My continued struggles with quarterly accounting

Four times a year, I partake in a ritual that reminds me of my limited cash-flow competence–and of how a certain large personal-finance firm just doesn’t care.

Adding up my income and expenses after each quarter instead of at the end of the year is Accounting 101, but because I stumbled into a freelance existence it took a few years of struggling through tardy bookkeeping to get myself in the habit.

Several years of this practice have now streamlined this to a manageable level of drudgery, but the first step remains as irritating as ever: downloading records from Intuit’s Mint.com personal-finance app.

I know, I know; Intuit runs this free Web app so poorly that it still seems to require Adobe Flash to display investment charts. (I can’t confirm that at the moment because Mint’s investment page won’t load.) But for my limited expense-tracking needs, it functions well enough most of the time.

And then there’s the other four times a year, when I need to edit a Mint Web address to work around its bizarre inability to search transactions by date. Yes, to see only transactions for the second quarter of 2019, I need to edit this page URL:

https://mint.intuit.com/transaction.event

This address will cause Mint to show just Q2 transactions:

https://wwws.mint.com/transaction.event?startDate=04/01/2019&endDate=06/30/2019

Then I can search for those tagged as “Freelance journalism,” download the results as a .csv file, and import that into the Google spreadsheet I use to track my expenses.

There, I still need to piece apart payments, reimbursements and different categories of expenses. But in general I’m only looking at half an hour of copying and pasting to know how I made my money and where I spent it–assuming I didn’t forget to tag a transaction in Mint, which has happened more than once.

Whether the results make me happy is another thing entirely. In this case, my problem is a June that fell between too many clients’ payment timetables and also suffered from a snakebit May for story pitches… well, let’s just say the resulting paltry income might suggest that I got a lot more done around the house than I actually did.

Fortunately, I had two large checks arrive in the mail July 1, so Q3 is off to a fine start. At least, that’s what I’m telling myself now.

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Weekly output: financial and tax insecurity, Solo drone, future of radio, lost location apps

My trip to the NAB Show ended with a red-eye flight home to the East Coast, something I don’t think I’ve done for business travel since 1996. Let’s just say I can’t rally from the experience as well as I did back then.

Yahoo Tech tax-return fraud post4/14/2015: The Other Reason Tax Prep Should Make You Nervous, Yahoo Tech

I had meant to file this piece about financial-account security and tax-refund fraud before heading out to National Airport for the first of two flights to Vegas but instead pretty much wrote the whole thing on the ORD-LAS segment.

After reading it, please look over last year’s tax-time column: a recount of how Intuit, the company whose weak security helped grease the skids for a fair amount of identity-theft refund fraud, has worked to ensure it won’t face competition from federal or state governments when it comes to online tax prep.

4/15/2015: 3D Robotics’ Solo Drone Can Fly Circles Around You, Yahoo Tech

I’m still not sure what possessed 3D Robotics to debut this drone at a convention for the broadcast media, but I thought the product fascinating enough that it was worth writing up the experience. My one disappointment: Nobody besides my editor seems to have picked up on my “a Solo can shoot first” line.

4/15/2015: The Journalists Panel, NAB Show

My primary reason for going to the NAB Show was to participate on this panel, in which longtime radio exec Jeff Simpson quizzed Radio World editor Paul McLane and I about the competition AM and FM stations face from online alternatives. I emphasized locality: Stations should try to sound like where they are, something a worldwide app like Pandora can’t do. If only more commercial FM stations would follow my advice when it comes to music programming.

4/19/2015: How location-aware app can get lost on WiFi, USA Today

I’ve touched on this topic before, but this time I had the benefit of talking to some smart mobile-app developers who clued me into some important differences in how location-based apps work in iOS and Android.

I survived doing our own taxes (I think)

Over the last few weeks, I did the one thing I was sure I’d never do after leaving the Post: prepare my own taxes instead of paying a tax professional to do the work.

I’d outsourced my tax prep over the last three years with generally satisfactory results. But this time around my tax guy had raised his rates while my own financial situation had not gotten more complex; I felt like I had finally disciplined my once moronic, then merely slovenly accounting; it seemed wrong to go four years without even looking at a category of software millions of Americans do battle with every spring.

1099s and TurboTaxAnd so I renewed my acquaintance with Intuit’s TurboTax for the first time since 2011–not as a reviewer, but as a paying customer. It went better than I’d feared.

The biggest upgrade from my earlier agonies was effective record-keeping: I’d entered every cash expense last year into a Google spreadsheet on my phone within hours or, at worst, days, then imported business credit-card transactions into the same sheet every quarter. Between that and being able to consult last year’s return for guidance on what should go where, I had the outlines of my Schedule C knocked out in shockingly little time.

That’s a great reason to go to a tax pro in the first place: If you don’t know to do this stuff, you need somebody who can coach you. The results don’t just help at tax time, but throughout the year.

TurboTax’s ability to import tax forms for all of our mutual funds–something I’ve complimented in earlier reviews–was a great time-saver. And seeing each investment firm’s numbers flow into our return meant I got a direct look at the tax hit inflicted by some actively-traded mutual funds versus index funds. Ouch.

I was relieved to see that the stupid date-validation bugs I’d complained about in 2011 were gone–well, in most of the app.

Did I play this unnecessary game of tax-code-optimization as well as I could? I believe I did, but I won’t know for sure until after we actually file. Yes, although the 1040 and our assorted alphabetical schedules are done, I opted to file an extension. I will be dropping a sizable chunk of money into my SEP IRA to chisel down our tax bill, and I’d rather not completely clean out my account in the process.

I also did our Virginia taxes in TurboTax. Then I deleted that return after writing down the total it had calculated and the two numbers I’d need to put down on my state return. Intuit may have convinced a gullible General Assembly to scrap the state’s free iFile site in 2010, but that doesn’t mean I need to reward its successful regulatory capture with my own business when state taxes aren’t that hard and I can always file on paper.

 

 

Weekly output: tax prep, Google Glass, Heartbleed, Nearby Friends, online banking

This was a multiple-microphone week, and two of my three broadcast appearances involved shows that hadn’t booked me as a guest before. That’s good.

In other news: Happy Easter!

4/15/2014: The Strange and Successful Campaign to Make Taxes More Taxing, Yahoo Tech

A lot of material had to get left out of this already-long column denouncing the crony-capitalism campaign by Intuit and such Washington groups as Americans for Tax Reform and my former client CCIA to stop governments from letting citizens file and pay taxes at their own sites. (For example, these direct-filing sites cost little to run–$80,000 a year at California’s ReadyReturn, $150,000 for Pennsylvania’s soon-to-be-shuttered padirectfile.)  Comments debuted at Yahoo Tech late Tuesday afternoon, and as you can see I did not wait long to show up in them myself.

Speaking of feedback, you might as well see ATR’s latest post opposing IRS-run tax prep and stories, mine included, that suggest it would be a good thing… which, in a coincidence too weird for me not to disclose, was written by the guy who’s done my taxes since 2012.

4/16/2014: Google Glass and privacy, Al Jazeera

The news network’s Arabic-language channel had me on the air to talk about Google Glass and privacy issues. Since I was being translated into Arabic in real time, the producer emphasized that I speak slowly and simply–a challenge when my usual habit is to speak too fast on the air.

To the Point Heartbleed show4/16/2014: Heartbleed and Internet Security, To the Point

KCRW’s news show had me on to discuss the Heartbleed bug and how  open-source development broke down in this case. I wish I’d thought to compare major tech companies’ unwillingness to kick in any money to the OpenSSL Foundation with all the effort they’ve put into finding ways to pipe income to shell corporations in overseas tax havens.

Most of my input happened in the first 20 minutes or so, but keep listening to hear Internet Governance Project founder Milton Mueller discard some silly objections from the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation’s Daniel Castro to the government’s proposal to hand over supervision of the DNS root zone.

4/18/2014: Nearby Friends, WTOP

D.C.’s news station had me on the air for a few minutes via Skype to talk about Facebook’s new location-based option, its privacy implications and how it competes with such existing apps as Foursquare and the D.C. startup SocialRadar.

4/20/2014: Safety you can bank on: Chromebook, Linux, phone, USA Today

A relative’s question about whether he should buy a Chromebook for his online banking gave me an opportunity to note a couple of cheaper options to separate your Web financial transactions from your regular use: booting your computer off a Linux CD or flash drive, or using your bank’s app or the built-in browser on your phone or tablet.

Tax-time thoughts: now with slightly less incompetent accounting!

I have survived, I think, another tax season as a self-employed individual, and I’m increasingly convinced that if I keep doing this I will someday know what I’m doing.

Misc. incomeOnce again, my worst enemy was my inattentive and sloppy accounting. I was still forgetting to tag some expenses as business transactions in Mint until last spring, and It took me until mid-September to lock in the habit of logging every cash expense within minutes of it happening. Memo to Google: This would be easier if the Google Drive app could edit spreadsheets offline.

For cash transactions not properly noted at the time, I had to recreate records months after the fact. That involved the tedious, time-consuming routine of cross-referencing my calendar, e-mail and Foursquare check-ins.

Importing the credit-card purchases that Mint had recorded automatically was the same as ever, which is not good: Intuit’s site still provides no way to limit a transaction search to a date range short of hand-editing a Web address. Intuit, this is idiotic. Try spending some of the money you sink into astroturfed lobbying into adding this most basic of features.

Last year also saw client income (Sulia and WordAds) arrive via PayPal deposits, a first for me. I liked the invoice-free convenience of those payments, but I made two rookie accounting mistakes. The big one was not identifying all of the subsequent PayPal transfers to my bank as freelance income; the little one was using some of a freelancing-inflated PayPal balance to reimburse my share of an Airbnb apartment rented for Mobile World Congress instead of first moving the sum of those freelance payments to my bank, then covering the lodging expense with a separate withdrawal from my bank.

The fact that I realized most of these errors in late March by itself represented my single biggest accounting failure–I spent too much of 2013 in a financial fog, which is stupid. So after cleaning up last year’s records, I set aside a couple of hours last weekend to do the same for those from the first quarter of this year. Like I said: I do learn, just not quickly.