I had the chance to write a few articles for Parker + Lynch, the executive recruiting and consulting firm, this month. I’ve enjoyed the assignments. They give me a chance to research and write on interesting subjects.
Last night I was deep into one of my favorite pastimes – watching Instagram stories – when I came across a small business owner asking for tax advice. Like many small business owners coming up on another year-end, she was worried about her tax bill and wondering if there is anything she should do before year-end to lower it. Specifically, she asked whether she should spend money to lower her tax bill before the end of the year.
This small business owner had posed this question to her accountant, asking if there was a “sweet spot” for the amount of money she should spend so that she doesn’t have to pay too much in taxes. According to her story, the accountant answered yes, there is a sweet spot and more expenses are always better. But the accountant never told her where exactly that sweet spot is.
I sent her a short message with my thoughts on the subject, but because I know so many other small business owners and freelancers may be asking the same question right now, I thought I’d expand on it here.
Should I spend more money to lower my tax bill?
In a word: No.
Let’s consider a fictional scenario: Justin runs a small consulting business. He’s had a great year, landed several new clients while keeping the existing ones happy. Justin is concerned about his future tax bill, so like my friend above, is considering whether he should invest in his business before year-end to lower his tax bill.
The costs he’s considering include:
A new car (his consulting work has him driving his personal vehicle for business quite often)
A new laptop
Office supplies such as paper, pens, notepads and ink cartridges for his printer
Registration for an upcoming conference and airfare to travel there
If Justin came to me with this question, I would ask him what he NEEDS for his business today or what he will definitely be purchasing in the near future. Perhaps Justin is running low on office supplies and would probably put in a big order sometime in the next month anyway. In that case, if he has the money to buy the supplies now, it definitely makes sense to accelerate those expenses into 2017 so he can get the tax benefits now.
Likewise with the conference registration. Maybe it’s a conference Justin attends every year where he makes great connections that help propel his business to new levels of success. Buy those tickets!
But what if Justin’s current car and laptop are working just fine? He wasn’t really in the market for either a new car or a new laptop, but he’s considering buying them now just to lower his tax bill.
PUT YOUR WALLET AWAY, JUSTIN!
Some of you reading this may be saying, “That’s crazy! Who would spend money on stuff they don’t need just to avoid taxes?” But I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had clients in my office posing questions just like this.
When I worked in public accounting, we told our clients, “Don’t let the tax tail wag the dog.” In other words, don’t let the least important part of something control the more important elements.
If you’ve had a record year, first, celebrate! Then, face the fact that taxes are a cost of doing business. Paying taxes means you’re making money. Of course, we all want to do what we (legally) can to reduce the amount we have to pay, but spending money on stuff you don’t need is not the solution.
Plus, you don’t get a dollar-for-dollar reduction in your tax bill for every dollar you spend.
Going back to Justin, let’s say Justin is in the 25% tax bracket. For every $100 he spends, he’ll save about $25 in taxes. So Justin can go buy a $1,000 MacBook and save $250 in taxes, but unless he actually needs the MacBook, he’s probably better off keeping the $1,000 and just paying the tax. Don’t you think?
Smart ways to reduce taxable income
There are a couple of ways you can spend money to reduce your taxable income, while actually keeping the money for yourself. This includes:
Contributing to a retirement account such as a Traditional IRA, SEP IRA, or 401(k)
Contributing to a Health Savings Account (HSA)
Making an S-Corporation election
I’m not going to go into the nuts and bolts of an S-Corp election because it’s complex and it’s not the right decision for everyone – talk to your tax advisor if you’re interested.
But if you’re eligible to contribute to an HSA and if you haven’t already maxed out your contributions to your retirement accounts, you may be able to lower your federal income tax while keeping the money in your own pocket. It won’t be quite as accessible as it is in your business checking account, but it will be yours. That’s a smart way to lower your tax bill.
Disclaimer & disclosure: While I am an accountant, I am not a lawyer, nor do I know your individual situation. This advice comes from my personal and professional experience, but your circumstances could be very different. I recommend that you seek the help of qualified professionals. Also, some of the links included above may be affiliate links. If you click through and enroll or make a purchase, I may receive a commission. Thank you!
A few years ago, I worked with the owners of a small insurance agency who planned on selling their business. The company had had a profitable niche, a loyal client base, experienced employees, updated technology, and owned an office building in a prime area of town.
The owners had a lot going in their favor – but you’d never know it from looking at their financial statements. Several factors – from using out-of-date software to hiring inexperienced bookkeepers – had left their accounting records in shambles.
The company was making money and had cash in the bank, but their balance sheet and income statement were full of strange accounts with unusual balances, misclassified expenses, and nonexistent assets and liabilities.
At one point, they even asked if they’d be better off just scrapping their old records and starting over! It took some work, but we finally got their books sorted out, putting them on a path to sell their business for the highest price possible.
So why was getting their accounting in order so crucial for selling the business? Couldn’t the owners just rely on the things they had going for them, including the real estate, a profitable client list, and other assets? It’s possible that they could have found a buyer and even negotiated a decent deal without clean financial statements.
But selling a business is like selling a home or a used car: you can sell it “as is,” or you can put a little effort into presenting it in its best light. Here’s a closer look at how accurate accounting can help increase your business’ value.
Demonstrate Cash Flows
If you built your business from the ground up, you likely have an emotional investment in your business as well as a financial one, but buyers tend to look at a business in a cut-and-dry way. The key factors that most business buyers consider are earnings and cash flow.
Buyers want to know that your business will provide a stream of cash that is predictable and enough to cover operating expenses, debt payments, and provide a return on investment. Buyers are most concerned with the future earnings of your business, but the future is difficult to predict with any degree of certainty. They’ll have to rely on historical financial statements – preferably three years’ worth.
Are you hoping to get a better price for your business based on new products in development or other items that should contribute to growth in the future? To support the higher price, you’ll be expected to provide projected financial statements showing how the business might be expected to perform after the sale or when future plans are put into motion.
Those projections will need to be supported by facts, not just assumptions. For example, if you expect demand for one of your products or services to increase, why? And why will your company benefit from this growth in demand rather than the competition? Accurate historical financial statements combined with other factual data will form the foundation of these projections.
Verify business assets
While the value of tangible assets is far from the only factor that goes into calculating the value of your company, it is a factor. The verifiable assets of your business, such as real estate, equipment, patents and trademarks, customer lists and even contractual relationships you’ve established provide value because they can be sold or used elsewhere if the company’s earnings dry up.
Buyers will expect to see a list of all physical assets that will be included in the sale, including purchase prices and current market values. If you’ve been expensing the cost of assets rather than maintaining a schedule of fixed assets, creating this list may take some effort.
This list could be helpful to you as well. If you determine that the value of your business’ assets is similar to the price you’d likely receive through a sale, you may decide that liquidation is a faster and easier route to recovering value from your investment.
Meaningful financial ratios
Potential buyers will look at key financial ratios to see how your business compares to industry averages, to other acquisitions they may be considering, and to criteria they have set up for themselves.
Financial ratios help show what the numbers in your financial statements actually mean. They tell a potential buyer what percentage of sales dollars make it to the bottom line, how efficiently your business collects receivables, whether too much of your cash is going towards debt repayment, and more.
Using inaccurate financials to calculate those ratios can provide misleading information and perhaps even red flags that your numbers have been manipulated. Before you advertise your business for sale, calculate a handful of important financial ratios yourself and compare them to industry averages to see how you stack up. Then you can present that information to buyers along with your own explanations about what the calculations mean and how they support the idea that your business is a good opportunity.
Find Your Asking Price
You wouldn’t put your home up for sale without doing a little research to find out how much it’s worth, and you’ll need to do the same before you sell your business. If you’ve been highly involved in your company’s accounting, you may have a sense of its worth, but the value of a business is greater than the total value of its tangible assets.
Buyers purchase an existing business because it already has everything necessary for successful operation – equipment, location, experienced employees, suppliers, business processes and customers. The whole is worth more than the sum of its parts. But how do you place a value on it?
In some cases, you may need a formal business valuation or an appraisal. Many business owners don’t like the idea of spending money on a business valuation. But guessing at the value of your business is likely to result in either a price that’s unrealistically high and turns potential buyers off or a price that’s unnecessarily low and keeps you from cashing out at full value.
While there are several different methods for valuing a business, one of the first things an appraiser or a valuation analyst will look at is your financial statements. Without accurate financial information, the analyst may have to do extra work to reach an estimated value. Of course, that extra work will cost you extra money.
Preparing your business for sale is the most common reason for needing an accurate business valuation, but you might also need one to obtain financing, for estate planning, during litigation, or when converting to an S-Corporation. Ultimately, your financials are how people will judge your business. The numbers tell your story, so it’s not only important that they look good, but that they’re presenting an accurate picture. When you go into a sales transaction, loan application, or another scenario with accurate accounting, you’ll know what to expect and can walk away with the best possible outcome.
Disclaimer & disclosure: While I am an accountant, I am not a lawyer, nor do I know your individual situation. This advice comes from my personal and professional experience, but your circumstances could be very different. I recommend that you seek the help of qualified professionals. Also, some of the links included above are affiliate links. If you click through and enroll or make a purchase, I may receive a commission. Thank you!