As a self-employed person, you may not feel keeping business records is the most exciting activity compared to making sales and growing your business.
But good digital record-keeping – with invoices, expenses, receipts and other information – isn’t just critical for helping you meet your tax obligations.
It can empower your decisions, helping your business grow and become more efficient too.
Cloud accounting software has transformed the record-keeping environment for all businesspeople, including the self-employed, by making it much easier to store and analyse financial information.
This article will look at what data self-employed people need to record and why. It will also show how keeping digital records can help you grow your business and make it more efficient and profitable.
Here’s what we cover:
- Why self-employed people should keep financial records
- What records to keep when self-employed
- Making Tax Digital and record-keeping
- How digital record-keeping saves time and money
- Final thoughts on digital record-keeping
Why self-employed people should keep financial records
As a self-employed person, you must keep records so you can file your Self Assessment tax return correctly.
You don’t need to send your records with your tax return, but you will need them to calculate your profit or loss. You may have to pay interest and penalties if your figures are wrong and you don’t pay enough tax.
HMRC may also check your records to ensure you’re paying the correct amount, so you must be able to produce them if requested.
But record-keeping isn’t just about tax.
You should look at efficient record-keeping as positive for the health of your business.
Fast and easy access to accurate and up-to-date information helps you track the financial position of your business and improve your decision-making.
For example, efficient record-keeping can help you:
- Keep costs within budget
- Accurately price your goods and services
- Reinvest any surplus income
- Decide how to allocate your resources most effectively and efficiently.
Andy Gibbs, head of group technical at TaxAssist Accountants, says this data is also “incredibly useful” in helping to determine which clients and activities make you money.
You’ll also need clear, up-to-date records such as income, cash flow, costs and assets if you want to get funding from banks or other lenders – or if you want to sell your business assets.
What records to keep when self-employed
In the UK, self-employed people need to keep records of:
- All sales and income
- All business expenses
- VAT records if you’re VAT registered
- PAYE records if you employ people
- Information about personal income
- Any grants you have claimed, such as those from the government.
You must ensure your records are accurate and keep proof such as receipts for goods and stock, bank statements, sales invoices, till rolls and bank slips.
Catherine Livingstone is a partner at accountants Wylie & Bisset. She says it’s essential to have up-to-date financial information to support business decisions such as setting prices.
Analysing income and expenditure by category shows whether your business has made a profit or loss in the year, and whether you’re spending too much in any areas.
Catherine says: “You should also keep a record of asset and liabilities, to see whether there is any tax impact. For example, are any capital allowances available on assets purchased?”
The impact of your accounting method
Cash accounting involves simpler record-keeping compared to accrual (also known as traditional) accounting.
If you use the cash accounting method, you should record income and expenditure when you receive and pay out monies.
If you use accrual accounting, you record your income when you earn it, and expenditure when it is due. You also need to keep additional records to those mentioned above.
These should enable your tax return to include:
- What you’re owed but have not yet received
- What you’ve committed to spend but have not paid for, for example, an unpaid invoice
- The value of stock and work in progress at your accounting year-end
- Your year-end bank balances
- How much you’ve invested in your business over the year
- How much money you’ve taken for personal use.
Andy says: “Although cash accounting can appear simpler, traditional accounting will provide you with more detailed information on the health of your business.”
Making Tax Digital and record-keeping
From 2026, if you’re self-employed, Making Tax Digital (MTD) for Income Tax Self Assessment will require you to store records of all your business income and expenses and submit tax returns digitally.
Catherine says: “The impact of MTD is that you will need to update your records digitally and submit the information to HMRC quarterly.
“If you are already keeping records up to date on a digital system, you are part way there. If you have a manual system, this will be a big change.
“But there are lots of positives from moving to digital records that will help your business.”
Making Tax Digital aims to simplify the tax system.
It should help you save time and streamline your business admin, improve accuracy, improve data safety, and ease collaboration with accountants and clients or customers.
You need to follow the MTD for income tax requirements from:
- 6 April 2026 if you have an annual business or property income over £50,000.
- 6 April 2027 if you have annual business or property income over £30,000.
To meet the requirements, you’ll need software that works with MTD for Income Tax. The software must allow you to:
- Create and store digital records of each business transaction
- Send quarterly updates of your total business income and expenses
- Confirm end of period statements
- Make your final declaration through your compatible software.
If you have more than one business – for example, you’re a landlord and a builder – you must keep separate records and make distinct submissions for each.
After submitting an update, you’ll be able to see an estimate of your tax bill in your software.
You can also send updates or adjustments more frequently, for example, if you want to understand how a significant business receipt or expense affects your estimated tax bill.
Say you use your business premises as your home, you may need to adjust the expenses you claim in proportion to their non-business use. To do this, create a digital record for the expense, and adjust the amount claimed by this proportion.
You have one month from the end of the standard quarterly period to send your submission or pay a late submission penalty.
If you haven’t yet started preparing for MTD, there’s no time like the present.
Andy says MTD is the biggest shake up to the UK’s tax system since the introduction of Self Assessment in nearly 30 years and will affect millions of self-employed individuals.
“Although this change can seem daunting, it has the potential to add value to your business, and improve visibility of your financial position,” he says.
“If you haven’t yet adopted digital record keeping, now is a great time to start making the switch.”
How digital record-keeping saves time and money
Finding the information you need to fill in your tax return will likely be much harder and slower if you don’t hold it digitally.
You may also need to access your records quickly for other reasons such as applying to professional bodies, entering awards, or applying for a business loan.
Self-employed people are increasingly moving to cloud accounting software, which hosts your information on remote servers.
These make your accounts and records instantly available, 24/7, anywhere. It can give you more and instant detail about your profit and loss, cash position and other key financial indicators.
It’s easy to upload receipts, invoices and other records to the cloud, and retrieve them quickly, so you no longer have to worry about storing bits of paper and looking through filing cabinets.
Your accountant can access your up-to-date records whenever they need, making your accounting process much more efficient.
Catherine says: “Keeping digital records in cloud-based accounting software is much quicker than keeping manual or Excel records – items can be processed at the touch of a button and it significantly reduces the chance of errors.”
Digital record-keeping through accounting software can also help reduce the cost of keeping your business records by making data entry and reporting faster, and more efficient, while reducing manual errors.
You can also integrate accounting software with external systems, such as electronic filing for tax returns and online banking, which can help capture and organise key information automatically.
And it can support faster, more agile strategies.
Catherine says: “Having accurate and up-to-date financial information allows you to make better, faster decisions. For example, if your costs are rising, you can review your sales prices quicker if you have that information to hand.”
Digital record-keeping through the cloud can allow you to work more closely with your accountant on your finances too, so you can focus more on building your business.
So long as you upload accurate, timely information, all you have to do is invoice clients.
Final thoughts on digital record-keeping
Keeping records digitally and in the cloud brings transformational advantages for self-employed people.
It makes it easy for you to keep comprehensive records in an accurate and up-to-date way, speeding up your tax and accounting processes.
And it brings powerful benefits in accessing, organising and analysing the information to help you make quicker, better decisions – then get back to activities that add value to your business.
All you have to do is ensure the information you enter is timely, complete and meaningful enough that you and others can use it to support effective decision-making.
This makes digital record-keeping a crucial tool in today’s rapidly evolving environment, no matter the size of your business.
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