Goodbye January: New Year marks start of busy season

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As Big Ben struck 2018’s final bong, there were still more than 11.5m tax returns left to file before the 31 January deadline.

According to statistics HMRC released at the start of January, the Christmas period proved to be a prime opportunity to file tax returns. More than 2,600 taxpayers chose Christmas Day itself to submit their tax returns, with a peak 230 filers shirking Christmas lunch to file at 1pm. Boxing Day then saw a further 8,465 taxpayers file returns. 

HMRC’s post-New Year tax return update also solidified the swing towards online filing over paper submissions. At the time of HMRC’s statement, more than five million taxpayers have completed their returns online, which is 88% of the total returns filed.

But that leaves 5,542,000 taxpayers with less than a month to complete their returns before the 31 January deadline. It's a number not lost on accountants fielding new client enquiries or chasing information. The 48% outstanding returns should hit accountants like a cold January morning. Busy season is back. Say goodbye to January.

Every SA season gets less tolerable

Over Christmas, accountants found comfort in the comments section of an article which asked: ‘Are you a workaholic?’ Some appreciated the balance of working longer hours during the winter when they could bask in the summer months. But many others were like AccountingWEB regular Glenn Martin, who is now rolling up his sleeves after spending the autumn months focused on practice growth and bigger jobs rather than making his usual tax return head start. “I am now up against it a bit for January,” confessed Martin.

This means that tax returns for many accountants have become as much of an annual tradition as tasteless turkey. Martin continued that he believed he would end up working over the holidays as he hates being too busy in January, and has already got a few non-tax jobs booked.

AccountingWEB member Diana Miller summed up many accountants’ post-Christmas dilemma: “I would prefer, right now, to be sat up in bed with a good book and a steaming cup of coffee but feel the indignant fury of the client whose tax return might otherwise go in late is not worth the risk.”

Sure, the self assessment machine has become business as usual for accountants at this time of year, but with it comes workaholic tendencies. “Since SA started, it has been full 10-11 hour days every day, seven days a week post-Boxing Day all the way until the end of January,” wrote another AccountingWEB member.

Even the finance gains at the end become less rewarding as each year passes. “Every year SA season seems to get less tolerable: the pointless constant chasing after those perennial 'leave it to the last minute' clients, a cull of which is way overdue,” continued the member. 

And if they're anything like Nottingham-based Coalesco they're operating a six-day a week office to dislodge the annual tax return logjam.

Early birds get a peaceful January

However, the ‘New Year, new me’ mantra has come true for some quick-off-the-mark accountants. Having stuck steadfastly to last year's New Year self assessment resolution, a number of accountants spent the Christmas period filing their final returns.

Small practice owner and AccountingWEB blogger Susan Rahman typifies this kind of accountant. Through meticulous planning, she challenged herself to complete all her tax returns by the 24 December.  

In recent years, there has been a trend for AccountingWEB members to front-end their tax returns like this. Blighted by years of client chasing, we've seen accountants implement strategies to ease the January rush and get information earlier. So much so, last year this correspondent even jumped the gun and predicted the end of the January rush.

What's clear from AccountingWEB members posting their current self assessment statistics (something of an annual tradition on Any Answers), the early bird trend has continued this self assessment season too.

AccountingWEB regular Matrix is one member with reason to celebrate. With over a month to go at that point, they only had five returns not started. But a comfortable position like that in January comes with hard graft. “It feels like I have been doing tax returns forever though,” added Matrix.

Ireallyshouldknowthisbut, who in mid-December had 284 filed with only 27 not in, put their self assessment groove down to not taking on “perpetual last minuters’ in December and January, setting an October deadline, enforcing fines to known tardy clients and nagging reminders from April.

Meanwhile, AccountingWEB reader Jane Evans asks her clients to “help her” achieve her Christmas deadline by bringing in their papers in plenty of time and not bending to disorganised clients.

“Last year I sacked a friend from being a client as they did not honour their promise to be better following the previous year's 29 January effort," said Evans. "We got to early December and I told them that they needed to find a new accountant.”

It'll soon be over

But for all the stresses January brings and the strategies firms adopt to make these months palatable, there is a common motive that unites both approaches: looking forward to life after 31 January.

It’s something Glenn Martin hasn't lost sight of. “I don't mind working extra in the winter if it means I don’t have to in the spring and summer months leaving me time to enjoy myself and do my hobbies. Putting the extra hours in January also gets your billing up so you can pay for the Christmas you have just had or to slap down a deposit on a holiday for the summer.”

Now that we're more than a week into the new year how many tax returns have you got left? Are you feeling confident or will you be burning the midnight candle up to the 31 January? 

About Richard Hattersley

Richard Hattersley

Richard is AccountingWEB's Practice Editor. If you have any comments or suggestions for us get in touch.

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