Organize Your Personal Finances With These 7 Accounting Tricks

By Fergus Cleaver

Whether you’re just starting out on the road to financial independence, getting ready to hang up your hat and retire, or somewhere in the middle, your personal finances could probably use some polishing.

You don’t need to hire an accountant for that—but you could stand to bone up on some of the tips and tricks that accountants follow with their own clients. (Hey, who said advice wasn’t free?) Start with these seven.

1. Spend Less Than You Earn

This is the golden rule of personal finance. As any accountant will tell you, spending more than you earn is unsustainable by definition.

That doesn’t mean curbing your spending is easy, of course. The world is full of financial temptation, from big-ticket splurges like first-class upgrades to drip-drip-drip money pits like lattes and takeout lunches.

One easy and painless way to control your spending is to set budgets for the spending categories that give you the most trouble. For instance, if you’re prone to eating out when your cupboards are fully stocked at home, set a strict weekly restaurant spending budget. If you occasionally catch the online shopping bug, load your Amazon gift card with a predetermined amount at the beginning of the month and stop spending once it’s gone.

2. Keep Your Receipts

Document, document, document. It sounds like a pain, but keeping even the smallest receipts can help you avoid big financial problems down the line, from overcharges by shady vendors to identity theft that threatens to drag down your credit score or drain your bank account.

You can avoid drowning in receipt paper by accepting emailed receipts whenever possible—lots of vendors now offer this option, and more follow every day. And you don’t have to save your receipts in perpetuity; once you receive your bank account or credit card statement and verify that each purchase is accurate, you can safely discard them.

3. Be Tax-Efficient

Everyone needs to pay their fair share of taxes—but only their fair share.

Tax law is complicated and jurisdiction-specific; what applies in one part of the world is irrelevant in another. That said, for most consumers, tax efficiency starts with maximizing contributions to tax-advantaged retirement accounts and spreading out windfalls (such as stock sales) to minimize tax obligations in any given year. Other tax-efficiency strategies apply to smaller groups—for instance, international travelers who make large purchases overseas should always apply for VAT rebates from their host governments.

4. Set Aside Funds for a Rainy Day

Do you have an emergency fund? You need one. A sudden medical emergency, or job loss, or unexpected home expense—any of these things can completely upend your personal finances and require months or years of sacrifice to redress.

The ideal emergency fund is sufficient to replace at least six months’ income. The sooner you start, the sooner you’ll get there; try to set aside 2–5 percent of your income each month until you hit your goal.

5. Prepare for the Unexpected

An emergency fund can help with unexpected big-ticket expenses, but what about truly catastrophic events, like the loss of your car or home? That’s what insurance is for.

As a general rule of thumb, every major asset (including your life) needs insurance protection. Though insurance premiums certainly eat into your disposable income, that’s a small price to pay for peace of mind and a valuable fallback that hopefully you’ll never need to use.

6. Seek Out Extra Income Sources

No, this tip isn’t about papering over disappointing figures with “creative accounting.” It’s about legitimately increasing your personal revenue—and, ultimately, the financial resources at your disposal—by seeking out sources of extra income.

Everyone has underutilized talents. Everyone. And, thanks to the internet, everyone with a broadband connection can monetize those talents. Whether you’re an aspiring graphic designer (99Designs), video producer (Upwork), or craftsperson (Etsy), you can find a paying outlet for your creativity. The hardest part is getting started; after that, you simply need to let your passion guide you.

7. Embrace Transparency

By and large, accountants are serious professionals who fastidiously adhere to solemn ethical codes and complex financial regulations. Regrettably, the guild has a less-than-pristine reputation thanks to a (very small) handful of bad apples who make unsavoury headlines with their periodic misconduct.

Any accountant worth his or her salt (not to mention his or her practice license) will tell you that transparency is to be prized above all else—not just when it’s legally required, but because it’s the right thing to do, and because it’s very often the antidote for conflict and uncertainty.

In the private sphere, financial transparency means being open and honest with those closest to you: your spouse or partner, children, close relatives. Money doesn’t have to dominate your private conversations, but you should absolutely follow some basic ground rules of disclosure. And, to avoid losing sight of goals and progress in the mess of other obligations you no doubt have, schedule regular check-ins with your partners in financial planning.

Are you ready to organize your personal finances?

Fergus Cleaver – Partner at Cleaver Partners, Auckland

Fergus Cleaver is a New Zealand-based accountant with more than a decade of Fergus Cleaverexperience in the field. He is a shareholder in Auckland-based Cleaver Partners and an effective advocate for dozens of clients, including some of New Zealand’s top corporate names.

Cleaver grew up on New Zealand’s North Island. He attended the University of Auckland, where he majored in business and minored in economics. He then moved halfway across the world to British Columbia, Canada, to study graduate-level economics at Simon Fraser University. He attended Simon Fraser for a year on a partial scholarship, immersing himself in Canadian culture and embracing the rigorous study of economics. Cleaver also improved his skiing skills on the slopes near the university, which he calls “some of the finest in the world.”

Upon returning to New Zealand, Fergus Cleaver accepted an entry-level position with his family’s accounting firm. In that first pivotal role, he put the reams of knowledge he’d absorbed in undergraduate and graduate study to work in the service of a diverse roster of clients. He credits the experience as an invaluable practical introduction to the oftentimes theoretical world of accounting and business financing.

“I applied myself at university and feel that I received a first-rate education, but nothing can prepare you for the reality of serving clients like actually serving clients,” says Cleaver. “With no disrespect to my outstanding instructors, I learned more during my first year on the job than in the half-decade I spent earning my degrees.”

Cleaver’s dedication to his craft paid off in 2013, when he became an equity partner at Cleaver Partners.

“By virtue of New Zealand’s modest size, our larger clients must do business internationally,” says Cleaver. “And that means we must have a robust understanding of the complex and fluid issues affecting companies that operate in a variety of environments around the world.”

Cleaver and his team see themselves less as buttoned-up accountants than as guides for clients overwhelmed by or unfamiliar with the expectations and requirements of the business world. Over the years, Cleaver has honed an approachable style that earns plaudits from fellow accountants. His plain-English explanations help clients understand what’s at stake in accounting and finance decisions that can seem inconsequential or even irrelevant—and his clients clearly benefit from his approach.

“When you explain these complicated or, frankly, boring concepts to clients in a way that they can truly understand, their eyes light up and you can tell they ‘get it,’” says Cleaver. “For me, that’s the most satisfying thing about what I do.”

During his time at Cleaver Partners, Fergus Cleaver has cultivated a vast array of accounting specialties. His core client services include:

  • Bookkeeping: Custom-tailored bookkeeping and accounting services for clients needing annual and periodic accounts for appraisal, cash flow, tax and other purposes.
  • Business financing: Customized business financing for clients at every stage of the growth cycle, regardless of industry or macroeconomic conditions.
  • Budgeting and financial forecasting: Incisive financial projections for a range of scenarios, all in the aim of maximizing budgeting flexibility and illuminating the potential outcomes of various business decisions.
  • Tax services: Cleaver provides clients with sound advice regarding taxation and tax preparation, with the ultimate aim of minimizing clients’ tax obligations within the constraints of national and international law.

Cleaver’s wide range of business advisory services also includes matters that indirectly impact business accounting, including management consulting and succession planning. Cleaver provides these services to New Zealand-based businesses in a diverse lineup of industries, including contracting and construction, travel agencies, trades, professional services, hospitality firms, freight and logistics companies, legal services providers and marketing and advertising companies.

When Cleaver is not putting in extra time at the office, which he admits happens far too frequently, he can be found traveling with his family, skiing his favorite slopes and advocating for sustainable development practices in New Zealand and across the world.

Fergus Cleaver is also active in the Auckland charity circuit. He gives generously to a number of causes dear to his heart, including local arts and culture organizations, children’s protection groups, social justice organizations for native peoples, disaster and humanitarian relief, animal welfare, poverty alleviation, science and technology investment and more. In addition to direct financial support, he provides accounting help and other financial services on a pro bono basis, and is always seeking new charitable endeavors to which to donate his time and skills.