This is a question I get asked a lot by friends, clients and other entrepreneurs. I have an easy answer for my clients: Mike. I’ve known Mike since my Coopers & Lybrand (now PwC) days. He’s honest, dependable, smart and fair-priced. If a client were to get audited three years from now, I know he’s still going to be in business. He’s going to stand by his work.
When a new client asks me, with a tilt to her head, “Is he…creative?,” I say “On a scale of 1 to 10, Mike is a 5.” What I mean by that is that he’s a middle of the road guy. He’s going to get you the tax deductions you deserve but he’s not going to stretch any rules too far, make anything up or do any funny math. And I believe that’s just the kind of tax preparer you want.
My staff asked me to focus this blog on how to maximize tax deductions; to share some secrets and tricks. The truth is, it doesn’t work that way for “the 99%”. (More accurately, probably 90%) For low and middle income wage earners that don’t own a home, the deductions are fairly standard, pardon the pun. For home owners, there are more deductions, but they are still fairly standard: interest, property taxes, etc. As your income rises, it’s likely that there are more opportunities as you’re likely spending money in areas that are indeed deductible. But I’m not talking rising from $40,000 to $80,000. I’m talking rising well into the six figures.
For consultants and small business owners, it’s a bit more complex, but not much. Deducting office supplies, employee’s payroll and auto mileage isn’t rocket science. If you spend money on your business, it’s most likely deductible.
I think many business owners suspect they’re missing out. They suspect that if they had the RIGHT tax preparer, they would maximize their deductions. That myth gets perpetuated by radio commercials that inform us we’re missing out if we don’t incorporate and by home-based business experts that declare you can deduct the cost of your dog because it protects your home office. Really? I suppose it could be argued, but I wouldn’t want to sit across from an IRS officer trying to explain why I wrote off dog food, unless I was a professional breeder.
The simple truth is that, until you amass significant wealth or own complex businesses, the choices for tax preparation are fairly simple. They boil down to software like Turbo Tax, retail tax preparation companies like H&R Block, or choosing a tax professional ranging from an Enrolled Agent to a Certified Public Accountant to an attorney that specializes in taxation.
And here’s my opinion of the options:
Turbo Tax (or any other reputable tax software):
Pros – This is a great option for those that are comfortable with computers and don’t have any situations that are too complex such as multiple businesses, uncommon deductions or specialty credits. I often recommend this as the best option for someone who is newly in business, but only when I’m certain the person will use the power of Turbo Tax and not just blow through it as quickly as possible. The value of Turbo Tax for a new business owner is that when you follow it down the paths of its questions, it then educates you on the convoluted rules of business deductions. It synthesizes the 72,000 pages of tax code into user-friendly questions, and then, if you ask, it tells you the rule behind the question.
Cons – There is no human review function. For my clients that use it, I glance at their return before they send it in. An educated second set of eyes is always good practice, whether using Turbo Tax or a $300/hour tax accountant.
H&R Block (or any other reputable retail tax preparation company)
Pros: The cheery green and white balloons you’re greeted with.
OK, seriously. I must admit I’ve previously disparaged this option because I believed H&R Block to be mostly staffed by intermittent near-minimum wage employees. But I’ve changed my perspective over the past few years. I’ve had the opportunity to work with a long-time H&R Block tax preparer who knows her stuff and has handled one of my clients with some complexities very well. H&R Block also has a solid training and review process in place. If you don’t have the time or inclination to use Turbo Tax and have a typical tax situation, H&R is a smart and economical choice. (Many tax accountants will disagree with me, but that’s my opinion based on years of listening to others experience.)
Cons: Most of their storefronts close for over half the year. If you’re a business owner, I believe there’s great value in checking in with your tax accountant a couple of times throughout the year. That’s not possible when they aren’t there.
Enrolled Agents, Certified Public Accountants and Tax Attorneys:
There is a wide gamut of professional options to getting your taxes completed. They can run anywhere from $50 per hour to $500 per hour, and more. I’ve seen really good ones in each of the categories and really bad ones. There are some qualities that are important to find in your tax preparer:
- For wage earners: do they talk to you and teach you about your options, do they ask questions about your life that might impact your return, do they return your calls and do they finish your return in a timely manner? How long have they been in business? If all they do is have you fill out a form and don’t have any meaningful conversation with you, find someone else.
- For business owners: All of the above questions, with a much greater emphasis on education. Do they walk you through the honest decisions involved in corporate or sole proprietor status, or do they automatically tell you to incorporate…always a red flag. Do they connect with you a few times throughout the year to see if your profitability has significantly increased or decreased; a trigger that could potentially change your need to squirrel money away for a large tax bill on April 15th.
- For high wage earners, individuals who own multiple businesses, and any other complex tax situation: The more complex your tax situation, the more you’ll benefit from a more experienced, more licensed professional. Decisions for this group are beyond the scope of this blog, but what I will say is, by hiring the right professional, you will almost always see a definite return on investment from the tax planning you receive. Joel Stein wrote a humorous article Joel Stein Has Four Accountants on Bloomberg Businessweek last week and he said it well: “What a higher-end accountant does is look a my financial situation holistically and think long-term.”
In the research for his article, he discovered that not all tax preparation options are equal. His remaining taxes due/refund ranged from $4,544 due, to $2,387 due to a refund of $469. That’s not including the $119,554 refund he calculated from TaxSlayer.com, surely an operator error.
What he clearly points out is that all the options are not equal, and who does your taxes can be an important decision. Over the years I’ve seen some horrible outcomes from some ‘great accountants.’ If your neighbor or colleague tells you about their really great tax guy (or gal) that always gets them a refund but they’re not really sure how, think twice before you bite. The after effects of tax accountants that push the envelope too far can be devastating. While the chances of you being audited are miniscule, the chances of one of the tax preparer’s many clients being audited are much greater. When the IRS sees a pattern with a tax preparer, they swoop in and look at the returns of his or her other clients. I’ve seen perfectly upstanding, ethical business owners have back tax bills as a result of tax audits of this type, sometimes to the tune of thousands of dollars. And the tax accountants they used were seemingly ethical. They weren’t outright frauds; they just pushed the envelope way too far. And it’s the tax payer who is ultimately liable.
The final piece of advice I have, no matter who does your return: read it. It may read like Greek to you, but read it anyway. Every year, you’ll learn just a little more.
Stacey Powell builds financial muscles at TheFinanceGym.com and shows off Financial Art at Facebook.
What could you accomplish in 21 days if you knew someone was watching you, checking in on you, facebooking and tweeting about you? Would the goals that you daydream about become clearer, more tangible? Would you be inspired to turn them into SMART goals (specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and timely)? Would you triumph under the magnifying glass of accountability?
21 days ago, my company, Creating Answers, launched the 21 Day Accountability Challenge. We asked people to send in their goals and we chose one lucky person to support, watch, Facebook and Tweet about his or her progress towards his goals. And the lucky winner was:
Kevin Knauss of Insure Me Kevin. Hands down he was the winner. He sent us nine goals and he was clearly excited and ready to hit the ground running. We were concerned that his nine goals were a bit lofty, so we did what we do. We sat down with him and helped him translate his goals into numbers.
“Make my website a wealth of information and the hub of my marketing efforts” became “Blog at least 3 times per week,”
“Expand my small group health insurance clients” became “Complete 100 direct mailings each week for the next 3 weeks,” and
“Expand and fine tune my social media marketing plan” became “Have 1,500 Twitter followers by March 14th.” As of March 13th, he’s at 1,300; go follow him @InsureMeKevin!
Being an entrepreneur requires a unique kind of willpower. There’s no one, in the short run, watching you every day and holding you accountable. You have to really want to do what you’re doing, and you have to follow through. In the long run, your customers will hold you accountable. If you don’t provide value, they won’t return and you’ll run out of money. That’s long term accountability. But in the short run, no one is paying attention to how you show up in your business. Kevin has made amazing progress in the past three weeks because he was willing to expose himself while propelling himself forward.
When it comes to managing our money, many of us have willpower issues. For those of us that are single, there is no one else giving us feedback about our financial decisions or asking us if we did what we said we were going to do. We have no one to be accountable to, no one to answer to when we spent twice what we said we would on eating out. Rarely does anyone ask us the question: “are you funding your retirement?” or “do you have 3 months of reserves in the bank?” Even for those of us in a relationship, the money is often handled by one person, and the other person doesn’t really want to know what’s happening. I’ve had many a client lament that his or her partner won’t even talk about financial decisions. They just want it handled.
How can you use accountability to propel yourself forward with your finances?
- Write your financial goals down and share them with a trusted friend. Check in once every few months and tell them how you’re doing.
- Work with a Certified Financial Planner that will ask the hard questions and be honest with you about your financial health.
- Join the online community at Get Rich Slowly’s Fiscal Fitness Journals.
- Become transparent and start a blog like Save Karyn’s Grand Debt Tally.
- Join a mastermind group that focuses on your money like Financial Boot Camp.
This is the 3rd in a series on creating a financially healthy life. If you jumped in and did the first two steps, Just Do It and Reality, Get a Dose, this one might be the one you might need extra support in accomplishing. Lots of us like to do projects. We like to plan. The first two steps were projects.
This 3rd step requires consistency. Yes, consistency. This is where many of us jump off the financial band wagon.
I liken it to the health band wagon. Most people can stick to a diet for awhile. It might be challenging, you may not like it, but if we knew that we only had to change our eating habits for 3 months to impact our physical health for the rest of our lives, would we do it? Most of us would.
If I told you that getting into financial action for 3 months, really making a consistent commitment, would change your financial life for the years to come, would you do it? You’d have better results if you agreed to do it for a year, for 5 years, or for the rest of your life. But tracking your numbers for just 3 months will make an impact as well. It will reset your clock, equilibrate the way you look at your spending, and serve you in truly seeing your income versus your spending. More >
I’m not a writer. I’m an accountant. (Except now I’m a writer and a financial coach, but that’s another story.) When I feel stuck, that I have nothing useful to say, I read Susannah Breslin. She reminds me how to be a writer.
In her latest series on journalism (and strip clubs, but that’s another story) she reminded me that what a writer does “…for a living is attempt to chronicle the human experience.” Oh, I get it. I’m supposed to be teaching my readers how to have a healthier financial life through telling stories and providing corresponding helpful financial advice.
I realized that in my last blog, I tiptoed. I was cautious. Sure I told stories. And I gave creative and useful ideas. But all over the web are advice blogs about a frugal Christmas, making your own gifts and starting a Santa Saver account.
What is unique about me, what I do that few other financial writers do, is to tell the real human experience of what our financial decisions, or indecisions, do to our self-esteem, our relationships, our happiness and our lives. What was missing in my last blog were these naked emotional truths that clients and friends have shared with me over the years. More people have talked to me about the anguish and pain and simple embarrassment that Christmas can bring than have talked to me about the joy that it brings. Here are some threads of those conversations. More >
In the first of this series on financial well being and health, Just Do It, we walked through the steps of a Fully Fit Plan. I encourage people to take a look at where they want to be before they look at where they are.
It’s the same philosophy as Jim Rohn’s excellent quote “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” If you’re hanging out only with your current spending plan, only looking at your current reality, energetically you’re creating the same plan for yourself, repeatedly.
If every month you first look at your Fully Fit Plan, it will remind you where you’re headed, where your intentions and dreams are. Simply writing the Plan out declares to the universe, and to your subconscious, that you are on a path.
It also prepares you for a dose of reality: your current spending plan. Now it’s time to look, see and tell the truth.
It’s true that not everyone reading this sees their current spending plan as dismal, tight, something to move beyond. But I’m thinking many of you do. If you’re current spending plan had an extra $1,000 a month in it, you probably wouldn’t be reading my blog, you’d be at Intelligent Investing reading Chris Barth. More >