Every year legislators twist and tweak tax laws, leaving the average citizen scratching his head when faced with financial decisions such as selling investment property or claiming a tax deduction for a home office. Accounting firms stay abreast of the new tax laws, and many offer financial advice and help individuals and small businesses develop budgets and set financial goals. Whether you need someone to handle weekly payroll or you just want reliable tax advice, you'll be happier with your choice if you ask some preliminary questions.
Accounting fees vary from one firm to the next. Some accountants charge a set rate for each financial task they perform, such as filing a 1040 personal income tax form, preparing a profit and loss statement or compiling a statement of net worth. Other firms charge by the minute, and every phone call you make to the accountant will raise your bill.
Accountants generally specialize in a few business areas in order to offer clients better service. A retail tax accountant might not be as much assistance to a farmer as an accountant who specializes in helping rural and agricultural clients.
Tax preparation firms hire and train tax preparers to assist the public in filing income taxes, but these firms can't offer in-depth advice to small businesses. In general, the greater your accounting needs, the more you'll benefit from a general accounting firm that employs certified public accountants, or CPAs.
Some accounting firms are quick to offer advice on when to purchase equipment and how to keep financial records, while other accounting firms compile the necessary financial reports but offer little feedback. The amount of advice you need or want depends upon your financial knowledge and experience. If you need a lot of help, select a firm that offers in-depth financial counselling.
If you need complete bookkeeping services, look for a full-service accounting firm that employs bookkeepers who handle day-to-day client transactions. An accounting firm that does not employ bookkeepers will charge more if a CPA handles routine bookkeeping tasks.
Some clients are content to meet with their accounting firm once a year for tax-filing purposes. Others clients have frequent business questions that require timely answers. Find out if your accountant is a phone call away or if you'll have to schedule a time to come into the office and talk in person.
You can hire the highest-priced accounting firm in town, but if you don't feel comfortable discussing your finances, you aren't getting the service you need. If the accountant talks in terms you don't understand or if you feel intimidated, look for a different firm.
Some accountants offer to help clients set goals and monitor financial progress, which can be very helpful if you're just starting out in business. Find out the firm's policy on goal setting and if you'll be charged an additional fee for the service.
When the SARS comes knocking, it's reassuring to know that your accountant will be right by your side. SARS audits are a way of life for some small-business owners and individual taxpayers, but facing an audit is a stressful situation. Some accounting firms offer their own offices for audit purposes and provide an accountant to represent your interests.
Old-fashioned word-of-mouth is as valuable a reference today as it ever was. Talk to friends or business associates to find out what accounting firm they use and if they would recommend it to others.