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Many bookkeepers find success by becoming self-employed and hiring their services out to individuals and small businesses. If you've got a love for crunching numbers and a streak of independence, this may be the direction for you.

Bookkeepers perform a variety of general accounting duties. Often, they establish, maintain and balance several different financial transactions and accounts either manually or by computer. In order to verify the accuracy of a company's records, they may be asked to perform an audit.

They may also prepare statistical, financial or accounting reports; post journal entries and reconcile accounts; make bank deposits; prepare checks for payrolls and bills; complete and submit company and government documents; prepare tax returns; and keep the company's business manager and board informed of their financial status.

To be a bookkeeper, you need to be well organized, careful and thorough. Above all else, however, you have to enjoy working with numbers. A love of math is a must. "I was always good at math in school," says bookkeeper Michael D. Brooks.

"Aptitude tests indicated I should go into a related field, but I didn't want to do engineering or teaching. I actually started out as a music major, then computer science and finally went into accounting. Guess the advisors were right all along."

For Heather Rocks, another self-employed bookkeeper, a love of mathematics was an important aspect in her career choice as well. "I loved numbers and balancing numbers. I did well with bookkeeping in high school and because I liked the challenge of balancing the debits and credits," she says.

Trust is another important asset in a bookkeeper. Clients and employers need to have faith in those who are handling their finances.

When dealing with large sums of money, you cannot afford to misplace or lose documents. Since many bookkeepers handle cash, it is important that they act with integrity and honesty.

White-collar crime, embezzlement and fraud are a major concern for most companies. According to the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners (ACFE), non-managerial employees commit 58 percent of past reported cases of fraud and abuse.

"You must abide by a standard of ethics," says Brooks. "Many of the organizations require even stricter ethical standards than the state or treasury department guidelines."

Clients also look for reliable and punctual individuals for this job, since there is an ongoing and steady amount of work. Deadlines must be met and close attention has to be paid to the work.

"A person has to be organized and pay attention to details. Bookkeeping requires a lot of thinking," Rocks says.

"If you love being around people or love working directly with people, then accounting would not be the job for you. Accounting requires that the work be completed with deadlines."

Since just about every type of establishment needs a bookkeeper, there is considerable job mobility in this field. It also means a good freelance bookkeeper can find a number of different clients to work for.

For those looking to move up the accounting ladder, experience as a bookkeeper may be a first step toward becoming a clerical supervisor or a certified professional accountant (CPA).

As far as schooling is concerned, every bookkeeper must have a high school diploma. You must also complete a college program in accounting, bookkeeping or a related field, or spend two years in a recognized professional accounting program -- or have a combination of courses in accounting and bookkeeping.

Experience as a financial or accounting clerk is a plus. Good bookkeepers are always improving and updating their skills, however, both on the job and through formal training courses.

"Make sure accounting is what you want to do," Rocks says. "Maybe start off by taking temp work. Make sure you know computerized accounting. Make sure you live in a area that has a need for bookkeepers."

Brooks offers specific suggestions for those interested in self-employment. "Visit other self-employed bookkeepers, especially those who have been in business a while. Find out what they did wrong and what they did right in the beginning. Learn from their mistakes and successes," he advises.

"To become a CPA, you must have a bachelor's degree in accounting and work a set period of time for a practicing CPA and take a two-day test on all sorts of accounting, auditing, and tax issues," Brooks says.

"To be a bookkeeper, you simply have to hang out your shingle and go to work. To become an enrolled agent like myself, there are no college requirements, but you must either have worked for the IRS for at least five years or, as I did, take a two-day test on taxation of all sorts," Brooks explains.

"EAs are tax experts and most of them do bookkeeping as well. EAs are licensed by the U.S. Treasury Department to practice nationwide. CPAs are licensed by state."

For Brooks and Rocks, the benefits of being a freelance bookkeeper are similar to those in other self-employed jobs. "You control your destiny. Your time is your own. If I don't want to go to the office today, I don't have to," Brooks says.

"The reality is, though, that most self-employed people work extremely long hours," he adds.

"You are the one ultimately responsible for earning your paycheck. It's not going to be there on the first of the month if you haven't been in the office.

"I think it takes a certain type of personality and discipline to be able to make a success of your own business. Last week I was in the office 86 hours getting things ready for tax season.

"I came down with the flu over the weekend and I really don't want to be here today, but I have no choice. Still, I wouldn't trade the independence for the steady paycheck -- but that's not for everybody."

Rocks concurs. "The benefits are flexible time, you can write off all company-related expenses and learning sales skills. Drawbacks are unsettled pay, [the] challenge of getting new clients, no benefits and [being] responsible for submitting taxes," she says.

Self-employment may be the way to go for those interested in this field but unwilling to collect a paycheck from someone else.

"I have always been self-employed, whether in the bookkeeping field or some other type of business. I think I would make a lousy employee. I like the independence of being my own boss," Brooks says.

At any rate, bookkeeping, self-employed or not, offers its own unique set of challenges and rewards.

"It's nice working in a career where you see the end result -- you create the end result. Accounting can be like a puzzle -- there is only one right way of getting the correct result," says Rocks.


American Institute of Certified Public Accountants
The premier U.S. association for CPAs

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OCAP believes that financial literacy and understanding the financial aid process are critical aspects of college planning and student success. OCAP staff who work with students, parents, educators and community partners in the areas of personal finance education, state and federal financial aid, and student loan management do not provide financial, investment, legal, and/or tax advice. This website and all information provided is for general educational purposes only, and is not intended to be construed as financial, investment, legal, and/or tax advice.