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Bookkeeper overbooked but not raising fees

By Diane Loupe   |   April 11, 2013 at 4:32 PM   |   Comments

ATLANTA {WOMENSENEWS}-- Bookkeeper Dee Jay Beard's 17-client list reads like a telephone directory: hair salons, psychologists, interior designers, a gourmet food merchant, a man who sells hotel furniture, an antique furnishings store owner and an art dealer "who NEVER gives me his paperwork until the last minute."

On a recent morning, Beard is at Lucy's, a high-end grocery and gift store tucked away in the heart of Buckhead, Atlanta's most upscale neighborhood. As Aaron Neville croons "Tell It Like It Is" over the sound system, Beard is conferring with the owner's brother, who is trying to help his sister organize her office, amid cases of all-natural crunchy cookie chips and Lauri Joe's Southern Sweet and Spicy Cucumber Pickles.

After about an hour, Beard picks up an apple basket stuffed with cash register receipts for the month's work and stuffs them into a bag, to be processed at home later.

"Dee Jay was referred by a customer" about four years ago when her business was new, said Lucy's owner, Kim Wilson. "She came in and was able to help me get straightened out. We've grown so much."

Beard provides a variety of services. "Part of my job, I do advise people--if they ask me--how to beef up their business," admitted Beard. "But ONLY if they ask." She can recommend ways for some of her clients to run their businesses more efficiently. Her interior designer clients, for instance, often have trouble collecting money from their clients.

"I'm plenty booked, I'm not looking for business at all," said Beard, whose initials stand for Dorothy Jeanne.

Beard earns about $30,000 a year for what she considers a mostly part-time job. Her late husband's pension of $66,000 is her major income source.

Her bookkeeping income is slightly under the $34,759 median annual wages earned by about 1.2 million of the nation's bookkeeping, accounting and auditing clerks, according to a 2009 report by the U.S. Department of Labor. That wage is about $10,000 lower than the estimated $43,460 median annual wage for all workers.

Third Highest Earners

Beard's occupation category is the third highest among top-earning pink professions, behind nursing ($60,000 per year) and elementary and middle school teachers ($42,000). It is slightly more than secretaries and administrative assistants ($33,000) and retail sales managers ($30,000).

Robert Half, a professional staffing firm, estimates that bookkeepers will earn between $38,500 to 57,250 in 2013, a 3 percent increase, according to the National Bookkeepers Association. Head corporate bookkeepers will earn $43,500 to 59,250, more than regular corporate bookkeepers ($34,000 to $45,500) and more than corporate bookkeeping clerks ($29,250 to 39,500), the firm estimated.

Key areas of expertise for bookkeepers include an understanding of double-entry bookkeeping, payroll, basic taxes, QuickBooks software and MS Excel.

"Some days I feel it is full time, but it's more like three-quarters time," Beard said. "Also I think I under bill. I should be better about billing. I usually just go back and estimate." She is considering adding an app to her phone to help her keep track of the hours she works for each client. "I always have my phone."

But she admitted she does "a lot of stuff other than bookkeeping." For clients, she maintains a calendar of when everything is due, reminding them when to renew business licenses and pay certain bills. She helps gather information for her clients to pass along to their certified public accountants (CPA) so they can get their taxes done.

Beard considers herself a full-service bookkeeper, not an accountant. A CPA, she reasoned, has to keep up with all of the tax law changes, and "I didn't want to do that." A CPA can charge $100 to $200 per hour, Beard said, whereas she charges just $30 per hour. She thinks she could probably ask for more, but so many of her clients are small businesses, and so many of them have been hurting in the economic downturn that she has kept her rate the same for a while.

Path to Bookkeeper

Beard earned a bachelor's degree in journalism from Georgia State University, but graduated straight into the 1970s recession. She went to work for a local bank, which promised her a job in the public relations department. Soon after, her promised job was cut and she remained a banker. Eventually, she became an assistant branch manager, "which was unusual for women at that time," but she realized she "wasn't a banker-type person." Politically liberal, she disliked the conservatism of most of her colleagues and knew she couldn't raise a family working 60 hours a week, so she left after the birth of her first child.

During her childrearing years, she worked with her sister's pediatric practice, a part-time office job that grew but still allowed her to work a flexible schedule. After working in health care for more than 20 years, she began cobbling together bookkeeping jobs to go along with her part-time graduate studies in public policy at Georgia State University. Her daughter Emily, 30, works as an assistant communications director at a local law school, and her son Matthew, 33, works for a delivery service as training manager and driver.

Beard's clients "have different levels of need." Some she only visits once a month. One client, a psychologist, aims to handle her own work with QuickBooks, but she's just getting started, so still needs a little training.

Mondays and Thursdays, she works at a pediatric practice in an Atlanta suburb, coping with their antique computer system. There, she works to pay bills, get the payroll done and helps with insurance follow-ups. "They have lots of problems with getting insurance companies to pay," she said.

Another client, who buys furniture for hotels, "hates paperwork" and trusts Beard so completely, he gives her a key to his apartment while he's away and authorizes her to sign his checks.

Word-of-Mouth Business

Beard's clients seem to find her through word of mouth. A hairdresser client started her own animal rescue group, Paws and Whiskers, which traps, neuters or spays, then releases feral cats. "She's not great with computers; I'm helping with that," she said.

She picked up the Witzlib Fitness Studio as a client because another client, interior designer Martha Nicholson, works out there. She also does bookkeeping at a reduced rate for the nonprofit Georgia Women's Action for New Directions, helping with fundraisers and gathering grant information.

When she's not keeping books, Beard works for social causes. She is a member of the board of Georgians for Gun Safety, a group that lobbies in favor of stricter gun-control laws, an uphill battle in the conservative, Republican-dominated Georgia legislature.

Steve Sahlein, co-president of the American Institute of Professional Bookkeepers, a national certifying organization for bookkeepers since 1987, says more than 80 percent of his group's almost 30,000 members are women. He thinks the female domination of the ranks is due to the way businesses grow, eventually needing secretaries who are "almost always women." The secretary sends out invoices, processes and pays bills and takes care of the checkbook, doing the monthly bank reconciliation.

"In other words, the secretary is taking care of the books--i.e., is the de facto bookkeeper," said Sahlein.

"Bookkeepers tend to be very bright people who needed a job when they got out of college--a four-year school or community college--and, without specialized skills, could only get a job as a secretary," added Sahlein. Though more and more bookkeepers are graduates of two- or four-year college accounting programs, he said.

Beard thinks women dominate the job because of the demands of being a CPA. "CPAs must work really long hours in the beginning of their careers, and have more stress in general," Beard said. "Of course, it's also 'pink' because it's usually a middle-to-low paying job."

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