A Beginners Guide to Bookkeeping and Tax Records When You Become Self-Employed

So you’ve taken the plunge and started a business! 

But now you’re busy setting up your business and worried about what’s involved when it comes to looking after your accounts, paying for costs and keeping receipts.

That’s where bookkeeping comes in.

Bookkeeping and accounting get some bad press with small business owners in my opinion. It’s often branded as boring or time-consuming.

I think the truth is this reputation comes from small business owners who just don’t really understand what they are doing when it comes to their business finances and aren’t being efficient.

Bookkeeping doesn’t have to be boring! In fact, it is a fundamental part of running a small business and sound decision-making. 

I put this guide together for anyone who is setting up a business or has been going for a while and wants to formalise things.

I’ll show you what’s involved in setting up a bookkeeping system, that’s quick and easy to use as well as sharing my recommended daily, weekly and monthly bookkeeping tasks to help you stay on top of things.

What Is Bookkeeping?

Put simply, bookkeeping is a way of tracking all your business income and expenses during a set period of time.

Being 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.

Step-by-Step Guide to Completing Your Tax Return

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; 
  • store all your receipts;
  • 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.

So how do you set up a great one?

How to Set Up a Simple Bookkeeping System

If you’ve read my simple guide to going self-employed, you’ll know the two tricks to make your bookkeeping easy:

  1. Opening a separate business bank account
  2. Setting up a bookkeeping system

But there’s actually a third trick – making sure both of these things are connected.

1. Opening 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.

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.

It’s also recommended by HMRC for the self-employed and sole traders.

When it comes to opening a business bank account, there are two main ways you can do it:

  • Head down to a local high street bank branch
  • Go online

Going online generally involves downloading an app and using it to send over information about you and your business (or via an online account). 

I recently made the switch to Revolut which is an online business banking account. It is free to open up so I thought I would give it a go. 

Actually, the setup process was much easier compared to other online bank accounts and the app gives me a lot of up to date information so I’ve come to really love it.

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 fixed salary. Then take that out on a regular basis. 

The most successful business owners I have come across have always treated themselves just like an employee of their business.

2. Get a Bookkeeping System

No matter what stage your business is at, getting some kind of financial system is a must.

Even if you are just starting out and only have a few transactions somewhere, in the not too distant future, you’ll look back and be so grateful you did this next step.

You can choose to use a spreadsheet or invest in using an automated online system.

Free Bookkeeping Spreadsheet

I have put together a free bookkeeping spreadsheet that will help you get your self-employed accounts set up. Join my mailing list to get a copy as well as more finance tips and tax reminders.

Online Bookkeeping Software

No matter what stage you are at in your business, the easiest way to keep track of your income and expenses is to use an online bookkeeping software. 

There are lots of good ones out there but I use Quickbooks. It saves me a lot of time by memorising my transactions and helping me to analyse my income so I can make more money. It’s reasonably priced as well.

As an accountant, I remember the old days where you had type out all the individual transactions from bank statements. You can imagine how much I love the fact Revolut links to Quickbooks and I no longer have to type everything in line by line. I’ve even set up “rules” so Quickbooks knows where to put all my regular income and expenses.

The version I use and recommend is QuickBooks Simple Start and I have a tutorial to help get you started.

Quick Start Guide to Quickbooks Simple Start

Tax Records When You’re Self-Employed

A big part of your bookkeeping includes keeping tax and accounting records and holding onto them for certain periods of time.  

What are Tax Records?

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.

Example Tax Records

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

  • Bank statements
  • Sales invoices
  • Purchases invoices and receipts
  • Cash receipts
  • VAT records (if you’re VAT registered)
  • P60s or P45s if employed
  • Mileage claim forms
  • Records about any other income such as dividends or capital gains
  • Copies of tax returns and tax calculations you have submitted

How Long to Keep Your HMRC 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 and accounting records 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.

bookkeeping and record keeping for small business owners
Bookkeeping and Record-Keeping for Self-Employed Business Owners

How to Keep Your Tax Records 

There is no set way that you have to follow when it comes to keeping 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. 

If You’re Using a Bookkeeping Spreadsheet

You’ll need many of your tax records to complete your bookkeeping. That’s things like your bank statements and sales invoices.

Once you are done updating your spreadsheet put copies away. It’s much easier to do on a regular basis so don’t let it pile up. 

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.

If You’re Using an Online Bookkeeping System

Most of the online bookkeeping systems let you store copies of your sales invoices and purchase invoices, along with other information.  It’s really easy to save all these pieces of information as you go along. 

You still might need to store other tax records like bank statements separately. 

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.

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 completing 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.

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 an entrepreneur 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.

Daily Bookkeeping Tasks

  • Check your bank account and review money in and money out, marking off any payments on the Client Invoicing tab;
  • 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 on the Business Results tab;
  • 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;
  • Complete your self-assessment 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 the bookkeeping spreadsheet and being populating it with transactions for your new financial year.

Wrapping Up

Whilst getting a new bookkeeping system may feel overwhelming, once you create a routine for yourself and become familiar with the basics you will find staying on top of your finances will become very quick and easy (and maybe even enjoyable).  

Quick Start Guide to Quickbooks Simple Start

Anita Forrest
About Anita Forrest

Anita is a Chartered Accountant with over a decade of working with small business owners. She is the creator of the ‘Go Self Employed’ website, where she simplifies complicated self-employment topics such as taxes, bookkeeping, banking and insurance.