I was put in a difficult position by a client recently. I was helping them with their self assessment tax return, and was being pressured to include a couple of expenses that I did not consider to be legitimate business costs.
Within reason, and subject to some legal exceptions, a business is allowed to incur a wide range of expenses in the furtherance of its objectives. When you are self employed, or a sole trader, the onus of responsibility is the other way round – the basic assumption is that all expenditure is personal, unless you can demonstrate that it is business related.
In particular, I was being asked to include two items of significant value as business expenses, based on their presence on a credit card statement and the client’s insistence that they were business related. Bearing in mind that I had already had to consider whether towels and a set of weighing scales could be included, I felt the lack of any appropriate or independent evidence of the two items, such as a copy of the invoice and the fact the two large expenses were bought in the previous accounting period, I decided that, in my professional judgement, I would not allow them. This did not please my client.
Accounting is often considered an exact science. In my view, it is an art. Its purpose is to paint a true and fair picture of what has happened, in a way that makes sense to the person looking at the information.
It is the responsibility of whoever is putting the accounts together to ensure that there is appropriate evidence to support their view. Of course, what you might want to see may vary depending on whether you are the business or the tax man.
I was talking to a client recently about their business. They were explaining to me what information they wanted to see on a regular basis that they believed would help them monitor their business. The indicators he felt were key were Turnover (sales income), Profit, and Cash in the bank.
Without wanting to start an argument there and then, I realised that I have a lot of work to do to get the business owner to understand what he really needs to know, why he needs to know these things, and what he needs to do about things when they are not good.
I have often talked about the Balance Sheet being more important than the Profit and loss, and I still stand by this statement. The Balance Sheet tells you what you own, who owes you money, and who you owe money to. These three facts give you a far better snapshot of your businesses health than any other measurement.
Take cash in the bank as an example. It doesn’t include cheque payments to suppliers that have not cleared. It doesn’t tell you how much you are owed by customers, or how much you owe to your suppliers.
Profit is a nice measurement if you are the taxman, but it doesn’t tell you how profitable you are. Making more profit than last year might sound good, but what will you do if you are only making 10% net profit, when last year you made 15%?
Running a business requires focus on the future. A review of the past is helpful, but only if you do things differently as a result of the lessons you have learnt. If you are measuring your performance by the wrong indicators, do you even know what those lessons are?
I met a prospective client a couple of days ago. He is starting a business based on his many years experience and contacts in his specialist field. We met on the basis that he needed an accountant, and could I help?
The word Accountant has become a much overused description of someone who provides financial assistance to a business. Calling yourself an Accountant implies expertise in a wide range of disciplines:
Business Tax (Corporation, CGT, VAT)
Personal Tax (NI, PAYE)
I believe that every business needs all of the above, just not necessarily all at once, or all the time. When choosing someone to be your “Accountant”, are you paying for all the above services “just in case”, or being quite precise about what kind of support you need?
If you manage your business well, you will be able to select when and who provides you with “Bookkeeping” (needed on a regular basis) separately from your “Auditor” (only needed once a year); be able to pay for “Tax” or “Investment” advice only when you need it. You should ask for general support and guidance from a “Finance Director” only as and when you need to.
The various functions of Accountancy can (and often are) outsourced. Accountancy is a big pool with all sorts of fish in it. As a business owner you should dip into the pool only for what you need, when you need it.
Does my prospective client need an Accountant? No. His needs are far more subtle and demanding than a generalist. Are yours?
Ok, so fuel goes down by a penny at 6pm. It’s still expensive. On the plus side, as an employee I will be able to claim 45p per mile from my employer fro the first 10,000 miles I drive. If I own the business, I might not feel so great about parting with up to £500 per employee…
Then again, as a business, I have some good news, the VAT threshold is now at £73k, and corporation tax is reducing (unless you are already an SME, and already only paying 20%, in which case there is no change).
Tax avoidance measures are being ramped up – the government is looking to pull in an extra £1billion more per year in “lost” revenue. If you are avoiding paying tax, make sure its legitimate!
My personal tax allowance is going up by £630 per year, but not until April 2012.
The bigger picture is a mixed bag. Growth is still growth, but only just. To help kick start regions that are really struggling, Enterprise Zones have been established. At first glance they may have some attractive strengths: potentially 100% rate relief if you move into the region, and the promise of super-fast broadband.
As expected, the squeeze on public spending continues, with council taxes frozen, or reduced.
To my mind, and as a small business myself, all the above suggests one thing, opportunity. As a chair of governors of a local school, I have already received the first of what I expect to be many approaches from a private company, this time selling expertise that was previously provided free of charge by the Local Authority.
The world hasn’t stopped, its changing direction. Which way are you pointing?
I had a conversation today with someone about pensions. Now I am not a personal financial advisor, and I gave no advice, but it did make me think about what I do do.
I have been taught that a good Finance Director knows everything, and that a really good one will get everyone else to do it for him (or her). I am not so sure any more. I think a good Finance Director knows how to find out everything he doesn’t know, and that a really good one will help others to do the best they can. After all, a really good Finance Director knows the financial situation, has a good idea of the aims of the business, and a pretty good idea of what every department is trying to achieve. I agree that generally it is up to others to make things happen.
More than any other department, Finance is judged by a very simple metric, is the business performing as well as it can. It’s existance is not about sales, or marketing, or brand awareness; and yet a good Finance Director is assessed on how well the business as a whole is doing.
So what has this to do with pensions? Well, it reminded me that I don’t know everything about pensions, but I do know the questions to ask to ensure the business is compliant. I also know what to ask to see what plans the business has in place to make the most of its staff and goals to see if it is as successful as it can be.
A good Finance Director is good with numbers; a really good one knows what questions to ask. How good your business is depends on how well you can answer the questions.
This seems like a simple question. However, particularly at this time of year as they submit their tax return, many people find out that what they thought was a business expenses, isn’t.
The answer to the question is not defined by you, but by the tax office.
Take your telephone bill as an example. The tax office is happy to accept a telephone bill, even a mobile phone bill, as a business expense if you are a limited company, but not if you are self employed. If you are self employed and have a mobile phone, the tax man will assume that the contract is mainly for personal use. To prove your business use you need an itemised phone bill and details of which calls were for business, and which were personal.
Another area that often causes confusion is food and drinks (entertaining). Meals and drinks bought by a limited company can usually be called a business expense, but only very rarely if you are self employed.
If you are unsure about what is or isn’t a business expense, ask a professional, and then make sure that you understand what they tell you. I heard a story recently about someone who thought they knew what was allowed, only to find that their accountant had disallowed some items on their tax return (and not told them).
The logic behind the tax office’s decision on what is (and isn’t) a business expense may be archaic or confusing, but when the tax man knocks on your door and asks to see your accounts, the argument becomes irrelevant, as all that matters is the law.
If you would like to know more, or have questions, please ask.
I read a report today that said we should have a cash reserve of about 6 months spending, “just in case”.
Money is a resource, a tool that makes things happen. Putting it in the bank is the same as giving it to the bank to let them do with it what they want to do. I am not saying we shouldn’t be putting some money to one side “just in case”, but I would rather the money is working for you, not someone else.
So how do you get money to work for you? There are many ways, depending on how risk averse you are, how quickly you want access to it, and how long you are prepared to invest it. Putting it in the bank represents the lowest risk, and the lowest return, investing it in stocks and shares is high risk, potentially high return. So what is in the middle? As a self employed person, I am always thinking of ways to improve my business and will invest in things that make me better. This might mean training, courses, attending meetings, or simply spending time with those who have wisdom to share.
By being better at what I do, I hope that the chances of needing a cash sum “just in case” are reduced.
It’s nice to know that there is money in the bank, but I can’t take it with me, and I would rather use it wisely while I can.
Most businesses operate with very little money in the bank. Some just operate perpetually on an overdraft, or with just enough to keep the bank manager happy.
To some, this is “situation normal”, and many organisations exist in this financially precarious state for months and even years. Having very little money is not a crime, nor is it always a sign of instability. Money in the bank is only working for the bank, think about what you could be doing with your cash to further your own business goals.
But when it happens to you for the first time, or if you walk into a role, or organisation, in a position of responsibility for the first time it can seem a frightening situation. Questions like “Will we be able to pay our staff”, “How can I please the screaming creditors”, or “The bank manager might pull the plug”, can keep even the strongest of us awake at night.
The first thing to do is not panic. Knee jerk reactions might further de-stabilise the organisation and, at worst, tip you over the edge.
Work out who owes you money. Chase it, hard.
Work out who you owe money to. I suggest you are open and honest with them. I would rather be thought of as a “slow payer”, than a “no payer”.
Take control – write down your realistic financial goals. Then write down what you need to do to achieve them. Then start doing those things.
Perhaps the best advice is to talk with someone who has been in that situation themselves (and survived!). It might not immediately solve your problem, but you might gain some strength, insight, and develop some tactics to help you pull through.
Businesses need banks, and banks need businesses. But as a business owner, how do you decide which bank to trust your money with?
I have helped a number of organisations choose a bank – some for the first time, some because they wanted a change, and some because they needed to change!
There are many considerations to weigh up, including: cost, secondary services, knowledge of your business sector, location of branches, access to help. To me, the most important factor when deciding who to bank with is the Relationship Manager.
It is perhaps a little unfair to say that all banks are alike, however, there is generally very little between them in cost, in location, and in the general service they offer. To my mind therefore, the biggest difference between banks is in their staff.
When I needed to set up a bank account for my business, I walked down the high street in my home town, and walked into every bank. I asked the same question in each branch, “Please can I talk to someone about setting up a business bank account”. Within 30 seconds of walking in, I felt I knew how much the person I was talking to cared about me and my business.
I would not want anyone to think that choosing a bank is a decision to take lightly – particularly in today’s economic climate. Never forget who is the customer. As ever, more than numbers and statistics, it’s the people we do business with that matter, and I suggest that this includes your bank’s Relationship Manager.
The balance sheet is more important to your business than your profit and loss statement.
The balance sheet tells you what you own, how much you are owed, and how much you owe to other people. Broadly speaking, assets are those things you own, or are owed, and liabilities are those things that you owe to others.
Liabilities include things like overdrafts, loans, and debts to other people (creditors). But are all liabilities bad?
Borrowing money means you have cash to do something with. If it costs you 5% to borrow £10k, and you are able to generate a profit of 7.5% through the activities you can make happen, then you are making a profit of 2.5%. Without borrowing the money you would have made no profit at all. So a loan can be a good thing, as long as you are making good use of the opportunity.
Investments in your business are liabilities. They represent the amount you have been loaned and, as above, you need to be sure you are making the most of the cash. Even “non-profit” organisations need to demonstrate that they are fulfilling their “non-profit” objectives. Is the cash sitting in the bank, or being used properly?
Liabilities also include Trade Creditors – money owed to your suppliers. It is important that you pay them within agreed terms, but don’t pay early if you don’t need to. This enables you to do something with the money.
All business owners and managers should know how much they owe to other people. Not just so they know how much they owe, but so they know how much cash they are sitting on that belongs to others and to be thinking about what they are doing with it.