These terms are often used interchangeably, but they represent different aspects of finance. Bookkeeping is concerned with recording financial transactions. Accounting is a broader term that encompasses the analysis, reporting, and interpretation of that financial information. CPAs (certified public accountants) are MBA-level financial experts who provide high-level financial strategy and services. While some overlap may occur, each position serves its own important role for companies.
What Does a Bookkeeper Do?
A bookkeeper keeps track of the finances and documents where the money goes. They record daily transactions and help ensure that the business remains in compliance with the law. The work of a bookkeeper is invaluable, as businesses are required to maintain accurate financial records for up to seven years.
Bookkeepers are responsible for four key financial documents:
- Income Statements: Also known as Profit & Loss Statements, these documents track total revenue and expenses within a given timeframe.
- Cash Flow Statements: As the name suggests, these documents keep a record of the cash and other monetary assets that flow in and out of the business.
- Balance Sheets: These provide a general overview of the company’s financial standing with an emphasis on assets, liabilities, and shareholders’ equity.
- Statements of Changes in Equity: These reports outline changes in share capital, reserves, and retained earnings within a given timeframe.
Though not every business has an accountant, every business should have a dependable bookkeeper—whether in-house or outsourced. One of the essential functions of a bookkeeper is to maintain payroll, which is required of every business. They track the company’s fixed assets, monitor debt levels, make payments to vendors, reconcile accounts, and maintain annual budgets.
Some business owners opt to do their own bookkeeping. Using a program like QuickBooks or Wave, you can record your daily transactions and reconcile bank statements as they come in. At the end of the fiscal period, you can then submit that information to an accountant or use it to file taxes.
There are a few potential problems with the DIY approach. It can be time-consuming for business owners to manage their own books, which takes away from their ability to grow their company. Another problem is that even the most intuitive software has a learning curve, and minor reporting errors can lead to huge liabilities for a business. Outsourced bookkeeping services have become extremely cost-effective, often available for just a bit more than you’d pay for a QuickBooks license. With that in mind, it’s usually advisable to pay a bit more and go with a qualified professional.
What Does an Accountant Do?
While a bookkeeper is concerned with maintaining the cash flow, an accountant is more concerned about your overall financial health. They take the data that your bookkeeper provides and use it to help you understand the broader state of your finances. They prepare comprehensive financial reports that are useful to company executives, investors, boards of directors, and tax authorities.
Their services include examining financial statements for accuracy, ensuring compliance with laws and regulations, identifying ways to cut costs and increase profits, and conducting comprehensive business audits. More than just tracking the money, a good accountant will advise on how to make the business stronger. It’s a job that requires impeccable attention to detail, critical thinking skills, mathematical expertise, and an understanding of high-level money management.
There are four main types of accountants:
- Public Accountant: The most common type, these experts handle general accounting, taxes, and consulting for all types of organizations.
- Managerial Accountant: This type of accountant works primarily for corporations. They offer many of the same services as a public accountant, but their findings are specifically for use by company management for the purpose of improving the business. The information is not intended for the public. Managerial accountants are almost always CPAs (see the section below).
- Government Accountant: This type of accountant advises on behalf of government organizations and also audits businesses that are subject to government regulation and oversight.
- Internal Auditor: Usually a CPA, an internal auditor conducts in-depth risk analysis on a company’s funds and advises on how to improve profitability and cut waste.
Whereas there are no specific degree requirements for a bookkeeper (so long as they have adequate training), an accountant should maintain at least a bachelor’s degree, preferably an advanced degree. The degree should be in accounting, business, or a related field.
Accountants vs CPAs
Many accountants further their education to become certified public accountants (CPAs). This is a special licensure earned upon the successful completion of a state CPA exam. The biggest difference between a CPA and a standard accountant is that the former can draft audited financial statements like those used to determine the value of stock market assets.
In a broader sense, a CPA is much more involved on the business management side of things. They can serve as financial advisers, overseeing everything from estate planning to investment risk analysis. This is why larger businesses tend to favor CPAs over standard accounting and bookkeeping services.
CPAs are also beneficial around tax time. Though bookkeepers and regular accountants are often in charge of documenting and calculating financial information for the IRS, these types of professionals do not have the authority to sign tax returns or represent clients in the event of a tax audit. Only licensed CPAs can represent their clients in this capacity.
Who Handles Taxes?
We know that bookkeepers document financial information and accountants interpret that information. When it comes to taxes, things can get a bit confusing. That’s because accountants, CPAs, and bookkeepers are all involved in the tax process.
- A bookkeeper can make quarterly tax payments and prepare tax forms like 1099s.
- An accountant can offer tax advice and help you to itemize your deductions.
- A CPA can prepare and file your taxes on your behalf, from start to finish.
In other words, a CPA can take care of everything. A standard accountant can take care of everything short of filing your returns. A bookkeeper can only prepare the important documents and make payments; they can’t advise on deductions, credits, or other facets of tax law.
How Bookkeepers and Accountants Work Together
Bookkeepers and accountants commonly work in tandem to keep a business’s finances flowing smoothly. A bookkeeper will track the finances throughout the year and prepare financial statements for the accountant. The accountant will then use that data to devise beneficial tax strategies and make broader financial recommendations.
Some accounting firms offer a full umbrella of financial services that includes bookkeeping. It can be advantageous to bundle bookkeeping and accounting under the same roof for several reasons:
- It minimizes the risk of miscommunication between the accountant and bookkeeper.
- It enables your accountant to spot important bookkeeping trends much sooner and course-correct accordingly.
- It saves your business money by reducing the amount of required personnel.
- It gives you one central point of contact for your financial transactions.
Should You Hire an Accountant or Bookkeeper?
It’s fairly easy to determine which type of financial expert you should hire. It’s all about knowing your budget and the complexity of your finances. In general, an accountant with a CPA license is the best way to go. They are the most knowledgeable and the most equipped to help you grow your revenue and avoid legal entanglements. If you go with a firm that offers bookkeeping services as part of an accounting package, you’ll have all of your needs met.
A bookkeeper is ideal for sole proprietors and small businesses with minimal cash flow that just want to keep track of their finances. Bookkeepers are more cost-effective than CPAs, and they can often prove more than adequate as long as your profits and losses are easily traceable and you don’t have to answer to a board of directors, investors, or stockholders.
Finally, it’s important to note that the industry is evolving. Thanks to software and cloud-based technologies that automate many essential bookkeeping tasks, more financial experts and firms are using a model that combines bookkeeping and accounting services. That may be why the government’s projected 10-year job growth is 6% for accountants and -4% for bookkeepers.
Financial services are becoming more affordable—especially when outsourced as opposed to being brought in-house. Consider your goals, compare the costs, and determine which type of financial expert or experts is right for you.
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