As the tides come in on another annual tax filing deadline, there is perhaps no better time for small business owners to reevaluate their current tax record management structure. An outsider may not realize how much work goes into managing and maintaining tax records for a small business but those in the know are all too aware how quickly paper files can turn into a Himalaya-sized hassle. The advent of digital tax filing tools has doubled as a great means to store those same records but there are more than a few reasons why digital records can become a chore in themselves.
An essential element of modern financial literacy (especially for small business owners) is maintaining a trusted system for storing and tracking your own tax records. A good system is also easily accessible whenever reason requires. Consider, then, this collection of methods and tips before next quarter is already at a head.
You’ve certainly heard it before and will hear it again before long: it’s time to go paperless. Going paperless is more than a clutter-reducer; by having less papers spread among less places, there is an equally lesser chance that documents disappear by incorrect filing or plain old human error. While initially overwhelming for most small businesses, crossing the peak into fully paperless document management makes life easier for your business if you file digitally or even with a CPA; it is entirely likely that the CPAs you may consult come tax time already have their own paperless system in place. By carrying your relevant documents on a flash drive instead of a shoebox and a few filing tins, you may just be doing your CPA a favor. Going paperless for your essential documents is a full enough topic on its own that it deserves some sub sections:
Document Management System: Running a secure document management system is a nonnegotiable must when switching to fully paperless records. Here is the flipside all paperless considerers should, well, consider: Your document management system is the digital safe that protects your every essential document; don’t go for cost-savings and don’t cut corners: if this system fails or unexpectedly suffers a breach, I don’t have to explain what bad things can happen next. Evaluate your current tech loadout. If you are running a local server that is fully offline and, thus, more secure, this is a more than sufficient directory to store scanned and wholly digital files until they need to be retrieved.
If servers are too costly for your business, look into cloud-based accounting software. The most well-known example of such software is QuickBooks by Intuit, also the operators behind TurboTax. These systems store and organize files in a near-identical means to local storage but can also be retrieved when you’re away from your master file. Plus, if your business is small enough or manages few enough files to confidently file fully digitally, QuickBooks is fully integrated with TurboTax allowing a one-stop document management and tax filing system. For reasons we will explain later, however, there are more than a few reasons that even if you are confident in your ability to self-file, working with a CPA can still be beneficial.
Cataloging Old Documents: Depending on how long you’ve been in business, the process of digitizing and cataloging your old documents can range from no-trouble to a lengthy ordeal. If your printer has a scanner function, you’re already equipped to do most of the work from your office. Luckily, there are several apps and programs that can use your smartphone camera to do the same work as a scanner. Since such apps will be scanning your essential documents, it pays to triple-check the legitimacy and security of the service you plan to use. Digitizing old records is also a thoughtful alternative to discarding records that have passed the retention mandate; records that are over seven years only are a good place to start digitally downsizing.
Co-Management with Your CPA
There are several industries, however, where going fully paperless either makes work more difficult or costly. This simply means that the documents, receipts, expense reports, etc. for your business must be stored by a method convenient for you. If you work quarterly with the same trusted CPA, it is likely reasonable to split your files (or maintain copies of) relevant files between your two offices. Your CPA can also advise you on the essential record retention mandates relevant to your specific field and filing status. Being that essential financial documents for your small business may include personally identifying information about you and your employees, be certain that any files you leave on record with your CPA are equally (if not more) protected and secure compared to your own record security system.
Stepping Up Security Online and In-Person
The financial documents you maintain for your business are considered essential for a reason; if those documents were stolen or compromised, it may not be just your business at risk. Your employees, as well as any contractors that were directly paid by your business are likely personally identified in your essential documents and identity thieves are aware of this. And as you’re likely aware, identity thieves aren’t safecrackers and cat burglars; they are the digital prowlers, constantly vigilant of unprotected infrastructures with easily accessible SSNs to flip for cash. It is then paramount that every “what if” of your security structure is hammered out.
In-Person Security: The rules for in-person security of your documents luckily haven’t changed much in the past 50 years. The most meaningful way to increase security for your physical documents is to keep them somewhere locked (preferably a safe, not a flimsy locked filing cabinet drawer). Second, know with unimpeachable certainty who has access to those secure documents; reduce the number of people who interact with those documents as much as possible. Only relevant, trusted employees should have access to your essential documents. A modern security element to consider is motion detection modules on the hinge edge of your safe or document holding area. Modern modules can even connect to an app on your phone and inform you directly if some amount of motion is detected. Essentially, treat documents bearing SSNs or other personal information with the same gravity as cash itself; thieves want it just as bad.
Digital Security: If you are on the road to paperless documentation, it’s worth knowing that those digital files are just as attractive as the physical ones. Plus, there are infinitely more methods of egress for cybercriminals to test. If your files are stored on a computer with Internet access be certain that you have an external (cloud-based or local) back-up of those files. In the event of a ransomware attack, those files could be irreparably encrypted. The best way to securely store digital files is on a wholly offline local system with semi-regular back-ups. Since nearly all small businesses file taxes quarterly, it’s sensible to pair back-ups on that same schedule. Hard drives and even modern solid-state drives all fail eventually; so, like paper records, it pays to have extras and back-up copies.
Every Management System Has Room for Improvement
The most effective file management systems are in a state of constant improvement. Whether your records are paperless, paper-ful, or somewhere in between, it pays to regularly shake up your management system both to keep intimately familiar with the where and how of your most essential records as well as to take advantage of cutting-edge trends. Especially for small businesses who don’t have the luxury of in-house accounting and legal departments, being the master of your finances and the keeper of an organized collection of records is the cornerstone of financial literacy.