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Accountant vs bookkeeper: what's the difference?

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Running a business is exhilarating, but also involves a lot of paperwork. This is why getting an expert accountant or bookkeeper on your side is absolutely vital. With them taking care of the numbers, you are free to focus on driving growth. But these two important roles are not the same and having a clear understanding of the differences are essential if you are going to make the best use of the resources you have at your disposal. 

As a business owner, you need to make sure you have the right support around you. Accountants and bookkeepers are often top of the list when it comes to essential professional service providers. But many people actually consider these roles to be the same. Although there is a lot of crossover between the work that an accountant or bookkeeper will do for you, there are some important differences too.  

You don’t want to get into a situation where you need an accountant, but only have a bookkeeper or vice versa. To make sure this doesn’t happen, here is a simple and quick explanation of how the two roles differ and which situations require which expertise.  

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What does a bookkeeper do?  

The exact roots of bookkeeping are unknown, but we do know that the function dates back thousands of years. It’s a hugely important practice for businesses. Bookkeeping is the daily activity of recording financial data and classifying and analysing business transactions. Your bookkeeper is a professional who makes sure that you can see exactly what is going on with your finances. 

While bookkeeping may have started as scratches on a stone tablet, today the practice revolves around software solutions like Xero or Freeagent. Your bookkeeper’s main role will be to process financial transactions into the software system of your choice, as well as making sure that bills are paid and chasing customers for late payments.  

The basic idea here is that your bookkeeper will turn a huge mass of receipts, bills and invoices into an easily understandable log of money going in and out. There are a range of additional services that bookkeepers can provide, such as running payroll, preparing VAT returns and preparing and filing tax returns.  

These additional services are where the roles of accountant and bookkeeper begin to overlap, as well as the fact that both are likely to be external to your company. Just like your accountant, your bookkeeper may be managing a number of other businesses as well as yours. 

What does an accountant do?  

An accountant is less concerned with recording the financial activity of your business. Rather, they are principally concerned with making sure that your business is fully compliant with its tax and reporting obligations. While a bookkeeper will work weekly, fortnightly or monthly to update your books, your accountant could work at less frequent intervals. They may work on your quarterly tax returns or annual accounts, or they may have a more involved role.  

The real beauty of an accountant is how versatile they are. To become a chartered accountant, a person has to demonstrate expertise (and pass exams) in at least 15 separate areas of finance. They are highly expert professionals who can add a whole range of extra value to your operations.  

Accountants often assist their business clients with the strategic management of the company, such as helping with tax planning to make sure all relevant tax advantages are being utilised. They can also help you manage your cash flow, reduced your costs, plan for growth, handle your financial planning and provide advice on your personal affairs too.  

Due to their higher level of training, you may want to turn to your accountant first with any complex questions you have. They will likely know about things like PAYE and VAT as well as tax and corporate reporting.    

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Which one do I need?  

Accountant and bookkeeper are two very distinct roles, but both are incredibly valuable to business owners. Without them, keeping track of finances and complying with regulations would take up a huge amount of your time and probably require a bit of extra training. But what situations are best suited for an accountant and which for a bookkeeper?  

Here are a few different scenarios that will help show you who you should be calling.  

You need someone to help with processing invoices and other financial documents 

This is where your bookkeeper will add a lot of value. Your accountant will not typically handle tasks like processing purchase invoices and expenses claims, issuing invoices as well as filing and managing your financial documents. Your bookkeeper will also chase customers for payments that are late. 

You want help preparing and filing VAT tax returns  

Both your accountant and your bookkeeper will likely be able to help you with this. Other tasks that both will be suitable for are posting journal entries, running the payroll and providing basic tax advice.  

You need to prepare limited company accounts  

This is a task that only your accountant will be able to do for you. Your bookkeeper will also not be able to file corporation tax returns, calculate your capital gains tax and prepare management accounts, business plans or cash flow forecasts. These should all be handled by an accountant.  

You need specialist tax advice  

Again, you would need to call your accountant. This is where the role of an accountant can begin to become far more strategically focused than a bookkeeper. 

Whether you opt for just a bookkeeper, just an accountant or both, it is important that they are the right fit for you and your business. They are going to be performing an important role for you so take the time to speak to a few about your ambitions. After all, with the right resources in place, your business can push forward with confidence. 

To find an experienced accountant or bookkeeper in your area, use the Unbiased search tool. 

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About the author
Kate has written for leading publications and blue chip companies over the last 20 years.