Keeping Tax Records and Bookkeeping When You’re Self-Employed

If you’re self-employed keeping tax records are a legal requirement by HMRC. Bookkeeping is how you can make this easier on yourself, as well as tax time.

I put this guide together for anyone who is setting up a business or is already registered as self-employed and wants to get their ducks in a row.

I’ll list out the tax records you need to keep for your business, how to store them and set up a bookkeeping system. I’ll also share my recommended daily, weekly and monthly bookkeeping tasks to help you stay on top of your business administration.

What Tax Records Should Your Keep When You’re Self-Employed?

Your tax records are all the different pieces of documentation that you need to complete a tax return for HMRC. That includes information you’ll need on your business, that’s why it makes sense to put them away as you do your bookkeeping.

Here are some of the typical tax and accounting records that self-employed business owners need to keep:

How Long Should You Keep Your Tax Records?

Every time you send in a tax return, HMRC reserves the right to ask questions about the numbers and request that you show evidence of how you reached that number and check you’ve paid the right amount of tax.

You are legally required to keep your tax records, including copies of tax returns, for HMRC for at least 5 years after the 31 January you submit your tax return. 

For example, you must keep all your tax records for your 2018/2019 tax return, which is due by 31 January 2020 until the 31 January 2025 at least.

Keeping Tax Records 

There are no set rules in place telling you how to keep your tax records.  Fortunately, you no longer need to keep paper copies of your HMRC tax records. That means keeping your records digitally is probably the easiest way to hold onto them for the right number of years. Of course, you can still choose to keep paper copies, just make sure you print and file all the correct information. 

I’ve written a detailed guide on organising business receipts to help get you set up with a system that you can use year after year. But I keep all my tax records in google drive, filed by tax year, with sub-folders for bank statements, invoices, supplier invoices etc.

What Happens if You Lose Tax Records

If you have misplaced tax and accounting records then try to get copies. For example by calling your supplier or banks and checking through old emails. It is a legal requirement to have your tax records so it’s really important and you may have to pay penalties or interest if you cannot support figures on your tax return and it turns out you have not paid enough tax.

If you are filling your tax return and are missing information you can still submit it but you must let HMRC know if you are using provisional or estimated numbers.

Provisional means you’ll be getting the lost records replaced and will confirm the correct figures later. Estimated means you have lost the relevant tax records, are making a best guess and will not be changing the figures.

[This is part of the Understanding Self Employment Series]

What Is Bookkeeping?

Put simply, bookkeeping is a way of tracking all your business income and expenses during a set period of time. When you become self-employed or a sole trader means that you are legally required by HMRC to submit a tax return which summarises all your income and expenses, as well as calculating your own taxes.

Your bookkeeping system will provide you with the numbers you’ll need to complete your tax return, saving you from tax hell.  A good bookkeeping system will add up your income and expenses.  But a great bookkeeping system will: 

  • help you to analyse your costs to stop you from wasting money; 
  • estimate how much tax you owe, so you can tuck it away;
  • tell you where you are making the most money so you can make more of it;
  • automate some of the boring bookkeeping tasks you can’t get away from;
  • give you the numbers you’ll need to complete your tax return.

How to Set Up a Bookkeeping System

The first thing to do is to open a business bank account. Keeping all the financial transactions of your business separate from your personal payments is a sure-fire way to make your bookkeeping easy.

It’s also recommended by HMRC for the self-employed and sole traders. If you have a Limited Company then you are legally required to open a separate bank account. Take a look at Starling, which is free for one month.

Imagine if you had to sift through all your personal costs to find your business ones? It could take forever and you might miss out on some of those precious expenses that will reduce your tax bill.

Once you have a business bank account set up, the one piece of advice I’d give you is to never dip into it. Instead, set yourself a regular salary. The most successful business owners I have come across have always treated themselves just like an employee of their business when they pay themselves.

Next, you need some kind of bookkeeping system, even if you are just starting out and only have a few transactions somewhere it’ll help you keep a record of anything you paid for personally If you have a simple business and not too many transactions, then you can choose to use a bookkeeping spreadsheet. Or you can invest in using an automated online system, like Quickbooks, which you’ll pay monthly for.

How Often Should You Do Your Bookkeeping?

The key to making your bookkeeping easy is staying on top of it. But it can’t take up too much of your precious time. After all, being a business owner is much more than just bank statements, receipts and number crunching! 

I’ve split all the likely bookkeeping tasks you’ll need to do into a daily, weekly, monthly and annual checklist to help you stay organised. It may help you to put them into your diary with reminders.

Weekly Bookkeeping Tasks

  • Check your bank account and review money in and money out, marking off any client payments;
  • Invoice your clients for any work completed;
  • Update the bank statement input tab for the week’s bank transactions;
  • Record your business mileage and cash expenses;
  • Check which invoiced clients have exceeded the credit terms offered and chase for payments where necessary;
  • File receipts and invoices safely, either as a scan or paper copy in a folder

Monthly Bookkeeping Tasks

  • Review your results;
  • Transfer money into a deposit account for your tax bill due 31 January and 31 July each year;
  • Scan in your business paperwork and file securely online

Annually Bookkeeping Tasks

  • Close off your bookkeeping spreadsheet for the UK tax year;
  • Fill in your tax return by 31 January each year and pay any tax due by 31 January and 31 July each year;
  • Start with a new copy of your bookkeeping spreadsheet and being populating it with transactions for your new financial year.

About Anita Forrest

Anita Forrest is a Chartered Accountant, spreadsheet geek, money nerd and creator of www.goselfemployed.co - the UK small business finance blog for the self-employed community. Here she shares simple, straight-forward guides to make self-employment topics like taxes, bookkeeping and banking easy to understand.