Q: Hi Lozelle, my financial records for my business were a mess last year. I was embarrassed at the disorganized mound of bank statements, receipts, and other papers that I handed over to my accountant at tax time. I want to start setting up systems so that tax season doesn’t inspire heart attacks for myself and my tax help. What can I start implementing now to clean up documentation from earlier in the year, as well as to ensure that things are on better footing from this point forward?
A: I’m so glad you asked this question. There is nothing better than a business owner who realizes the importance of getting their financial house in order, even when it’s not tax time! And getting started at the first of the month is a great time to embark on a project with a deadline by which you can mark your progress.
People seem to believe that accountants are miracle workers. I mean, we are amazing, but you have to help us help you. Give us the tools we need to do our jobs well. And that means presenting accurate, coherent documentation.
Some tax professionals go the extra mile to work with you to clarify the documentation they receive. But it’s important to understand that they are not required to do so. Particularly if you present the paperwork to them during the thick of tax season, it’s likely that they will work with what you gave to them, as it was presented.
Put simply, a tax professional can't do their job effectively without a clean set of financial statements. If a business owner keeps poor accounting records, their tax accountant has no choice but to file taxes based on sloppy and inaccurate financial statements. In this situation, the tax accountant can't minimize the client's tax liability, because they are basing their work on inaccurate financial statements.
You can see now why I’m so happy to hear your commitment to doing better. Make it your project to get yourself organized this month, and your mission to keep up with good habits throughout the year and you’ll find that keeping your records updated and organized isn’t scary at all! Here are my suggestions:
1. Get a realistic lay of the land.
Look at your current organizational system. Do you throw all of your documents into a box? A folder? All they scattered all around? You’ll need to gather your documents and get them in one place. Then, look the different types of documents you have to gain an initial understanding of what you’re working with.
My guess is that you have receipts of various kind, mileage documentation, bank statements, contracts, and credit cards statements, at a minimum.
Once you’ve identified and collected these into one area, figure out how you’d like to organize them. Options include by document type, month, or account number. Once you make a decision, be sure you stick with it to be consistent.
2. Find The Right Filing System
There are no “right” or “wrong” answers here. What works best for you depends on your space and your preferences. You can decide if you’d like to use filing cabinets, or hanging folders within your desk.
Then, take the documents that you organized before, put them into folders, and you are off and away with your new organizational scheme!
3. Reconcile Receipts
Receipts may feel like the bain of your existence because there are always so many. This is likely the type of record you have the most of, and the importance of documenting your businesses purchases can’t be overstated.
When you have noted and attached the receipts to the appropriate statements, you may wish to move them to a “completed” folder. For those that require further action or research, you should designate another file. I see this again and again--don’t let the receipts that may be a little more complex derail you for organizing the rest. Having a few to deal with is so much better than a whole stack for an entire year.
4. Consider Your Online Financials
You may do most of your financial transactions online, or it may be closer to half and half. Regardless of the case, your filing system needs to take into account online banking, bill payments, shopping, and other transaction you make electronically on behalf of your business. How can you integrate your physical and electronic files to make your life easier? One simple solution is to scan your physical documents so that they can be incorporated into the accounting software of your choice.
Congratulations for making these important money moves! Best of luck to you.