Figuring the costs of using paper forms


Ms. Neagu is a noted expert on data applications and XML technologies. Adriana was co-inventor of Microsoft Office InfoPath, and co-holds 4 InfoPath patents.

Paper forms

A whole lot of business is still conducted by filling out paper forms. How much does that cost? We finally found  some credible data to justify the ROI of going paperless.

Everyone knows using paper forms is an outdated, inefficient and costly way to do business. But it’s not easy to find hard data to support calculations of return on investment (ROI) for switching to paperless processes.

Unsubstantiated claims about the cost of paper forms

There are plenty of anecdotal claims, such as this one from 2009:

“Have you heard that it costs $25,000 to fill a filing cabinet and $2,100 per year to maintain it? Did you know that rejecting a document based on poor penmanship, missing information or missing pages costs an average of $75? Or that filling out just 5 pages of forms per day costs an average of $12,000 per year (at $25 per hour or $40,000 salary)?”

But when you try to track down the source of such numbers, they prove elusive. Generally, these kinds of unsubstantiated claims are made by companies promoting their own paperless solutions. (Full disclosure: we promote our own paperless solution.)

Calculate the cost of paper forms yourself

One mobile forms company has made available an interesting calculator you can use to estimate the costs of paper forms in your own situation — not just in dollars but in trees and pounds of carbon as well. The calculator is attributed to a university institute, and the dollar calculations hinge on estimating how long it takes to key data from a paper form into a computer.

“The primary cost savings comes from not having to reenter paper forms data into a computer system. On average, you can save from $0.51 per page if using offshore contractors to reenter form data, to $1.88 or more if using your own employees.”

We wonder how accurately most companies can estimate the key metric at the heart of the calculator: “Average time in minutes to enter the answers to an average form question into a computer system including wasted time”.

At last, a good study of the cost of paper forms

“The average cost per form is $4.56, but for 20% of respondents the cost per form is $10 or more”

AIIM published a whitepaper in 2012 that includes the results of a survey they conducted with 477  of its 64,000 community members. We like it because the survey was conducted by an objective non-profit organization, it includes all the demographics, and it excludes extreme answers and the responses of companies that are too small or have a conflict of interest.

“However, the costs mount dramatically once the forms have been completed by the user, and need to be transported safely, securely and quickly to the start of the appropriate process, wherever that may be, and whether or not it includes a scanning and capture element.

“In the AIIM survey mentioned earlier, we asked respondents to estimate how much it costs them, per document or form, in printing, distribution, mailing, collection, and sorting, prior to either scanning or paper-based processing. Eliminating 14 responses of over $75 per form (which may well be valid for certain very specialized applications or remote locations), the average cost per form is $4.56. The median (mid-point) is $2.00, but for 20% of respondents the cost per form is $10 or more.”

Cost drivers

In a separate survey conducted in May-June 2013, AIIM quantified which were the ‘biggest issues’ caused by paper-based processes. The most common complaints were about re-keying data and filing, storing and searching for paper records, which are also major cost drivers for paper forms.

Problems with paper forms