If you’ve started your own small business, you probably plan to make money. That’s good. But if you plan on making money, you will eventually need to hire an accountant. And that can be expensive.
Certified public accountants typically charge from $100 to $400 an hour, depending on region, expertise and the task at hand. This is just one reason that small-business owners often include accounting among the jobs they do themselves to save a little cash.
After all, you are a seasoned professional, and in the age of TurboTax and QuickBooks, it’s not absurd to think you could handle your own quarterly taxes or payroll. “It depends how much of the grunt work you’re willing to do yourself,” says Eric Tyson, author of Small Business for Dummies.
But when it comes to something more complex—like your annual tax return or an audit—even veteran business owners can benefit from the help of a professional. Luckily, a pricey CPA isn’t your only option.
“There are CPAs and then there are enrolled agents,” says Tyson. Enrolled agents, tax professionals authorized to represent citizens in their affairs with the IRS, typically charge far less than CPAs. “If you have a relatively uncomplicated tax return, there’s no point to paying a CPA $300 an hour.” Finding an enrolled agent isn’t hard. Most states have a Society of Enrolled Agents, including a website with listings. As always, it’s helpful to ask for referrals from people who own small businesses similar to yours.
Of course, accountants play many roles besides tax preparer. They can be consultants, financial planners and record keepers. When you need something more than an IRS liaison, you’ll be happy to have a fully trained CPA on your side.
Shannon Mara, an owner of two medical practices in Oregon, suggests starting your CPA search by asking yourself some questions. “How do I want to work with someone,” she says. “In my office or theirs? Phone, email or in person? Do I have ‘emergencies’ that need same- or next-day responses, or are my needs predictable? How do I want my accountant to interact with my bookkeeping staff?”
Then take the answers to those questions and run them by other business people in your community – preferably those with businesses similar to yours—and see who they think you should interview. “Interview at least three accountants,” Mara advises.
Some questions you’ll want to ask in the interviews: How can you help me from being surprised by a giant debt on April 15? Who at your company can I call when I have a quick question? What is your philosophy on tax risk? (You don’t want to have to apply for an extension because your CPA has too many clients.)
While it may seem like a lot, Mara warns that you can’t be too careful about finding the right accountant, considering how ingrained with your business they soon become. “Changing accountants is painful,” she says, “and people tend to stick with who they’ve got because of the time-suck of changing – so get the right person.”
Mara knows this first-hand. “I’ve made short cuts and always regretted it,” she says. ”Early in my career, I ignored my inner voice and said, ‘I’m not sure what he means, but he’s the expert, so I’ll go with it.’ That is never good.”