How to Find the Right Accountant for You
Finding the right accountant can make a world of difference when it comes to managing your money, but it can be easier said than done. There are a few ways that you can make the process go much easier, though.
Why Do You Need an Accountant?
The first question you need to think about when looking for an accountant is why do you need help with your finances — and what sort of help do you need? Not every individual really needs an accountant. There are a number of services out there that can help you with your taxes, if that's your only concern. An accountant usually works with individuals or organizations with slightly more complicated finances, ranging from managing a business' finances to helping an individual keep investments straight. (See also: 6 Mistakes to Avoid With a Financial Adviser)
You could just start calling accountants based on who is closest to you, but most accountants have specialties. You're not going to get exactly the help you need from just any accountant.
When we talk about accountants, we can actually be referring to one of several different kinds of financial expert. There are quite a few different designations for accountants, from the common "certified public accountant" to a certified management accountant or an accredited business accountant. It's most likely that you're looking for a CPA if you're generally looking for an accountant in the U.S. (other designations are used in other countries). A CPA will help set up the books for a new business, prepare tax returns, and handle a wide variety of other accounting tasks — unless you have a sizable business and need specialized help with your accounting, a CPA is usually the place to start.
It's still important to narrow the field down even further, though. Many CPAs work with specific types of clients. For instance, the CPA who helps me with my business focuses on small businesses that don't need much in the way of payroll but do need advice on business operations from time to time. He works with a lot of freelancers and small business owners, though he does take on other clients. Ask right off the bat about whether an accountant you're considering working with handles your type of situation — most are very clear about what types of clients they want to work with. You should also ask about specifics like price and who will actually do any work, like preparing a tax return.
Make a note of what sort of help you need. The price you'll pay for an accountant's help can definitely depend on exactly what you need done. Most CPAs work on an hourly basis, often starting at a price of $150 and going up from there. But for common situations, like needing a tax return prepared, you can expect prices to start closer to $90 — provided you are employed and don't have particularly complicated finances.
It's All About the Referral
Because an accountant may wind up knowing every last thing about your financial situation, it's important to find someone you're personally comfortable working with. Starting with a referral is often the best way to do so. Ask around to find out whom your peers use and whether they recommend their current accountants. If you're having a hard time getting a recommendation, many review-based sites, such as Yelp, do list accountants and other financial professionals. However, you'll want to dig a little deeper than just a review online — while it's fine for choosing a restaurant for dinner, you'll want more information when you're putting all your financial information in someone's hands.
If you operate a business, it may be worth going to your professional associations (such as the local Chamber of Commerce, if you are a member) and getting referrals there. You can get good leads on reliable accountants quickly.
Of course, you'll do the necessary due diligence to make sure that you're working with a reliable accountant. But because of that "certified" part of the job title, it's relatively easy to make sure that anyone you choose to work with has the necessary credentials to handle any accounting quandary you may face. Individual state boards are responsible for issuing certifications, and most will now allow you to verify an accountant's credentials online. A quick online search can also confirm that you've chosen the right person to work with. Many CPAs (including the one I work with) now have websites, Twitter accounts, and even blogs to help you make the right decisions.
An Ongoing Relationship
Even if you only visit your accountant for a yearly tax planning session, it's important to have an ongoing relationship. The best accountants will go out of their way to update you on new legislation, as well as anything else that might impact your finances. You may not anticipate needing help, but already having a great working relationship with your accountant can put you ahead of the game in the event of an audit or other financial situation.
Depending on how you expect your finances to change in the future, you may want to ask about some of the options that an accountant might offer before making your final decision. If you know you need to start planning for retirement or a child's education, you should ask about what sort of financial consulting or planning services a particular CPA offers.