public discussion forum or on your Facebook page.

Opt Out of Charity Spam

Despite the good they do, many charities, bless their hearts, can be notorious spammers. Donating to certain charities can trigger an onslaught of dozens of give-us-more-money solicitations over the following year or two.

If you don’t want your donation to be treated as spam bait, then when you make a donation, immediately ask the charity to opt you out of any future mailings.

For a while I was doing recurring automatic donations to a popular charity. They’d mail me monthly statements and a few solicitations each year. When I finally canceled those recurring donations, I received an onslaught of solicitous mailings from them. Such annoying behavior isn’t going to motivate me to donate more, but it does convince me to opt out permanently.

I appreciate the good that many charities do, but I’m not interested in opening their solicitations for the rest of my life. It’s easy enough to find a worthy cause when I desire to donate.

Stay Frosty

Be alert for potential sources of junk mail as they arise, and nip them in the bud quickly when you can.

Sometimes when I’d buy gifts for people, I’d get junk mail from the companies I bought from, even if I never bought anything for myself.

One time I bought a gift card to White House | Black Market for my sister via their website. Then I started getting lots of junk mail from them, addressed to me. I would never shop there for myself, but now I will never buy anything from them for anyone.

When you buy something online from a new vendor, ask to be placed on their opt out list right when you order. If you order online, there’s often a “special instructions” or comment box where you can notify them of this.

One thing that gets me a lot is when I make hotel reservations. After my stay, I often start receiving junk mail from the hotel. Seriously? Am I really going to revisit that Hawaii resort right after I just stayed there? Again, this kind of spam has the opposite effect and makes me less likely to return. I have to remind myself to opt out of hotel mailings right when I make the reservation.

Once a family member bought some gifts from Justice (a girl’s clothing store) for my daughter Emily, and the gifts were mailed to my house. I started getting an absolutely ridiculous amount of junk mail from them, addressed to Emily. Finally I had the sense to tell them to stop.

Delegate to an Assistant

Worst case, you could have someone process and screen all your mail for you. I think this should be a last resort, however, and it doesn’t negate any of the above. Why have someone waste their life on pointless busywork when it’s faster and easier to cut off the flow of junk upstream? Don’t try to process spam more quickly. Stop the spam from being sent. Then no one needs to process it.

If you do use an assistant, then have him/her make the calls to reduce your mail to the bare minimum.

Brick Up Your Mailbox?

One of the best Seinfeld episodes is where Kramer decides he wants to stop receiving postal mail. He puts a brick in his mailbox, so the mail carrier can’t deliver any more mail to him. Eventually the Postmaster General has Kramer kidnapped and intimidates him until Kramer agrees to play by the rules and start receiving mail again.

How necessary is postal mail these days?

If the ideal is to receive no unwanted physical mail at all, how close can we get to that? I suppose that if you don’t have an address, such as if you live in an RV, then maybe you could do without mail altogether. But if you do have a physical address, do you think you could someday do the equivalent of putting a brick in your mailbox, so no further mail delivery is possible? You could still receive packages at your door if you want, but no more letters, cards, postcards, magazines, etc.

Does the postal service itself let people opt out?

Physical mail delivery was once a marvel, especially if you lived in Ancient Rome, Persia, or the Mongol Empire. Today it’s a dying technology that’s clearly becoming obsolete.

The U.S. Postal Service is in seriously bad financial shape, so bad that their very survival is in doubt. They raise postage rates, lay people off, and close locations, but they’re still hemorrhaging cash with no end in sight. We’re talking a multi-billion dollar deficit. A major downsizing is inevitable; it’s only a matter of time. If the decision were up to me, I’d either gut the service to the bones or kill it altogether. It’s best to put them out of their misery sooner; delay will be worse.

For any readers who still work in postal mail delivery, I’d start developing new career options sooner rather than later. I don’t think you have much time left. No union can save your job when the math is against you.

* * *

For the purposes of mail reduction, I suggest doing about 30 days of collection first, coupled with immediate use of the various opt-out services above. Then at the end of those 30 days, go through your stack item by item to make your phone calls to individual spammers, either in a single marathon session, or spread over the course of a week.

Then mark your calendar to do another round of mail reduction every 6 months or so. That should massively reduce the amount of unwanted mail you receive for the rest of your life.

It may take a few hours to complete these actions, but I think you’ll agree that the payoff is worth it. Would you rather spend 8 months of your life opening junk mail?

Even if you only apply some of the steps above, I think a 75% reduction within 60 days is an attainable goal, and I’m sure some will achieve a 90%+ reduction. If you really push it though, you should be able to reduce your incoming mail to almost nothing. Don’t waste your time processing crap that never should have been sent to you. Go have a life!

If you do discover a way to completely brick up your mailbox, please let me know… if you can figure out how to contact me, that is. ;)


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