Today’s business technology is both powerful and restive. No matter how “feature rich” a software solution or hardware asset may be, there’s always another upgrade around the corner. In other words, it’s just a matter of time before your company’s next IT project.

When that day arrives, watch out for “scope creep.” This term refers to the tendency of a project’s objective (or “scope”) to gradually expand while the job is underway. As a result, the schedule may drag and dollars may go to waste.

Common culprits

A variety of things can cause scope creep. In many cases, too few users give input during the planning stage. Or misunderstandings may occur between the project team and users, obscuring the purpose of the job.

Excessive implementation time undoes many projects as well. As weeks and months go by, business processes, policies and priorities tend to change. For a new system to meet the needs of the business, the project’s scope needs to be executable within a reasonable time frame.

Ineffective project management is another common culprit. Scope creep often arises when a project manager underestimates the complexity of the tasks at hand or fails to adequately motivate his or her team.

5 steps to success

To stop or at least minimize scope creep, follow these five steps:

1. Distinguish “must-haves” from “nice-to-haves.” Draw a red line between the functionalities your business absolutely must have and any added features that would be nice to have. Schedule the prioritized requirements in the form of phased deliverables during the project’s life cycle. Add “nice-to-haves” to the final phase or, better yet, defer them to future projects.

2. Put agreed-on deliverables in writing. Use a Statement of Work document to clearly outline the stated project requirements. Be sure to cover both those that are included and those that aren’t. Have everyone involved sign off on this document.

3. Divide and conquer. Segregate the project into small, manageable phases. As it proceeds, continue to review and sign off on each phase as it’s delivered, following an adequate testing period.

4. Introduce a formal change management process. If someone demands a change, ask him or her to rationalize the request in writing on a change order form. Then analyze the potential impact, estimate the added cost and time, and obtain consensus before proceeding. Adhering to this step typically eliminates many low-priority demands.

5. Anticipate some scope creep. It’s a rare project, if any, that proceeds exactly as planned. Allow for some scope creep in your budget and timeline.

Head-on approach

Improving your company’s technology should be cause for excitement and, eventually, celebration. Unfortunately, it too often brings anxiety and conflict. Tackling scope creep head on can help ensure that your IT projects go more smoothly. Our firm can help you assess the financial impact of any technology solution you’re considering and, if you decide to proceed, set a budget for the job. Contact us at 205-345-9898 or info@covenantcpa.com

© 2019 Covenant CPA

While the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) reduces most income tax rates and expands some tax breaks, it limits or eliminates several itemized deductions that have been valuable to many individual taxpayers. Here are five deductions you may see shrink or disappear when you file your 2018 income tax return:

1. State and local tax deduction. For 2018 through 2025, your total itemized deduction for all state and local taxes combined — including property tax — is limited to $10,000 ($5,000 if you’re married and filing separately). You still must choose between deducting income and sales tax; you can’t deduct both, even if your total state and local tax deduction wouldn’t exceed $10,000.

2. Mortgage interest deduction. You generally can claim an itemized deduction for interest on mortgage debt incurred to purchase, build or improve your principal residence and a second residence. Points paid related to your principal residence also may be deductible. For 2018 through 2025, the TCJA reduces the mortgage debt limit from $1 million to $750,000 for debt incurred after Dec. 15, 2017, with some limited exceptions.

3. Home equity debt interest deduction. Before the TCJA, an itemized deduction could be claimed for interest on up to $100,000 of home equity debt used for any purpose, such as to pay off credit cards (for which interest isn’t deductible). The TCJA effectively limits the home equity interest deduction for 2018 through 2025 to debt that would qualify for the home mortgage interest deduction.

4. Miscellaneous itemized deductions subject to the 2% floor. This deduction for expenses such as certain professional fees, investment expenses and unreimbursed employee business expenses is suspended for 2018 through 2025. If you’re an employee and work from home, this includes the home office deduction. (Business owners and the self-employed may still be able to claim a home office deduction against their business or self-employment income.)

5. Personal casualty and theft loss deduction. For 2018 through 2025, this itemized deduction is suspended except if the loss was due to an event officially declared a disaster by the President.

Be aware that additional rules and limits apply to many of these deductions. Also keep in mind that the TCJA nearly doubles the standard deduction. The combination of a much larger standard deduction and the reduction or elimination of many itemized deductions means that, even if itemizing has typically benefited you in the past, you might be better off taking the standard deduction when you file your 2018 return. Please contact us with any questions you have at 205-345-9898.

© 2019 Covenant CPA

In the restaurant industry, where long hours and thin profit margins are the norm, owners and managers often lack the time and resources to focus on fraud. Unfortunately, restaurants can provide crooked employees, customers and vendors with plenty of opportunities to steal. So you need to be able to recognize fraud threats — and nip them in the bud before they lead to heavy financial losses.

Opportunity on the house

Many restaurants have high transaction volumes but lack the technology linking point-of-sale, inventory and accounting systems. This leaves gaps for fraudsters to exploit. Employees could, for example, provide food and drinks to friends without entering the sales — or ring up only a portion of friends’ bills. They might issue voids or refunds when there was no original sale and pocket the proceeds. Or they could overcharge customers by, say, charging for premium beverages but serving cheaper alternatives.

Although it’s less common, intangible property theft is another risk. Your restaurant may use proprietary recipes and confidential marketing plans to compete in the dog-eat-dog world of food service. If a departing employee takes such secrets to a rival, it could threaten your restaurant’s survival.

Back-office book cooking

Owners often employ bookkeepers to manage back-office operations but may neglect to give proper oversight. Such an environment provides criminals — or even ordinary people experiencing unusual financial pressures — with opportunities to cook the books. In one frequently seen scheme, the bookkeeper creates a fake vendor account, submits and approves fraudulent invoices, then directs payments to a bank account he or she controls.

Even when bookkeepers are honest, the invoices they process may not be. It can be hard for managers to keep track of the daily stream of food, beverage and supply deliveries. Vendors might exploit such chaos by inflating their bills to reflect more or pricier items than they actually delivered. When vendors collude with restaurant employees, particularly receiving or accounting staff, theft can exact a heavy financial toll.

Ingredients for success

Successfully combatting restaurant fraud takes a multipronged approach. If you haven’t already:

  • Integrate your accounting, inventory and sales systems,
  • Use loss prevention technology to detect suspicious transactions such as excessive voids,
  • Process credit cards with EMV (chip) readers,
  • Conduct background checks on new hires,
  • Train supervisors to recognize red flags,
  • Set up a confidential fraud reporting hotline, and
  • Install video surveillance throughout your restaurant.

Also engage a CPA to review your financial records at least once a year for errors and discrepancies, and consider having this outside expert conduct occasional surprise audits. Contact us for assistance at 205-345-9898 or info@covenantcpa.com.

© 2019 Covenant CPA

If you run your business from your home or perform certain functions at home that are related to your business, you might be able to claim a home office deduction against your business income on your 2018 income tax return. There are now two methods for claiming this deduction: the actual expenses method and the simplified method.

Basics of the deduction

In general, you’ll qualify for a home office deduction if part of your home is used “regularly and exclusively” as your principal place of business.

If your home isn’t your principal place of business, you may still be able to deduct home office expenses if 1) you physically meet with patients, clients or customers on your premises, or 2) you use a storage area in your home (or a separate free-standing structure, such as a garage) exclusively and regularly for your business.

Actual expenses 

Traditionally, taxpayers have deducted actual expenses when they claim a home office deduction. Deductible home office expenses may include:

  • Direct expenses, such as the cost of painting and carpeting a room used exclusively for business,
  • A proportionate share of indirect expenses, such as mortgage interest, property taxes, utilities, repairs and insurance, and
  • A depreciation allowance.

But keeping track of actual expenses can be time consuming.

The simplified method

Fortunately, there’s a simplified method that’s been available since 2013: You can deduct $5 for each square foot of home office space, up to a maximum total of $1,500.

For example, if you’ve converted a 300-square-foot bedroom to an office you use exclusively and regularly for business, you can write off $1,500 under the simplified method (300 square feet x $5). However, if your business is located in a 600-square-foot finished basement, the deduction will still be only $1,500 because of the cap on the deduction under this method.

As you can see, the cap can make the simplified method less beneficial for larger home office spaces. But even for spaces of 300 square feet or less, taxpayers may qualify for a bigger deduction using the actual expense method. So, tracking your actual expenses can be worth the extra hassle.

Flexibility in filing

When claiming the home office deduction, you’re not locked into a particular method. For instance, you might choose the actual expense method on your 2018 return, use the simplified method when you file your 2019 return next year and then switch back to the actual expense method thereafter. The choice is yours.

Unsure whether you qualify for the home office deduction? Or wondering whether you should deduct actual expenses or use the simplified method? Contact us at 205-345-9898. We can help you determine what’s right for your specific situation.

© 2019 Covenant CPA

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