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Bidness As Unusual

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by Paul Flemming

I'm not an accountant, but I play one on my computer.

It's the tax season, with all the associated fretting and sweating, but I've got my forms in order, all ready to be sent off to the Internal Revenue Service in a digital series of zeros and ones. Once received by the big IRS computers, those machines will whir and stir and then send back my refund (yep, I managed a payback for 1997), via the same electronic avenues, directly to my bank.

Ah, the wonders of the modern age.

This stuff is hardly new, but it's still amazing what we have available at our fingertips. In 1997 I began anew some freelance work that BBJ (before the Business Journal) had been my livelihood. These rejuvenated ventures required the purchase of some computer equipment, which in turn required the filing of forms for deducting same. How I hate depreciation.

Not the actual depreciation, for because of it I get the aforementioned refund. But figuring it can be a bear.

Back when I worked for myself, calculating depreciation was what sent me on bended knee to an accountant. This was in the days before the top amount allowed for expensing capital purchases in a single year were as high as they are now limits on Section 179 property have increased significantly in the last 10 years. So, a computer purchase back then required me to depreciate the asset.

Form 4562 made my brain bleed. I may not be the brightest bulb on the Christmas tree, but I certainly have a few working brain cells. Nonetheless, I was unable to cipher the intricacies of this depreciation business.

When I showed up at the accountant's office and set out all my records, she was moved to ask me what I needed her services for. Despite the appearance of my desktop here at work, I can be a meticulous recordkeeper. I'm not the toss-it-in-a-shoebox type. My financial information was organized in spreadsheets and tables, with the accompanying documentation neatly attached.

Taking the accountant's question as a challenge, the next year I got computer software that was less expensive than her fees and stuck the numbers in myself. It worked and I liked it.

Same thing this year, only a bit more advanced.

I searched the Internet for tax-preparation software, navigated to the appropriate web sites and determined my program of choice. I picked out the appropriate versions to cover my tax situation and then chose the software to complete my state taxes.

For a member of the immediate-gratification, don't-stand-in-my-way-of-purchasing-goods generation, this process shines bright. Later in the same week I'd performed the same steps, only adding an online download of audio software and eliminating UPS altogether.

So the tax-prep software arrived and I loaded it up. Without mentioning the publisher, I'll say only that if this were a car, it would be turbo-charged.

On a single compact disc were not only a myriad of tax forms, but also IRS publications, tax guides from all the big names and video clips with a nice woman who doesn't blink much and a pair of what I was assured were "well-known" tax authorities. Bells and whistles, mostly.

In addition, summaries of the major tax code changes were available, and at the appropriate sections of my return, the program reminded me I might want to review those changes before proceeding.

When I got down to answering the questions of the interview-format entry method, the program performed its magic. It took the answers to those questions, which I culled from the sundry files arranged artfully on the floor around my chair, and placed the relevant numbers in their places on the forms.

Depreciation, my old bugaboo, was not a problem, as long as I had the relevant information type of property, date put in service and cost to input. The GIGO computer canard is never truer than with tax-preparation software.

Of course, the same goes if you've got an accountant. She won't be able, any more than a computer, to tell you where you filed the invoices for that flatbed scanner you bought three years ago.

My filing needs are not overly complicated. I've got some to go before I have to wonder if I had income from ownership in a foreign corporation.

But I don't think technology is going to spell the end of CPA. It's not that the software can't handle a more complex return. From what I could tell, it could figure Hillary Rodham Clinton's return.

Doing my taxes still took time, and also required previous organization. Very small-, small- and medium-sized-business owners' time is still the most valuable commodity they've got.

And paying a professional accountant to sift through the numbers and fill out the forms is still going to be a good deal. As with everyone, service (and the perception of exceptional service) will be paramount.

For my certified public accountant friends, next week, for balance, we'll run a column about software that writes articles and columns automatically: just plug in the subject, no matter how complex, and this program will yammer away to just the right length and display only the opinion you want.

And all at a fraction of the cost of a breathing managing editor.

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