1. Using the Wrong Accounting Method
There are two main business accounting methods: cash and accrual. Cash accounting is the simpler method because it’s based on the actual flow of cash in and out of a business. The cash method is used primarily by sole proprietors and businesses with no inventory. On the flip side, accrual accounting records income and expenses as they occur, whether cash has actually changed hands or not. As they grow and become more complex, most small businesses should switch to accrual accounting, because this makes it easier to accurately match revenue to expenses. Otherwise, the business might look profitable during months with few expenses and unprofitable during months with large expenses, with no way of really knowing the difference.
2. Combining Personal and Business Finances
It’s critical that personal and business finances be kept separate at all times, regardless of a company’s size. That’s why one of the first things new business owners should do is open a business checking account and deposit all business income into this account.
The next step is to work with an accountant to devise an earnings management strategy dictating how cash is removed from the business to meet personal expenses and savings goals. Your earnings management strategy will be driven by such factors as how much of your profits need to be reinvested back into the company, the timing of payments for large business expenses, your cyclical or seasonal cash flow needs, and your long-term personal financial strategy.
3. Misclassifying Workers
In the eyes of the IRS, there are several different categories of workers: full-time, part-time, and temporary employees, as well as independent contractors, such as freelancers and consultants. Classifying your workers in the wrong categories can be extremely costly.
The employee categories are often used to determine who is eligible for employee benefits. Full-time employees are generally eligible for all benefits offered by an employer, while part-time employees may be eligible for a pro rata share of benefits. Temps and independent contractors generally receive no benefits, and independent contractors are not covered by minimum wage, overtime, payroll tax, workers’ compensation, or unemployment compensation laws
4. Not Performing Basic Account Reconciliation
Reconciling your business’s books with your business bank statement every month is one of your most fundamental accounting duties.
Account reconciliation is relatively simple: Just compare your books with your bank statement and make sure there are no discrepancies. If there are, contact your bank right away to get them resolved. Doing this on a monthly basis helps ensure that accounting errors are caught and corrected quickly before they result in major financial problems.
5. Being Too Nonchalant About Petty Cash
Many businesses keep an informal stash of “petty cash” that can be used by employees to cover small and incidental business expenses, such as postage stamps, snacks from vending machines, and office supplies. But just because the amounts are small doesn’t mean that petty cash shouldn’t be accounted for properly.
A simple accounting system for petty cash logs the amount of money initially put into the stash and requires workers to submit a petty cash slip each time they remove money. The slips should total the original amount of money put in when the petty cash stash is exhausted, and then a new stash can be started with a new petty cash deposit.
6. Not Knowing the Difference Between Profits and Cash Flow
A business can have positive cash flow in the short term but still be unprofitable; conversely, it can have negative short-term cash flow but still be profitable in the long term. The first scenario is common among small businesses because they often have to pay suppliers before they get paid by their customers. The second scenario is common among point-of-sale and cash-based businesses, such as retailers and restaurants, that pay their vendors on terms.
To have an accurate picture of your company’s true financial condition at all times, work with an accountant to produce regular financial statements. These consist of a balance sheet, income statement, and profit and loss statement, which should be produced at least quarterly.
7. Using the DIY Method of Bookkeeping
Many small business owners pride themselves on their ability to wear a many different business hats, including the accounting and bookkeeping hat. However, this is one area where small business owners are usually much better off hiring a specialist rather than trying to do it themselves.
Accounting and bookkeeping can get very technical and complex. The money spent to hire a trained bookkeeper or accountant, even on a part-time or contract basis, will usually come back to the owner many times over given the time savings and all the mistakes that will be avoided.
8. Not Saving Receipts for Small Purchases
The IRS requires that expenses for business travel, meals, and entertainment that are greater than or equal to $75 be substantiated with a receipt in order to be deductible. So many business owners don’t bother saving receipts for expenses less than $75.
Doing this can be a big mistake. While such receipts may not technically be required by the IRS, they are extremely helpful as backup documentation. When it’s time to sit down with your accountant and start working on your annual tax return, having a receipt for every deductible business expense, no matter how small, will help ensure that you don’t overlook any potential deductions.
9. Not Implementing Adequate Internal Controls
If proper checks and balances aren’t implemented in a business’s accounting system, bookkeepers may have opportunities to commit fraud and embezzlement. Losses from internal fraud can significantly cripple a small business, or even lead to bankruptcy.
The best way to guard against embezzlement by a bookkeeper is to implement solid internal financial controls. This includes segregating financial duties so that no one employee has unfettered control of every aspect of the business’s finances. If it isn’t practical for you to hire more than one bookkeeper, you should personally oversee the bookkeeping work and keep tabs on it yourself.
10. Relying Too Heavily on a Paperless Work Environment
To reduce expenses and be better stewards of the environment, many companies today are trying to go paperless. In the realm of bookkeeping and accounting, however, there’s simply no substitute for paper documentation and a paper trail, when needed.
There are many instances in which paper documentation of financial records will come in handy or be required. An IRS audit is one example — you don’t want to be unable to produce requested financial documentation because it was lost in your computer system, or your system is temporarily down. While being environmentally conscious is important, bookkeeping isn’t an area where you should skimp on the paper.
This is a reprint of an old article from an accounting conference.