What’s the difference between an accountant and a bookkeeper

By Jake Martin

6 min read

The great advantage of using accounting software like QuickBooks is that it makes it easy to stay on top of your business finances.  However, for most businesses, expert accounting help is still advisable. Why?

  • To get peace of mind from someone who understands tax and accounting regulations inside-out
  • To get expert advice on running your business better and to make it more profitable

Remember, running a successful business is about allocating resources efficiently and your time is GOLD!

So, when is it a good time to ask for help and what kind of accounting support should you be looking for?

The difference between an accountant and a bookkeeper

Bookkeepers

The number one misconception is that a bookkeeper is the same as an accountant. However, this isn’t strictly true. While they may carry out some of the same functions, a bookkeeper (as their name implies) is someone who keeps the books.  They are very good at managing day-to-day paperwork, such as creating and sending out client invoices and managing supplier bills and receipts etc., and getting them into the computer system.  Many can also help with VAT returns and payroll.

In the UK, many bookkeepers have achieved professional qualifications by passing the rigorous exams set by the AAT (Association of Accounting Technicians) or the ICB (Institute of Certified Bookkeepers).

If your bookkeeper will be handling most aspects of your accounts, including VAT and payroll, you would be well advised to seek one who holds a recognised credential such as ICB or AAT certification.

Accountants

An accountant might also do some bookkeeping, although given their higher rates this isn’t always the best use of their time. Accountants typically take over when the bookkeeper has entered all the transactions – they then prepare monthly management accounts or year-end statutory accounts for a limited company. They also advise on tax and VAT and should be able to offer more practical business advice too.

In the UK, anyone can call themselves an accountant but you will want to be aware of some of the recognised accounting qualifications to look out for:

I read a very useful analogy recently which helps to make the distinction between accountants and bookkeepers – think of a bookkeeper like a nurse and your accountant as the doctor.
You’ll see your nurse on a more regular basis, they’re the friendly face of regular care and maintenance. You might see your doctor less often, they might prescribe something to help you deal with your obesity, for example, but it’s your nurse that will help you keep the weight off.”

When to use an accounting professional

So, when should you ask for professional accounting help? What I always say to business owners is – ask for help as soon as you wonder if you need help.

Depending on the size and nature of your business, you might use an accountant or bookkeeper on an ongoing basis or at specific points. Here are some issues to consider.

Starting up – I would certainly talk to an accountant who can help you get off to a good start and advise on issues such as accounting software and VAT.  Most will offer a free initial consultation.

Choosing a business structure – An accountant can advise on the best business structures, based on their knowledge of tax breaks and more.

Health check – You can also benefit from simply having a regular chat with a bookkeeper and/or accountant to go over your finances and processes, and to pinpoint any opportunities or risks facing your business.

Tax return – It’s true that as a sole trader, you can do your own tax return but it is usually worth consulting an accountant anyway. They can check your return and verify issues such as that you are claiming for all you’re entitled to and that you’re not trying to claim expenses which are not tax-deductible. Even if you manage your money using QuickBooks, it’s worth having your tax return checked and approved by an accounting expert.

If you have a more complicated business structure, such as a Limited Company, it’s very rarely practical doing your own tax return, given the detailed knowledge required.

Getting organised – If you have trouble staying organised, I would look at hiring a bookkeeper to help you keep on top of paperwork.  Remember, though, it’s OK to delegate but not to abdicate responsibility for your financial affairs – make sure you still have a good overview of your business’s finances at all times.

With tools such as QuickBooks Online, you can collaborate more easily with your accountant and bookkeeper and can log in anytime, anywhere to update your books or get an overview of your business.  There is even a QuickBooks Online Mobile app that allows you to stay connected from your mobile devices.

Need more time – If your business is growing fast or you just need more time to focus on marketing, sales and customer service etc., using the services of a bookkeeper can free up much-needed time. Yes, you could potentially do it yourself but is it the best use of your time?

A bookkeeper can also help chase payments from clients.  They can do that in a very professional way, making your business look bigger and more established.

VAT registration – Reaching the VAT threshold is a key milestone for a business – you need to check with an accountant you are managing VAT correctly to avoid costly errors (and if you haven’t already, I would advise getting accounting software like QuickBooks to save time doing your VAT return!).

Taking on your first employee – This is another huge milestone.  I would talk to an accountant to make sure you have got the right legals in place, such as a contract and insurance.  Also, you will now need to administer Real Time PAYE and NI – again, software such as QuickBooks Payroll means you can do this yourself or you might want to use a bookkeeper or specialist payroll service provider.

Auditing – When your business reaches a certain size, it needs an audit to reassure creditors and shareholders that the management is in control.  To do an audit an accountant must be qualified and also a Registered Auditor.

When do you need your own accounts department?

If your bookkeeper is working for you 3+days per week, it might be time to think about creating an internal accounts department.  An internal bookkeeper is known as an accounts assistant.  When you have two or three of them, you might hire a management accountant (qualified or part-qualified) to supervise them.

As you grow more, the next step would be a qualified financial controller and then your own finance director or chief financial officer!

Looking for accounting help?

Find an accountant or bookkeeper with QuickBooks expertise now. Those who have a ‘Certified’ badge next to their name in the listings have passed a stringent QuickBooks proficiency exam so you can be sure they are true QuickBooks experts.

Also, check out our article on choosing the perfect bookkeeper or accountant.

[Image courtesy of adamr/ FreeDigitalPhotos.net]
Information may be abridged and therefore incomplete. This document/information does not constitute, and should not be considered a substitute for, legal or financial advice. Each financial situation is different, the advice provided is intended to be general. Please contact your financial or legal advisors for information specific to your situation.

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