We all know how easy it is to get behind with the finances when we’re starting and running a business. To some extent, this is understandable. We’re concentrating on getting and keeping custom, and that’s as it should be.
However, without knowing how much is coming in and going out, we don’t know whether we’re making a profit or not, let alone how much we owe HM Revenue and Customs.
The key to tracking the finances of the business, is to get organised and adopt a system. We’ll look at a few ideas here but to be honest it doesn’t really matter which specific system you adopt, as long as it suits you and you find it easy to keep up to date.
Software from companies like Sage and Intuit can help, but only if you’re organised already. Otherwise, it can just make the confusion worse. So perhaps start with a simple spreadsheet. You can now get Excel and free spreadsheet software on PCs, laptops, tablets and phones.
Spreadsheets are simple, and you can enter invoices as you issue them, with another column headed “Paid?” You enter yes or no, to keep track of how much money should have come in. Use a numbering system for invoices even if it’s only the year, and the number of invoices you’ve issued - for example 2016/001.
The number on the invoice ties to the number on the spreadsheet, if you have a query. It means that if you need to chase late payers, you can just look down the list rather than rifling through all the printed invoices, or looking through lots of online documents.
You can then go to the bank statement, and note the invoice number next to the entry in the account. In this way, the bank account, the invoices and the total income are all tied together - which will please the accountant. If you can, it really helps to add the date to the line on the spreadsheet, because then you know what falls into which tax year without having to look.
You can then do a summary sheet, with the money you’ve received this month, the expenses you’ve incurred (receipts in date order is best), and therefore the amount you’ve made. Then you need to estimate how much tax you need to pay.
Those are the pros of spreadsheets - what about the cons? Data entry is a pain. As business owners, we get home tired and the last thing we feel like doing is book keeping. But this is so simple a child could do it - so if you’ve got a child in the house who wants to earn a little extra pocket money, and is good on a computer, they might do the data entry for you. Otherwise you may have to talk nicely to your partner, or reconcile yourself to doing it on a Saturday morning.
Plans and budgets are two sides of the same activity. When you do a budget for your business, you’re probably setting out the year, month by month, and forecasting how much you hope to make in each month, as well as how much you expect to spend. For past months, it’s a record of what happened. For future months, it’s a forecast of what you expect to happen. One certainty is that you’re going to have to pay tax on what you’ve earned.
Find out the dates for filing your return - this is usually online for businesses. Then find out your payment dates, and add them to the months in your budget. That way, you’re not taken by surprise, and can see the payment amount and the approaching deadline.
You don’t want to miss a payment just because you are busy. The calendar on your mobile phone is a useful reminder that you have to pay a bill, so when you’ve found out the filing and payment dates, add them to that calendar. You can decide how far in advance you want the reminder to occur. Email systems also have calendars that you can use to enter tax and other payment dates.
At the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB), we know how disruptive a tax investigation can be for a small business.
Many online documentation sites are full of legalese, but our members who have insured themselves have access to straight-forward help that simplifies the process.
We have a tax advice helpline, and if there is an investigation, we’ll provide a former tax inspector to liaise directly with your accountant if needed.