Keep Good Records

The term “record keeping” refers to the orderly and disciplined practice of storing business records. Record keeping is one of your most important responsibilities as a small business owner. The success of your business depends on creating and maintaining an effective record system, whether your business is a sole proprietorship, partnership, or corporation.
Record keeping ranges from simple manila folder filing systems to complex on-line electronic systems. Whether simple or complex, a record keeping system must be easy to use and provide adequate storage and retrieval of records. Most importantly, the record keeping system you choose must be suited to your particular business needs. The type, size, and complexity of your business, as well as your business’ available resources, will help to determine the record keeping system best suited to you and your business.
For more information on record keeping go to the web site www.sba.gov and search for recordkeeping.
NOTE:  Personal Record Keeping - As a business owner, you should also establish a record keeping system for your personal information. For example, when applying for a business loan, a lender may want to consider your personal records, such as financial statements for your personal checking accounts, savings accounts, and other personal accounts tied to your business.

Reasons for Keeping Good Records

Record keeping is not solely about fulfilling regulations or legal requirements. Record keeping is also about understanding your business, now and in the future. Reasons why you should keep good records include:

  • Detail Tracking
  • Planning
  • Legal compliance
  • Tax preparation (federal, state, and local)

Let’s go through each of these reasons in further detail.

Detail Tracking
Owning a small business will require you to track a significant amount of information, such as customers, sales, and inventory. Without a proper record keeping system, you may lose sight of important business details, leading to problems with serving your customers. If you do not know details about your customers, such as who your customers are and what your customers like, your business may not be able to meet buyer demands. You risk disappointing a customer, maybe losing that customer forever. Staying informed of customers, their orders, and the inventory to provide for their purchases is challenging. Without a proper record keeping system, tracking important details of your business may be impossible.
Proper record keeping helps to plan your business’ future. How does a business owner who fails to track his customers determine inventory needs for the next quarter, year, or longer? For example, what if you own a clothing store? Clothing store owners must anticipate the need for inventory throughout the year, due to seasonal cycles. By knowing if and when inventory will be needed, you can anticipate the need to finance inventory. You also can avoid carrying too little or too much inventory, such as extra swimsuits into the fall season.
Legal Compliance
As an owner, you will likely execute contracts and be required to hold various licenses and permits. As an employer, you will be required to maintain and report employee payroll for tax purposes. These three categories of legal compliance are discussed in further detail a little later:

  • Contracts, leases, and other agreements (such as copyrights)
  • Licenses, insurance, and permits
  • Payroll and personnel
Tax (Federal, State, and Local) Preparation
A well maintained record keeping system ensures that you are able to keep up with tax reporting requirements. For example, if you are an individual small business owner or contractor, then you are generally considered self-employed. Self-employed owners file a personal income tax return annually and pay estimated tax quarterly.
As described above, you may be legally required to keep some records. Here is more information on legal compliance.
Contracts, Leases, and Other Agreements
Having a good system for maintaining contracts is critical. Most business owners sign contracts for services, sales, financing, leasing, or purchasing, to name a few contract types. You may need to refer back to a contractual obligation. You may also need to refer to activities in contracts as the activities are executed. For your own protection, keep track of contractual obligations by always maintaining originally signed copies of all legally executed contracts.
Licenses and Permits
Local, state, federal, and international governments require various business licenses and permits. Some business activities require a license or permit. Licensing and permitting examples include:

  • City business license
  • Doing business as (DBA) statement
  • Seller’s permit
  • Home occupation use permit
  • Food preparation permit
Professions such as an accountant, an architect, or a building contractor require state licensure. Be sure to check with government agencies and professional associations that govern your line of work.
Once you have the required licenses and permits for your business, you may be required to show these licenses and permits from time to time. Contractors may be required to show proof of insurance. Establish your business with a good system for maintaining and regularly renewing licensing and permitting documents to protect the business from penalties, fines or other legal action.
Payroll and Personnel

If you hire employees, your record keeping capacity needs to be advanced enough to comply with numerous local, state, and federal payroll and personnel legal requirements. Depending on the number of employees you hire, your business may require a payroll service. Otherwise, if your record keeping and accounting capacity is still developing, consider hiring independent contractors or hiring through an employment agency. Here is a brief list of some of the payroll and personnel legal information your business will be required to track:

  • Hiring and evaluation documentation
  • Basis on which wages are paid
  • Social Security Numbers
  • Total hours worked
  • Additions to or deductions from wages
  • Total wages paid each pay period
  • Income tax withholdings
  • Fair Labor Standards Act required information
  • Injury reports
  • Employment Records
  • Copy of annual performance evaluations

Again, payroll and personnel record keeping requirements can be extensive. If you are a new employer, hire a professional payroll service, talk to your accountant and read online at www.irs.gov. Search for “Publication 15” and go to the link for “Circular E, Employer's Tax Guide”.

Not only should small business owners keep good records, but owners should also know which of those records to retain and for how long. Record retention is the practice of keeping business and personal records over time.
Good record retention is in the best interest of companies. A poor system of retention will prevent managers from retrieving information needed to make sound business decisions. A poor record keeping retention system also poses a security risk.

The table to the right shows: 

  1. a sample of records to keep and 
  2. for how many years.

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) determines some record retention guidelines. Other retention requirements are legal in nature, such as what may be required by contract with those you do business with. Expert recommendations vary. Also, retention schedules vary by region. For example, a state may have a different statute of limitation for legal liability (law suits). Check with your attorney for legal requirements. Check with your accountant for financial-related requirements.

This information, provided by the FDIC and the US Small Business Administration is intended as general guidance only and may or may not apply to a particular situation based on the circumstances. The materials do not create any legal rights or impose any legally binding requirements or obligations on the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) and U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA). The FDIC and SBA make no claims or guarantees regarding the accuracy or timeliness of this information and material.

The content of this material is not designed or intended to provide authoritative financial, accounting, investment, legal or other professional advice which may be reasonably relied on by its readers. If expert assistance in any of these areas is required, the services of a qualified professional should be sought.
Reference to any specific commercial product, process, or service by trade name, trademark, manufacture, or otherwise does not constitute an endorsement, a recommendation, or a preference by the FDIC and SBA or the United States government.


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