When starting a small business, taking the time to set up your recordkeeping system properly, right from the beginning, will save you time and money down the road — and could make the difference between success and failure. Certified public accountants (CPAs) are experts in small business finance including taxes, financial reporting, business advisory, personal financial planning as well as bookkeeping and payroll processing.
According to CPAs, good recordkeeping preparation and planning can:
• Make tax preparation easier. Back-up documentation may save you taxes, interest charges and penalties if the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) ever questions your return.
• Allow you to comply with multi-state taxes, such as sales taxes (including internet sales) and payroll taxes.
• Give you a better handle on your overall financial position, how your business is performing and help your CPA identify financial and tax planning opportunities.
• Create efficiencies throughout the business by spending less time locating documents and information.
• Provide your successor with a roadmap to your financial affairs if you die or become incapacitated.
One of the first things you will need to determine is whether to use a traditional paper filing system, an electronic filing system or a combination of the two. You should carefully consider the pros and cons of each type of system in light of your business needs and resources.
CONVENIENCE AND FLEXIBILITY
To keep up with your recordkeeping, it’s important to build a system that is convenient. Electronic records are very easy to transport. You can move the equivalent of boxes of paper documents with the click of a mouse via encrypted email or a secure portal. When stored in the Cloud or a secure portal, you can work on them from home, the airport
or the beach. CPAs work with both electronic and physical records, but your CPA will have specific recommendations due to the requirements for business recordkeeping in your state and/or within your industry. Be sure to consult with your CPA to find the recordkeeping system that best suits your needs.
Paper files are extremely reliable, provided you follow documented protocols for setting up and maintaining them. They are not susceptible to server failures or power outages. Nor are they dependent on the ongoing support of a systems vendor. Paper files, however, are susceptible to floods, fires, and other natural disasters. It’s difficult and costly to maintain
redundant backups of paper records. Although electronic media can also be easily damaged or destroyed, redundant backups are generally easily made and recovered.
SECURITY AND PRIVACY
Identity theft, fraud, privacy law violations, and numerous other crimes have been enabled by electronic recordkeeping systems. Even some of the most sophisticated electronic security systems have been compromised.
As a business owner, you have a responsibility under multiple laws and regulatory bodies to protect the confidentiality and security of your customer’s records. Electronic records can be kept secure when proper measures are taken to protect privacy, but this is an entirely different process from keeping filing cabinets locked and installing an office security
system. Because you are legally responsible for your data, you should NOT depend solely on your electronic recordkeeping systems vendor to ensure the security of your electronic records.
When it comes to storage, electronic files clearly have the advantage. The longer you’re in business and the more you grow, the more burdensome the space requirements for paper records. Many businesses resort to offsite records storage both to save space and to mitigate the risk of records being destroyed. At some point, paper records typically need to be shredded, which is labor-intensive and costly.
The cost of electronic record storage has become highly affordable compared to traditional paper-based systems. Some original documents should still be kept in paper copies, but the vast majority can be digitized.
FILE LOCATION AND ACCESS CONTROL
Although your filing system will need to be tailored to meet the needs of your specific business, the following elements can help you avoid common pitfalls.
When it comes to filing, almost everyone has his or her own ideas about how they’d like to see the files organized. If left unchecked, one person’s innovation soon becomes another’s frustration. Set a standard protocol for every type of file, then teach, monitor and enforce it.
For security and emergency purposes, keep all files in one central location that can easily be accessed without being dependent on a single person. The same principle applies to electronic files, which should be kept on a shared server or Cloud provider’s system rather than on an individual’s PC workstation.
Access to files should be limited to only those who have a specific business purpose for doing so and security protocols should be set up accordingly. An advantage to most electronic recordkeeping systems is that a date and time stamp log is automatically generated each time a user accesses a file. If you implement an electronic system, you should periodically review access logs and follow-up on any unusual activity.
SAFE DEPOSIT BOX
Documents that are difficult or costly to replace should be kept in a safe deposit box. Your safe deposit box should hold any records of ownership such as deeds and titles and original business documents such as articles of incorporation, corporate resolutions, bylaws, partnership agreement, minutes from annual meetings, loan documents and so on. Because access to your safe deposit box could be delayed in emergency situations, keep copies in a clearly marked paper or electronic file. Additional copies should be held by your attorney.
With your recordkeeping system in place, prepare a procedures manual explaining it for employee training purposes and in case someone outside the business needs access due to a long-term illness or other emergencies. Be sure to include the location of important documents as well as insurance policy information. You should also list bank and investment accounts, as well as all credit accounts with account numbers. Also, you should list information on other debts, including mortgages and loan documents. Give a copy of this manual to trusted family members, your attorney, CPA, and trustees, if any.
WHAT TO KEEP AND FOR HOW LONG
Early on it may be tempting to keep everything. But over time the cost and liability of storing old documents — either in paper copies or electronically — can become significant. Rather than waiting until you run out of room or are frustrated by storage bills, you should implement a document retention policy. We can offer our blog titled “What business taxpayers should keep and for how long” with specific recommendations for records retention. While your recordkeeping system will be unique to your business, certain subjects are universal. Since incomplete or sloppy records in these areas can cause you major trouble and expense, getting them under control is a good place to begin.
courtesy of AICPA