An accountant manages your finances and can have an impact on the trajectory of your business. Before hiring an accountant, you should conduct a thorough search, ask thoughtful questions of potential candidates and be sure to screen those you think could be the right choice. Here are some factors to consider before choosing an accountant.
What is an accountant?
An accountant can serve as your business's financial guide by overseeing a large portion of your company's financial planning and recordkeeping. An accountant can handle your bookkeeping, as well as help with tax planning and preparation of your financial documents, like tax returns. You can also use an accountant to find flaws in your money management, such as financial inconsistencies, overpayments and cash flow shortages.
During your search for an accountant, you may also come across a certified public accountant (CPA). A CPA is different from a typical accountant because a CPA can write audited financial statements, like balance sheets or income statements. Although accountants and CPAs both hold accounting degrees, CPAs are state-certified, meaning they must pass an exam to get their license and take an annual course to keep it. CPAs have unlimited representation rights before the IRS, which allows them to represent you on matters such as audits, payment-or-collection issues and appeals.
Where can you find a good accountant?
A good accountant is hard to find if you don't know where to look. Before exploring outside resources, use your own connections. Ask your colleagues or other business owners for referrals. Make sure you do your due diligence when investigating anyone you are seriously considering hiring.
- If you want to do a background check on the CPA firm or CPA you're interested in, check your state's CPA society on The American Institute of Certified Public Accountants. The nonprofit organization creates and grades the exams CPA candidates take to be certified. All of the CPAs listed there have been vetted and state-certified.
- Look for an accountant who is a fiduciary. Accountants who follow a fiduciary standard are required to put the client's best interests above their own.
- The National Association of Personal Financial Advisors is also a good place to find trained financial advisors who are dedicated to meeting their clients' needs.
The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) also has a directory of qualified and accredited professionals who have preparer tax identification numbers, also known as PTINs. A PTIN is an identification number from the IRS that accountants and tax preparers must use to get clearance to file federal tax returns or claims.
What questions should you ask your accountant?
You can save a lot of time and future headaches by asking your accountant the right questions before hiring them. Treat this search the same way you would if you were looking for a new employee.
Set a time to speak with the accountant candidate over the phone or in person. Before going through your questions, tell them a little about yourself and your business. This will give them a feel for your company and add depth to the interview. Explain what your business does, your industry, the number of employees and clients you have, and your budget. Then, use the rest of the meeting to go through what's important to you and what you want to know about them.
Here are a few examples of questions to ask accountant candidates:
Have you worked with someone like me before?
As a small business owner, you want the best advice on how to manage your company financially. However, if your accountant has only managed multimillion-dollar businesses, you need to know this. You want to work with someone who is familiar with the challenges of your type of business so that you get the best advice. This doesn't mean you should rule out accountants with different backgrounds, but you should ask about their plan for you.
What is your communication style?
Communication is key in any relationship, including one with your prospective accountant. So, ask about what their interaction with you would look like as their client. When is the best time to reach them? Do they like speaking over the phone, emailing or meeting in person? Even if your communication preferences differ, see if you can meet in the middle.
How do you want to be paid?
Knowing how an accountant prefers to be paid will help you compare their rates to those of other accountants during your search. Your goal should be to understand how much everything will cost at the end of the year, based on their rates and payment method.
What to be aware of when looking for an accountant
When looking for an accountant, it's important to do your due diligence. Even if your accountant's actions are financially beneficial to you, make sure they were done honestly and appropriately. You may encounter situations like this during your search. To avoid being duped, it's important to understand the proper protocol of an accountant.
"Be wary of accountants with a lack of credentials, a history of short-term work contracts or a lack of communication," said Logan Allec, a CPA, personal finance expert and owner of personal finance blog Money Done Right. "This could turn into serious problems down the road if you choose to hire them."
In addition, keep these points in mind during your search:
- You don't want an accountant who is OK with lying to the IRS to save you money. If they are comfortable with breaking the law and lying, they can lie to you. At the end of the day, you're the one who will be held legally accountable for the information they provide. A good accountant can help you without falsifying information.
- Ethical considerations are very important when you are vetting an accountant. If they discuss other clients with you, they're probably talking about you with others as well. This reflects their trustworthiness (or lack thereof). An accountant can give explanations without using another client's name and private information.
- Watch out for accountants who push for too much control. If an accountant wants you to make them a signer on your accounts or contracts, they may not be for you. If they ask you to sign documents without encouraging you to check them first, something is probably wrong. A great accountant conducts your relationship like a partnership.
- An accountant will never promise you a huge refund or say they can deduct several of your expenses before they've fully examined your finances.
- Keep in mind that an accountant without a preparer tax identification number from the IRS cannot take money from you for preparing your taxes. That number should also be included on filed tax returns they submit for you.
Here's a bonus tip: If you are ever considering cutting your accountant loose but are worried it will keep you from filing your taxes on time, file Form 4868, which gives you an extension on filing.
What qualities should you look for in an accountant?
Finding someone certified is only half the battle. It's also important to choose an accountant with good communication skills and a personality you're comfortable with.
Pick an experienced accountant who can break down complex information and explain it in a way you understand.
"Make sure they respond to you in a timely manner and that you understand exactly what they're telling you," said Jaime Thompson, a certified public accountant at Bayside Accounting and Consulting. "Accounting jargon is considered by some to be its own language. If you don't understand what the accountant is saying, don't just shake your head and pretend like you do."
If your accountant is giving you a bad vibe, trust your gut and move on. You are essentially giving a stranger access to all of your personal information, and you have the right to, at the very least, feel comfortable with them. You want to feel secure telling them about your mistakes or asking "silly" questions without feeling judged.
"Obviously you should find an accountant who knows what they're doing," Thompson told business.com. "But it makes a world of difference when you find one who is personable."
Benefits of using an accountant?
There are many parts of your business you can handle on your own, but knowing when to seek outside support is a valuable trait. If you are a small business owner who is just starting out, money may be tight, but that shouldn't stop you from looking into accounting services. Here are some benefits of hiring an accountant:
Accountants can save you time and prevent costly mistakes.
"If your valuable time is being eaten up by managing your finances instead of growing your business, then you may need to consider hiring an accountant," Allec said. "Having someone to manage your finances, whether you're hiring a professional to file your taxes or do year-round bookkeeping, saves you from making costly mistakes that could stunt the growth of your business."
"Think about how much time and effort you spend on trying to manage your finances yourself," Thompson added, "not to mention the possible errors you could incur and related losses from poor financial decisions."
They can help you choose the right business structure and accounting method.
An accountant can guide you toward the business structure type that best matches your company. Each business is different, and sometimes it's hard to figure out what your business's legal structure should look like. Options include limited liability companies, limited liability partnerships and sole proprietorship or traders.
Accountants can also help you decide which type of accounting method you should use. Usually, new companies use this method to record revenue and expenses when a payment is made. However, sometimes, the IRS requires you to use accrual accounting if you sell a product or have inventory. With the accrual method, you document your income and expenses when they are billed instead of when you actually receive the money.
They help to prevent headaches at tax time.
Tax season is also a good reason to hire an accountant. Filing taxes for a business is very different from filing taxes for yourself. If you are uncomfortable filing your business taxes on your own, or you have a complicated tax situation, hire an accountant to do it for you or to offer advice.
Accountants help keep you compliant with the IRS by filing legal documents for your business according to up-to-date tax laws, preparing annual account statements and managing payroll so your employees' tax codes and payments are entered properly.
They can aid you in making business decisions.
If you want to create a business plan, a qualified accountant can help you map out your finances so you can reach your goals, as well as aid you in making better financial projections.
In addition, accountants can help you make informed business decisions, like choosing whether your business should merge, sell, close or buy another business. Accountants are financial planners who make you aware of the possible tax implications you could face when making a decision and help you examine other companies' financial records so that you can verify their assets.
How much does it cost to hire an accountant?
The right accountant has the power to positively turn your business around. The cost of hiring an accountant depends on your criteria and budget.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, an accountant is paid an average of $33.89 per hour. CPAs, however, charge an average rate of $160 to $275 per hour, as reported in the 2018 survey by the American Institute of CPAs.
How do you pay an accountant?
Before hiring an accountant, it's important to know how you will pay them. Here are some of the ways accountants are paid:
- According to a 2018 Intuit survey, 57% of accounting professionals bill by the hour, making it the most popular form of payment.
- Flat fee. Some accountants charge a flat fee, which is when your accountant has a set cost for a certain number of services you pay for monthly or quarterly.
- Other accountants charge based on a percentage. With this method, you give them a portion of the assets within your account. These percentages can range from 0.59% to 1.18%, according to AdvisoryHQ. It typically depends on the portion of your assets you let them manage.
- Brokerage model. Some accountants use the old brokerage model, which is when they earn a commission based on the investments you buy. Take extra caution with this payment model, because some accountants may push you to buy expensive investments when smaller ones are offered, just so they can get a bigger payout.