Do I Need an Accountant?

Maybe TurboTax isn’t as easy as it looked.  Maybe you’re seduced by H&R Block’s claims that they save the average tax payer $1800.  Maybe you just don’t know how categorize that shoebox of receipts you keep under your desk, but chances are, you’ve wondered whether you should hire professional help.

This tax season I bit the bullet and hired an accountant.  I hired a guy who is both an accountant and a lawyer, and I figured that he would know enough loopholes and secret deductions to more than make up for his $375 price tag (for comparison purposes, H&R Block charges about $300 in San Francisco).  That did not turn out to be the case, but I’m still glad I hired him.

It turns out, partially due to the research I’ve done for this blog, that I would have paid the right amount of taxes had I filed them myself.  This meant, however, that I did not have a lot to explain to my accountant during our one-hour session and got to spend most of my time asking questions and receiving advice.  Here are some of the things I learned:

  • Unless you run a business that is really open to litigation, you may want to think twice before changing your sole proprietorship to an LLC.  LLCs require a lot of paperwork and things like officers and meetings.  Also, in California, the annual filing fee is $800, which is a lot more than your typical liability insurance premiums, so you’re better off just getting insured.
  • Watch your inventory.  You can only deduct the cost of inventory you sold last year, not all the inventory you bought.
  • Always look out for standard deductions (like 48.5 cents/mile for car costs) and compare them to your itemized deductions.  Very often one will be much higher than the other.
  • If you use bookkeeping software like QuickBooks (which works great with TurboTax), file your taxes according to cash accounting reports, not accrual accounting reports.
  • Gifts under $12,000 are always tax free for the recipient, so that birthday check from Grandma is not taxable income.
  • You can’t deduct your home office if your self-employment income does not exceed your expenses, but the deductions keep carrying over from year to year until you post a profit, so keep track of them as they pile up.

In the end, the knowledge I gained from my meeting was well worth the expense.  I am new to self-employment, and I liked having the peace of mind that I had prepared things correctly. Since next year will be my first year of inventory, I will probably hire my accountant one more time.  In my third year of business, however, I am aiming to strike out on my own and file my taxes by myself.

Steady at the Wheel: Car Deductions

One of the areas of your tax return at which the IRS looks most closely is the section covering car deductions. There’s a reason for this: it’s a difficult set of tax laws to navigate and many people over-deduct or use sloppy estimates, resulting in more money for the government when they catch you. You don’t need receipts for everything, since it’s difficult to get receipts for things like mileage, but you do need detailed records of everything.

Car deductions are easy if you have a company car. In this case, you can just deduct the whole shebang. What’s more complicated is if you use your personal vehicle for business purposes. If you fall into this latter category and need to itemize your deductions, here are the basic steps:

  1. Keep a mileage diary in your car at all times. Write down the date, the starting and ending mileage, tolls, and one of the following purposes for any business-related trip you make:
    • Overnight travel away from home
    • Shopping for your business (not shopping for yourself, even if you use the purchase at your business, like a suit)
    • Travel to a professional development event such as a seminar or conference
    • Sales calls
    • Deliveries
    • Travel for marketing or promotional purposes
    • Travel to a job site or meeting as an independent contractor — NOTE** if the job site you are traveling to has you on the books as an employee rather than as an independent contractor, you are now technically commuting, which is not deductible.
    • Travel between job sites
    • Any other qualifying travel during your business day.
  2. Keep all receipts and statements for tolls, maintenance and repairs, gas, auto registration, inspections, etc.
  3. At the end of the year, total up your business mileage and divide it by your total mileage for the year. This will give you the percentage of your car that was used for business. Also, look up the amount by which the value of your car has depreciated (must be $2,660 or less if your car was bought new that year or was worth more than $12,800 at the beginning of the year).
  4. Total up your car-related receipts and depreciation for the year and multiply the total by the percentage you just came up with.
  5. Multiply just your business mileage by $0.31. This is the standard automobile deduction, calculated by mile.
  6. Compare the results of steps four and five. You will use the higher of these two numbers to get your deduction.
  7. If you are 100% self-employed, stop here. Your costs are fully deductible.
  8. If you are on the books at anyone else’s business as even a temporary and/or part-time employee, your car costs are subject to the “2% floor.” In this case, total up your Adjusted Income for the year (income minus expenses) and multiply it by .02. Subtract that amount from the business-related car expenses you came up with in step 6. This is the total amount you may deduct. If you come up with a negative number, you may not claim a deduction.

See? It’s complicated. I didn’t even mention things like specific deductions for hybrid vehicles or certain trucks, driving for charitable purposes and deductions for interest on leased vehicles. For all the nitty gritty stuff, start with this page directly from the IRS.