When someone in the local area makes the news for embezzlement it is not a matter of if they will show up at my office, it is when they show up. The same scenario plays out every time. Someone gets caught with her fingers in the cookie jar (usually for gambling) and charges are filed. The district attorney prosecutes the case. (Embezzlement cases make the news and the district attorney is a politician who can’t help getting on her knees to earn some votes.)
Most embezzlement cases end with a conviction, or more often, a plea agreement. The accused is eager to make a deal that keeps her out of prison. The DA and judge soil themselves with the familiar sentencing template. The defense attorney has no choice but to recommend her client goes along with the deal to stay out of jail.
I see the same agreements again and again. The prosecutor demands a brutal repayment plan to the victim, the judge rubber stamps the deals and the accused jumps up screaming, “I’ll take it!”
Then the IRS letter arrives three weeks later and the house of cards is ready to fall. Ill gotten gains, you see, are still required to be reported as income and the IRS watches these financial crimes cases very closely. When the defendant loses or takes a knee the IRS swoops in for their share of the pickings. All that unreported income is now taxed with penalty and interest added. And no money to pay for it.
I settled back with a good book on a quiet New Year’s Eve back in the early days of my accounting practice. Mrs. Accountant goes to bed early and was already tucked in. We rarely party or go out on New Year’s Eve. To us it is just another day.
My tax office back then was the remodeled basement so I was always close to work. Since the accounting part of my business was many years into the future, there wasn’t much to do around the holidays except enjoy some great reading. A few preparations for the upcoming tax season were as far as they could go.
Cable did not enter our house back then and network television did not interest me. The World Wide Web was just coming into existence and wasn’t a household phrase yet. Internet service was America Online accessed by dial-up. There were fewer distractions to drag a guy away from a good book in those days.
I was reading one of Will Durant’s Story of Civilization books that New Year’s Eve as memory serves. (I consider Will Durant one of the best writers to have ever live. His 11 volume Story of Civilization series is some of the best writing on human history ever.) My cup of tea was on the table next to my recliner where I was reading.
I lived in town for a few years back then to establish my practice. The living room had a bay window looking out toward the street. It was my custom to keep the curtains open so I could see if anything was happening outside.
A reader of The Wealthy Accountant recently offered me lunch. I have a weakness when it comes to food. Offer me a free meal and I am virtually a prostitute.
I accepted the offer of lunch for three reasons: 1. He is a local reader; 2. He asked nicely; 3. He wanted to discuss quitting his current job and starting a bookkeeping business as a side hustle. The last point is what got me. A local guy who wants to do bookkeeping is also a guy I might build a strategic alliance with to handle some of my bookkeeping work.
As we talked I shared stories like I do here. Eventually I got to a story I like to tell a lot, but failed to mention on this blog so far. I am not sure where to fit it in, but the story is so powerful it needs sharing. So I decided a story about making a list would be perfect for the Christmas holiday.
The year is 1991. Mrs. Accountant and I had a foster child that year. On Christmas morning I was to take him to his mother for a day. We got up early and dressed for the chilly morn. I lived in town at the time. His mother lived in apartments near the Valley Fair Mall, the first mall in America.
The mall is gone now, replaced by a variety of shops, a gas station, and a movie theater. The apartments still stand. As I drove down Memorial Drive we rounded the curve toward the apartments. The road was dead quiet. No cars anywhere. It felt peaceful. A major highway completely empty. It only happens once per year on Christmas morning. I stopped the car in the middle of the road and watched a lone snowflake land on the glass and melt. I leaned forward and looked up at the early morning sky out the windshield. The hair on my skin rose with gooseflesh.
“Where is everyone,” asked my foster child, a huge young man from a family with more issues than I care to remember.
“They are sleeping,” I said in barely a whisper. “Resting. But not for long. They are exhausted from all the running and spending. Resting for a day. Tomorrow they will be back, crazed as ever, credit card in hand.” I turned to my foster child, “Never be like them.”
There is a tavern near my office, owned by a client. It is Christmas Eve. I finish a few details in the office before heading home to be with my family. The lights are on at the tavern I do tax work for. I stop. There is only one customer in the place, another client.
All the TVs are off save one. That television has a game of basketball playing. The announcer’s voice is the only sound in the room. As the customer’s glass nears the bottom, the bartender refills it without a word. The words of Billy Joel come to mind:
“Yes, they’re sharing a drink called “Loneliness”, but it’s better than drinking alone.”
I wish them “Merry Christmas”, shaking their hands with a wide smile. They smile back, but their eyes do not. I turn and go home to my wife and daughters.
The next year on Christmas Eve I decided to visit a client in the nearby nursing home. She doesn’t come in anymore; she doesn’t make enough and isn’t required to file. The hallways are empty and silent. I walk to her room. I can hear the sound of my footsteps on the carpet. The sound of a small low-quality television is coming from her room.
The door is slightly ajar. I tap. Nothing. I slowly push the door open. My client turns, smiling at recognizing a familiar face. She says nothing. Words are hard for her; she is 97. She hasn’t had a visitor in decades. Her husband died thirty years ago. Her parents and siblings are residents of the local cemetery. She never remarried or had children. I hold her hand as a 1950s sitcom plays in black and white on the TV. Her hand is cold, clammy. She places her other hand on the top of mine. The warmth of my hand warms hers. No words are spoken.
I stand to leave and say, “Merry Christmas”, giving her a hug and a kiss on the forehead. She has a pale smile. A solitary tear streams from her rheumy eyes.
Three days later she dies.
I live and work in a rural farming community. A client of many years with a drinking problem left the house one Christmas Eve. He walked to the barn, the pain of life too much to bear.
The next morning the children wondered where dad had gone. They find their father in the barn hanging from the end of a rope. It is early Christmas morning.
Fifteen years after our foster child went home for good with his mother he notices me at my new office location and stops. He introduces me to his girlfriend. I don’t know what to say. He explains he was hooked on drugs and his mother was the one who introduced him to the drugs. It ended his college and football career. He is a big boy. He could easily have made it in the big league if things were different.
We shook hands and he left. I never saw him again. That was ten years ago.
When the world was half a thousand years younger all events had much sharper outlines than now. The distance between sadness and joy, between good and bad fortune, seemed to be much greater than for us; every experience had that degree of directness and absoluteness that joy and sadness still have in the mind of a child. So begins Johan Huizinga’s The Autumn of the Middle Ages.
That gapping dichotomy of joy and sadness only exists around Christmas now.
The office is growing quiet as Christmas approaches. I stare out the window behind my desk and wonder which client I will see this year. The employees are joking and laughing across the way. All day clients came in dropping off gifts. I don’t give gifts. It doesn’t matter. There was a gift on my desk this morning from my Secret Santa. Chocolate. Dawn, of course.
It is nighttime now. Mrs. Accountant and my youngest daughter are in bed. My oldest daughter sits on the couch watching a movie on her computer. She can see something is wrong. I fill my water glass nearly to the top with Jack and take a deep draught.
I carry the whisky to the front window and look up at the clear winter sky. After a few minutes I put on a light jacket and walk outside. My oldest gets mom and her sister. They watch out the window, afraid I might walk toward the barn.
The sky is filled with diamonds of sparkling points. The crisp winter air causes me to shiver. I wonder if one of those stars has a planet and on that planet is an intelligent creature looking up from her night sky and wondering if anyone is looking back. I wonder.
I tip the cup and drink deeply, allowing the liquid to burn as it goes down. The stars are not crisp anymore. The alcohol is doing its job of killing the pain and blinding my sight. The whisky is reaching its conclusion. I take a deep breath and wonder if my client is at the bar again this Christmas Eve drinking alone.
I wonder. I wonder what happened to our foster children, if they ever had a chance at life. I wonder.
I wonder if the old woman is in heaven with her husband now. I wonder if she ever found peace.
Tomorrow is Christmas Day. Memorial Drive will be as silent as a horror movie the day after the world ends. I will not be there to witness the event.
Two girls look out the window at their dad, one woman at her husband. They can see I am weeping. They know I carry a heavy burden, a burden of years loving and caring for the people I serve. They also know there is a mental and emotional price to pay for caring so deeply for the people you serve.
The whisky is gone now, but the pain remains. Clouds begin to obscure the stars and a few fluffy flakes of snow gently travel to the ground. Mrs. Accountant and the girls are at my side and nudging me to return to the warmth of our home. I know why they are there. They are worried I might not find my way into the house and instead walk to the barn.
They take me by the elbow and guide me back inside as I bid farewell for another year to a
I’ve been putting off this post for a while. Now is as good a time as any to get it done.
Now that I got the obvious joke out of the way it is time we discuss a serious issue facing us all: procrastination. When we least need it, our desire to finish, or even start, a task is put off. There are a variety of reasons for procrastination. The job might be distasteful, it might be a large project, or you might not fully understand the task.
Fear keeps us from acting. We all have had experiences where we put something off and put it off and put it off, only later to find out, once we started, the project wasn’t that bad after all. Many times procrastination begins when we are mentally overwhelmed by the task. Either your to-do list is longer than Santa’s on Christmas Eve or you started a task and hit a road block. Once that dreaded file is put to the side it is in a kind of purgatory. Starting again is almost impossible.
There are various tricks I use to get massive amounts of work out the door. Rather than focus on different scenarios, I will hone in on issues surrounding my office work. We will deal with email, phone calls, social media, and tax returns. Think of my stack of tax returns as the pile of work in your office or the long to-do list at home.
Now is the time to start a tradition of sharing the best books I read over the past year. The first full year of The Wealthy Accountant is fast approaching. Each December as the year draws to a close I will list my three favorite books I read during the year. Many books I pick up from the library, but the best books really belong in your personal library to read and reread. If you are like me you keep books close at hand for research. There is still time to order from Amazon and have these books in your hand to fill in the quiet time during the holidays.
Some books I consider the best were already reported earlier. Of the three books recommended, there will be additional books mentioned that compliment the recommended book. Time is precious. Books are a must if you want to succeed and reach your goals. A good life starts with learning and books are the only way. Neither the internet nor formal training can do what books can. Sure, the internet, college, and formalized training are part of the learning process, a part you also need to seek out.
I read 30-50 books every year, depending on the size of the books. Reading is part of every day. Your schedule is just as tight as mine is. You still make time to eat, drink, breathe, and sleep. Time for books is as important as food. Food for the mind is vital. The short list allows you an opportunity to read the most books that convey a powerful message without reading as much as I do.
Over a hundred years ago an Italian economist made a discovery while in his garden. Vilfredo Pareto noticed on a pleasant 1906 afternoon that 20% of the pea pods in his garden produced 80% of his pea production. His interest piqued, Pareto wanted to know if this 80/20 ratio applied to other areas, including business. In every place he looked the ratio held. 80% of results came from 20% of the inputs.
Today we call this the Pareto Principle or the 80/20 Principle. The ratio isn’t perfect, but more of an approximation, somewhere around 4 to 1 or 5 to 1. And it happens everywhere, not just in business or an Italian’s garden! Think about it. You wear 20% of your clothes 80% of the time; use 20% of your home or apartment 80% of the time; eat the same food 80% of the time.
Illinois Tool Works is a large public corporation that has turned the 80/20 Principle into a profitable business plan. ITW buys smaller competitors on a regular basis and then sends in their teams to ramp up profitability by firing clients! Sort of. The 80/20 Principle says 80% of profits come from 20% of clients. Yup. It does. I ran the numbers in my own office. A small list of my clients brings in the bulk of profits. And ITW capitalizes on this fact to improve profitability in companies they purchase.
Think of your personal life. You spend 80% of your waking hours doing the same 20% of activities. If a normal day includes 20 activities, about 80% of the time will be spent on four of those activities.
Goodwill Industries of North Central Wisconsin provides a multitude of services to the poor in my community. Everything from help with medical, job search services, to the iconic Goodwill thrift store are there to benefit the poor. Another program is the Financial Information and Service Center, otherwise known as FISC. FISC provides personalized counseling in financial matters: bankruptcy, student loans, budgeting, credit card debt, and delinquent taxes.
Every year FISC calls me in to speak to their group. Counselors from around Wisconsin come to hear my message. Sometimes it is an informal presentation more along the lines of an inquisition (Q&A session). Other times we fill a large room and food is catered. A few of the counselors are clients as a result.
The FISC counselors are not tax professionals or even trained in tax matters. For their worst cases they refer their client to my firm. And so it was this past week. A man in his mid 30s had serious tax problems. When no one else can help there is always me. I take a limited number of impossible cases each year. These people have limited funds for my services so I charge a very low fee or just do it pro bono.