[This article has been updated to reflect the new tax law that went into effect on January 1, 2018]
Ask anyone who’s been in business for more than 10 years and you’ll get the same reaction when you bring up small business taxes: “Please change the topic.” Most business people dislike talking about taxes because it reminds them of one of the most unpleasant aspects of being a business owner. Taxes are always the biggest expense we have and, unfortunately, often are the least controllable item in our annual budget.
Business people do what we do because we love to build things, create opportunities, and be in charge of our destiny — so, to entrepreneurs, taxes often feel like a confusing, anxiety-inducing, destructive force in our lives.
But, given that taxes are unavoidable, here are a few key truths about taxes that every small business owner has learned over the years:
1. Disorganization will cost you.
The messier or more disorganized you are with managing your paperwork, the more it’s going to cost you at tax time. Your administrative person is going to waste time tracking down the documentation you need to send to your accountant. Your accountant is going to waste more time figuring out your mess.
Without good processes in place to handle your taxes throughout the year, you run the risk of missing an estimated tax payment, being late to file, or missing out on legitimate business deductions that could have saved you hundreds or thousands of dollars. As you defer, delay, and procrastinate, your anxiety will increase each day as the filing deadline approaches.
And, if you get audited and are missing receipts, that’s the worst-case scenario — if you can’t prove to the IRS that a deduction was legitimate, you run the risk of being assessed with tax penalties or worse.
None of this is healthy or profitable. Pretending that the IRS doesn’t exist won’t make it go away. At some point, we all just have to suck it up and make sure our files are accurate, complete, and organized because it will cost us less over time.
Also, with the new tax law that took effect on Jan. 1, 2018, there are a few extra incentives to stay organized with your taxes: Depending on your tax bracket, you might be getting a tax cut. It’s easier to get excited about being organized for tax time if you expect to owe less than usual this year. Talk to your accountant about what the new tax law means for you and your business.
2. Falling behind will sabotage you.
Please, please don’t skip a tax payment. It’s so tempting; I know. It’s just “estimated,” right? Who’s gonna know? But skipping estimated tax payments sets a bad precedent.
Schedule your estimated payments ahead of time in your accounting system – better yet, in your online banking application, and make it a required payment. Then forget about it. You can rest assured knowing that the IRS will get paid by the due dates, and then you can go into tax season owing as little as possible — or maybe even getting a refund.
Making these estimated tax payments is as important as paying the electric company and your employees. Falling behind on your estimated tax payments can build up a huge liability and might subject you to penalties and interest for late payment. I’ve learned to take these payments seriously. You should, too.
3. There is no silver bullet.
Sure, if you’ve got operations around the world and an army of tax lawyers, you can shift money here and there, take advantage of changing policies, invest in sheltered assets, and leverage tax-preferred investments. But, if you’re reading this article, this is probably not your reality.
You, like me, run a smaller business and we don’t have those kinds of resources. For you, me and all those like us, our tax options are limited. There is no silver bullet that will magically cut our tax bill with a keystroke or signature. Planning, recordkeeping, and paying attention to the tax effects of a significant transaction are what small business owners do to keep their taxes under control. That’s reality.
One element of the revised tax law that could benefit your business is the special 20% deduction of business income for “pass-through entities,” such as LLCs, and for sole proprietorships. If you do business as one of these legal entities, you might get a bit of a break on your taxes. But beyond that, you might not have many new strategic tax moves to make under the revised tax code; the tax law has been created in part with the goal of “simplifying” the tax system.
As part of this simplification effort, the new tax law has nearly doubled the standard deduction to $24,000 for joint filers and $12,000 for singles. The bigger standard deduction means that, if you’re a small business owner, you might not be able to claim enough deductions to make it worth itemizing anymore — instead, you might be better off just taking the standard deduction.
Taking the (bigger) standard deduction is good news if it helps reduce your overall tax liability compared to what you owed before, but it also might be a cause of new confusion for small business owners who now feel like they’re missing out on the tax benefits they used to get from things like charitable contributions.
Again: Don’t expect to get away with gaming the system or finding some secret convoluted strategy to help you avoid paying taxes; most small business tax situations are too simple and straightforward for that — you earned what you earned, and you owe what you owe.
4. Your accountant doesn’t care as much as you think.
There’s no Magic Accountant who can save you from your tax bill. And this is not a criticism of accountants! They care. And they’re probably very good. But there are limits to how much you can lean on them. If your accountant is any good, they’re probably serving hundreds of clients just like you. Which means they’re busy and overworked and likely can’t give everyone 100%, especially at the peak of tax season.
And although your accountant is a professional who should be working in your best interest, just because they sign the “paid preparer” line on your return doesn’t mean they’re ultimately personally responsible for your tax liability — unless there’s fraud.
In the end, it’s your tax return and you’re responsible for it. Even if you’re not a “numbers” person, as the business owner, you need to know enough about your business balance sheet to be confident in signing off on your tax return as being accurate and true.
If there’s a problem, the IRS comes after you, not your accountant. So keep that in mind the next time you blindly sign the returns that your accountant sends to you two hours before the filing is due. Know thy returns.
5. You are crazy to do your own taxes.
Having said the above, I still very strongly recommend that you have an accountant. Every business owner, at some point in their business careers, realizes that becoming an expert in taxes is like becoming fully fluent in a foreign language: It sounds nice, but it’s unlikely to happen. There is just too much to know — too many changes to keep up with.
Accountants are professionals who live and breathe taxes; they’ve handled situations just like yours hundreds and thousands of times over the years. They can bring an economy of scale to tax expertise that an individual business owner cannot hope to replicate.
Do what you do best — run your business. Spend your time on managing your business and making more money, and then pay professional tax advisors to do what they do best, which is “helping you avoid unnecessary tax liabilities.”
And if you make a mistake by trying to do your own taxes, the punishment in the form of requests, summons, queries, and other correspondences from the taxing authorities will make your life miserable…while taking you away from running your business. Hire an accountant to do the work. Just keep an eye on them.
Even though the tax law changes were designed to make things “simpler,” there is still a lot of complexity involved with filing taxes as a small business owner. Doing your own taxes is like cutting your own hair — sure, you can save a few bucks, but you might end up looking stupid.
These are the realities of taxes that any business owner will confirm. If you don’t believe me, just ask any of them.
Next steps: Check out the five best states for small business taxes.