Goodbye Tom Fisher

This weekend, the Globe & Mail murdered a comic strip. Yup, much to the shock and surprise of all it’s fans, Fisher was laid to rest. I’ve been in a bit of a tizzy all day.

The Last Fisher Comic Strip

The Last Fisher

While I understand that comics don’t fit well on smart  phones and some tablets and so eventually all of them may disappear from all newspapers, , I still read my newspaper on paper (I guess I’m old-fashioned that way). I am quite puzzled as to why the Globe decided to drop the two Canadian series it carried (that were, apparently unique to the Globe and  appeared no where else) in favour of some imported crap (and some of the other stuff they kept IS crap).

The cartoonist, Philip Street, blogged about the end of the strip here at his blog Idiot Mittens.

I wrote him yesterday:

Dear Mr. Street:

Well, I was absolutely gutted to see Fisher disappear. I’ve been with the strip as regular reader since almost the first days (has it been that long?) and it’s been a regular part of my day, every day. (And I can’t tell you how many times I’ve asked my wife where are the cameras you’ve hidden in our house! I guess you can come over now and take them back <g>)(And I also have a child very much like Paul).

I cannot believe that the Globe decided to drop the two identifiably Canadian strips and keep imported dreck like “Pearls before Swine” (a strip that I refuse to even look at and have since the second week it ran).

Fisher has been a part of my morning (or evening if I didn’t get to the paper in. a.m.). I often would read it before anything else. Conversations with my wife often started off with “Have you seen Fisher today?” I even sent copies of a recent strip to fellow board members of the Association of Independent Consultants and it got a round of applause (the one where Fisher is tempted to become (freelance) consultant.

I’m going to miss all of the characters and all the groans, laughs, smiles, guffaws–and sighs and wry/sad moments as well when you tackled some more serious problems (like Ruth & Eugene’s infertility).

I hope that the characters will be given some life some other place and some other time and that you will be able continue to contribute to making every day start with a smile.

Anyways, thank you. It’s sad to see this strip go.

Farewell Tom Fisher.

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Are you SURE the problem’s your mortgage?

I normally don’t rant, but this radio advert I was listening to in the car on the way to a client just got to me the other day. It goes something like this:

Her: “Honey, how come we don’t have as much money as our neighbours?”

Him: “Don’t know dear. But Jim just refinanced his mortgage with Northwood and they gave him a great rate.”

Her: “So why don’t you call them?”

Him: “I will!”

Her: “Great! Let’s go to the restaurant and celebrate our new mortgage payments.”

[rant mode on]

Me: [yelling at the radio in the car] Uh, maybe that’s why you have no frickin’ money, honey?

Dear Northwood Mortgage, I can assure you that I won’t be calling you when it’s time to renew mine and I’m looking for a broker to arrange one.

This ad bothers me on just so many levels with all sorts of messages. It’s sexist. It promotes the idea that your home is a piggy bank that allows you to live beyond your means (and isn’t that part and parcel of the mortgage crisis that has brought the US economy to a screeching halt?) And don’t get me started on the concluding line “oh let’s go spend money we don’t have on eating out celebrating a lower mortgage rate we don’t have yet (and may not get)”; that’s part the ticks me off the most (yes, let’s encourange even more reckless behaviour in a period of economic instability).

[rant mode off]

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[PhotoCredit]Photo Credit: Loan Application by Eye Lens (via Stock.Xchng)

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Advice from the Wizard: Four Ways to Deal with Cross Border Chequing Charges

(Advice from the Wizard: Another in our practical, tactical advice series)

Canada_US_Flags

A couple of months ago, I was at a client doing the bank reconciliation when I noticed a charge on the account—a “cross-border cheque fee”. Now that’s something I’d never seen before, and it was quite fascinating because it was on a US dollar account.
Many Canadian companies (small and large) who purchase goods and services from the United States often have a US dollar bank account because it has simplified doing business with our Neighbours to the South, but this fee was something I’d never seen before—and it was, to my mind, and exorbitant amount—$40.00 for each cheque written that month.

After checking with both the CIBC (my client’s bank) and TD Canada Trust (my bank) I discovered that this was a new fee imposed by banks in the United States on any cheques issued by banks outside the US and that the Canadian banks were just passing along this charge their customers (although I suspect, with some markup added, since the CIBC was willing to reduce the per cheque fee if one bought a “package” of transactions—otherwise it’s $40.00 each and every time you write a cheque to a supplier in the US). This applies to cheques written on US-dollar or Canadian-dollar accounts.

Nobody at either bank could explain why this fee was being levied all of a sudden (and if anyone out there knows, I’d love to hear the reason. It can’t be to pay for all those bum mortgages, could it?)

I haven’t heard anything yet about Canadian banks charging a whopping premium to process incoming cheques from the United States or anywhere else on the planet (but I’d watch my mail from your bank if I were you. Our banks are no slouches when it comes to figuring out ways and means of maximizing service fee revenues!)

Any road, that’s a significant chunk of change right off your bottom line.

So what you do? Here’s a couple of options from the Wizard (and you may not even need your US-dollar account any more if all it was being used for was to send payments out of the country—which will save you a few more bucks in bank charges!):

1) Pay  with a credit card instead

(assuming that your supplier accepts them) On the plus side, you don’t have to have a second bank account and there is no cross-border cheque fee. On the other hand,

  • the exchange rate is calculated on the day the transaction clears, and with some purchases, that could be a significant amount and affect your overall margins on the transaction).
  • some companies in the United States surcharge credit card purchases (something not allowed on this side of the border) so you may not save that much money.
  • You may not wish to use a credit card.

2) Use Paypal if it’s available

You don’t have to have a PayPal account, but your supplier must have one, and that may not be the case, especially with larger companies that view Paypal as “just for individuals”. But on the other hand, you may be able to convince them to open one, since the service fees are much lower on PayPal then they are for most bank credit cards (but, if you’re they’re only Canadian customer, I wouldn’t really hold my breath).

3) Wire Transfer

Wire transfers are fast, and the money usually arrives in the supplier’s account within 24 – 48 hours of being sent, but I have seen the fee for a branch-prepared transfer range from $30-$45 for each transaction, so you really don’t save that much money with this route. On the other hand,

  • if you do transfer money often, and your bank has software that you can install on your PC to generate the wire transfer (most of the banks do, but some don’t), the rates can drop significantly. (If you have a  partner and require two signatures on cheques, you may not be able to use this option—check with your bank). This will also save you some time since you don’t have to shlep over to the bank to sign anything (although, you could do everything by fax—banks are still big on seeing actual signatures on some piece of paper before they withdraw money from your account).
  • your foreign-exchange costs are calculated on the date of the transfer is sent, if sent from a Canadian dollar account instead of US-dollar one and so you know your costs up front.

Wire transfers have one other issue. You must have all the details (of the receiving bank and bank account) correct because once the money is released and sent, it’s gone and there’s little or no chance of getting it back. I had a client once, that received money via wire transfer in error—we didn’t know who sent it and why and the bank didn’t know either—it arrived through a “mis-addressed wire transfer”. I have to think that this is a rare occurrence, but it does happen from time to time.

4) Bank Draft/Money Order

Last but probably best, is the venerable bank draft or money order. After talking to front line staff (the tellers) at both CIBC and TD Canada Trust, this appears to be the most popular (and least expensive) option—one that they are recommending to customers who don’t want to pay that high fee. Generally speaking, a bank draft costs between $7-$10 and can be prepared while you wait. Since the draft is drawn on a US subsidiary of the bank, it is not considered a foreign cheque by the receivers’ bank, so there is no additional fee being charged. (Once in a blue moon, if the person receiving the money is using a small regional bank or credit union, there may be a problem with an “out of state” cheque, but I haven’t seen that in quite a while).

As with the wire transfer, you know your exchange costs (or gains, if we happen to be above par that day) on the day that the draft is prepared.

If you want to save some time, some bank branches will allow you to send them a fax requesting that the money order or bank draft be prepared in advance and you can pick it up when you next visit the bank to do your regular banking.

If you buy goods or services from the US, I hope this help you save you a few dollars on your banking. If you’ve got any additional ideas, please don’t hesitate to add a comment below—I’d be glad to hear from you.

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[PhotoCredit]Photo Credit: Canadian & US Flags by aeropw (via Stock.Xchng)

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Branding Surprise

Crayon TipsAt our May 2012 Association of Independent Consultants (AIC) event,  we were discussing branding, and how the real and perceived experience with a person or product and service, generates the impressions that create the brand in the mind of your actual and potential clients.

After the speaker’s presentation, I decided to run a little workshop to see how my brand was perceived by the members attending the event (there are some advantages to being the President of the group). The speaker did say, that it is important to ensure that your perceived brand is what you want it to be—perception is reality, after all. And it’s quite possible that the message you think you’re sending to your potential clients is not the one they’re getting or perceiving—which means you need to change your message! And so, a bit of research is essential in seeing what message is being received vs what message you think you’re sending.

Earlier in the evening, we all had a chance to present our little “infomercial” about who we are and what we did and I was curious to see what brand message I was putting across. A number of the attendees had heard the message before but there were several who hadn’t and that’s a perfect group to survey and generate useful feedback.

The results were quite interesting. Most of the reactions were what I had hoped to hear (so I guess my message was getting across) there were at least two responses that I found quite interesting. The first was, that I had a “get it done” attitude and that this was a good thing, certainly attractive to any clients who were procrastinating about getting their books done (and I’m going to explicitly add this to my infomercial any other time I present it.) The other, was that I was a “low cost” solution because I was an expert.

I asked the person who suggested this to explain further. He said, that since I was an expert (or at least appeared to be) that it would take me much less time to complete my tasks than somebody who was less so, and that in the long run, I would cost him less even if I charge more per hour than a competitor at. Now that’s something I had never considered!

It pays to do some research and see how you really are perceived. What’s your brand? What do think it is? Have you checked recently to see if you are really perceived the way you think you are? I’d love to hear your experience—so please add your comment(s) below.

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[PhotoCredit]Photo Credit: Crayon Tips by laffy4k (via Flickr)

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If the shoe (doesn’t) fit…

Woman's legs and a shoeEarlier this month veteran blogger Chris Brogan, published a blog post called Don’t Take a Bad Deal. In that post, he wrote that recently he’d run into some tough times and as a result he accepted some “deals and offers that weren’t  my typical arrangement” in order to quickly generate revenue.  (In my experience, this is not an uncommon thing, for many entrepreneurs when they get stuck in a “cash flow interruptus” situation, to use a phrase favoured by one one my clients.)

Brogan then says that he affixed a kind of “mental chip on his shoulder” when working on the projects,  so no one was all that pleased with the results (neither him, nor the client). (I do suggest that you pop on over to Brogan’s blog and take a look at the rest of the post and the comments).

When I read this post, it reminded me of my earlier post (It’s in the contract. Isn’t it?) where I talked about taking on a project that wasn’t a perfect fit for reasons other than the actual work. (And while I’m not trying to make “turning down work” a theme of my writing, I think it is an important thing to think about when you’re an entrepreneur running any sort of  business).

What’s your “ideal client”?

One of my three words for 2012 is contemplate, and I’ve been doing a great deal of reading  this year. What struck me when reading Brogan’s piece is that he lost sight of his ideal customer.  A number of authors (like Escape from Cubicle Nation’s  Pamela Slim or The Referral Engine’s John Jantsch) have written about how important it is to identify this creature, but their focus is often on doing so in order to hone your marketing message, define your brand, or decide on where to network. (Jantsch also says that it’s important in ensuring that you make and receive the right referrals; more on that later).

Now I have always felt that one of the nicest things about working for yourself, is that you’re able to choose who you want to (and get to) work with, as opposed to when you work as an in-house employee (otherwise known around here as a “T4 wage slave”). And that’s your “ideal client”.

Life is much happier and the process  is much smoother if everyone is in sync—and that happens if I want to work for you and you want me there. And I’ll want to be there, if you fit that rubric of “perfect client” (whatever it may be—because my perfect client isn’t necessarily yours and vice versa). If you really don’t want to be there, then you do have an attitude issue or a “chip on your shoulder”—which the client will see. And as a result, you don’t have a good assignment and the client doesn’t get a good result (and you can’t get a glowing referral!) And in the long run, nobody is happy—and that’s no good.

When I attend networking events or participate in a tele-class or tele-coaching group, I admit to being very impressed by people who have clearly identified their ideal client—I heard one the other day where the consultant had an entire checklist of attributes that fully described the client; I confess that I have not so to the same degree.

Turn business down? Are you crazy?

(As Phineas from Phineas & Ferb, would say, “Yes, yes I am”. But that’s besides the point).

I receive a lot of my new business from referrals, especially from accountants who know my work and have a client that they know could use the services of a top-notch bookkeeper. Recently I received a referral from an accountant (newly met through a shared client) but I turned it down. Almost everything about the potential client was perfect, except for one thing—she worked out of her condo in downtown Toronto. I don’t like to take on clients in the downtown core; it seems that every time I’ve done it, it just doesn’t work out. I don’t know if it’s an urban-suburban thing, or timing,or just karma. I don’t think it’s the commute (I don’t mind getting in the WizardMobile for a hour-long drive out to the wilds of Caledon or Etobicoke, but somehow getting on the TTC and shlepping downtown just doesn’t do it for me).

Being able to identify your ideal client, and being able to pass that profile along to potential referrers, is important because it doesn’t waste anybody’s time. When I got the referral I did tell the referrer that, yes this was right in my wheelhouse (entrepreneur, semi-established-to-established, needed me once a month, etc), except for the location. Now he wasn’t offended (I hope) and maybe some other business will come my way but I do know that next time he wants to refer me or suggest me, he won’t do it when the client is downtown.

And that’s the way it should be.

Have you identified your ideal client? Taken any assignments with “less-than-ideal” ones? How did they work out for  you? I welcome your comments!

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[PhotoCredit]Photo Credit:  Leggy! by Arjun Kartha (via StockXchng)

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Family Day 2012 & Spring Training

Every year at this time of year, when the ground is covered with snow and its cold as heck, I heave a sigh of relief that spring training has sprung so far to the south.

And I remember the late Bart Giamatti:

“[Baseball] breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall all alone. You count on it, rely on it to buffer the passage of time, to keep the memory of sunshine and high skies alive, and then just when the days are all twilight, when you need it most, it stops.”

A. Bartlett Giamatti, Take Time For Paradise: Americans And Their Games

But for now,  hope springs eternal. Go Jays!

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[PhotoCredit]Photo Credit: Baseball Series 2 by ugaldew, via StockXchng

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I’ve joined the ranks of the “Pad People”

BlackBerry PlaybookYes, you’ve read that right—the Pad People, not the “Pod People” (Tablet people doesn’t really sound right, does it? Nobody’s made any movies about the “Invasion of the Tablet People”, now, have they?)

Two weeks ago I bought a Blackberry Playbook and have been playing around with it ever since. I originally started looking for a dedicated e-book reader, but after talking with several friends and colleagues, looking around on-line and Tweeting—I decided that a tablet was a better alternative, offering a bit more oomph for my bucks. (I was really afraid to spend that kind of cash for a single-purpose device and then spend some time kicking myself for NOT investing in one with more capabilities. Once Blackberry dropped the price to $299.00 Cdn, it was a no-brainer). I have to confess that I really haven’t pushed it’s capabilities too far just yet, but I know that I came home last week from a Fountain Pen Club meeting and both my wife and son were ecstatic over it. (Doesn’t it bother you when your family members get to play with your electronic toys before your do?) I picked up one of the 32-gig units (could’ve sworn I asked the guy at Staples for a 64 gig unit, but when I opened the box it was a 32 gig; maybe that was all he had left in stock, but I’m going to have to work on talking louder, I think). (Finding one in stock was an adventure in itself). So far, however, I’m really enjoying it; I feel like Captain Kirk every time I fire it up and start investigating what it can do.

So far, I’ve downloaded photos of most of my paintings, so I have a handy portfolio. And I’ve re-acquainted myself with the addictive nature of Tetris (and the Little Guy really enjoys “Need for Speed”). I’ve already come up with a few nifty uses for it down the road which utilize the camera to make videos.

Unfortunately, the current incarnation doesn’t download eBooks from any Canadian libraries (since they’ve all settled on Adobe DRM-protected content), but support for that is supposedly on its way, and if not, several writers on a couple of different forums have pointed out apps and solutions for that, if support is delayed too long.

Once the new OS comes out, I’ll have a further report. Stay tuned.

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My Three Words for 2012

Letters from a bookRecently, I read a blog post by my friend Daria Steigman of Steigman Communications about her three words for 2012—the three words that will guide her business for this year and in the future (and I invite you pop on over to her blog entry (Three Words for 2012: Crayons and Continuity) to see why Daria picked crayons, velco and abandon.

I’m not usually one for making and writing down any New Year’s resolutions but I have to admit that this year I’m more than tempted, largely because I’ve been finding (of late) that if I don’t write it down, it doesn’t get done. And Daria’s post got me to thinking—what should my theme(s) be for 2012. (And let’s hope that the Mayans were wrong and that we’ll all be around in January 2013 to review and discuss!)

Coming up with my first two words was pretty easy. but I was stuck for a while on the third. But I think I’ve come up with a pretty good trio. This year, my theme, my mantra, my story arc is:

“Connect, Complete, Contemplate”

Connect Both of my parents passed away in 2010 and for a big part of that year and 2011, I stopped being connected with various parts of my network (although I did get better connected with my siblings). Now it’s time to reconnect or make new connections and help to connect people to each other.

Complete I’m really good at coming up with ideas and starting projects, but I confess that execution has always been a problem; this year I’m working on completing the projects that I start rather than leaving half-done stuff (both personal and business) cluttering up the landscape. (Maybe that’s why I paint in watercolour not oil!)

(This, by the way, seems to be the most common resolution that I’ve seen floating around the Web this year.)

Contemplate (This was the one I had the most trouble deciding on). I’m going to put some more time this year towards thinking about my business and where I want it to go over the next few years. Nobody’s business stays constant—they all need to grow and change over time as the world we live in changes. (I’ve made that mistake before and have been left behind; I want to make sure that this doesn’t happen again.) I’ve also set for myself a pretty ambitious list of business books to read to help me along that road.

It was an interesting exercise to go through (having never done it before) and it’s one I highly recommend. Have you ever done anything similar? What are your words for this year?

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Photo Credit: “Fomentu la lectura” by tutu55 via Stock Exchng

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It’s in the contract. Isn’t it?

Signing a ContractClarity and precision are two of the watchwords of accountants and bookkeepers (although we sometimes have been accused of sacrificing the former in order achieve the latter!). But another place where these two words are important are in contracts, and we’re often called upon for our advice in these areas.

I was reminded of this recently after reading about a brouhaha between an author and her publisher. Doranna Durgin chronicles her problems with Canadian publisher Fitzhenry & Whiteside (F&W) on her blog and at the Writer’s Beware forum. Robert Sawyer takes an opposing view on the case at his blog. (I suggest that you pop on over to all three locations and check out the details).(Disclosure: I don’t know Ms Durgin, have never met her, nor read any of her books. I’ve never worked for F&W. On the other hand, I do know Rob (he’s a former neighbour) and I’ve read his books).

At the heart of the dispute is the interpretation of “in print” as specified in the contract. The book, Dun Lady’s Jess, was originally published by Baen in 1994; it went out of print a few years later. The F&W edition was a revamped and updated new version published 2007. If a book goes out of print, the publication rights revert to the author, who can then try to find another publisher if they so wish.

Durgin argues that in print in this contract means “available in brick and mortar stores” and that online availability (or that asking your local bookstore to order a copy for you) doesn’t count. She wants the rights back now. The publisher counters with “we have over 1,600 copies in our warehouse” and will ship as soon as it gets an order.

I’m looking forward to the case law that will be established if the case is ever litigated. It should be interesting. (No, I’m not a lawyer and I don’t play one one on TV, but I am curious).

Durgin has published the relevant contract clause, and I’ve read it—and I have to admit, it confuses the heck out of me. This whole thing once reinforces the need to ensure that all parties understand up front exactly what the terms and conditions in a contract mean. When it comes to contracts, Mr. Ambiguity is not your friend. I’ll add to this—if you don’t know what a clause means, ask. Get it clarified, even if it’s in a separate letter or email.

But that’s not what I find intriguing about this. I got the sense from other comments made by Durgin and her agent that they weren’t really happy with the negotiations and the contract, but that they signed and went ahead with it because Durgin:

  • wanted to get the book republished and back on the market, and
  • she really wanted to work with a particular editor at F&W on this project

If a client came to me for advice, prior to signing the contract and had any reservations, I must confess that, nine times out of ten, my answer would be:

Run away. Run away NOW. Don’t look back. It’s just not worth it.

Maybe that’s my natural risk-averseness speaking. Or maybe it’s just my attitude that life’s too short to get stuck in a (potentially) bad situation. Or my innate optimism, that sooner or later, the universe will make it all work out—if you don’t do that deal today, you’ll do another (better) one tomorrow. It takes a great deal of courage to walk away from a deal (or to fire a client), but sometimes you just have to do it.

And that’s what fascinates me about this whole thing, from a business perspective. Have you ever taken on a project or client where the money or other conditions weren’t a good fit, where you weren’t quite sure about it or 100% satisfied before starting, but you wanted to do it anyways for all sorts of other reasons like:

  • getting experience?
  • learning about a new industry or markets?
  • getting exposure to new technologies?
  • working with a specific individual or a team or company? (or your best friend?)
  • the commute was 2o minutes less than another gig?

Did it work out? Or did you come to regret it? And what did you do about it? Now it’s your turn to comment below.

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Photo Credit: “To Sign A Contract 3” by shho via Stock Xchange

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The Two-Bank Account Solution

Canadian BillsThe other day I was helping a client straighten out his past-due Ontario Sales Tax returns when he mentioned that, once we figured out what he owed the Minister of Finance, his next problem was figuring out how to pay him—since he’d already spent the money he’d collected.

This is an issue that crops up regularly with entrepreneurs. One consultant that I know closed up his practice and returned to the corporate world because, as he put it “I got tired of borrowing money each year to pay my income taxes.”

The solution? Open up a second bank account—I call it my “Tax Savings Account”—and as soon as I get paid by a client, I transfer the sales taxes (GST/HST here in Canada) plus another 20-30% of the gross to that account. Then, I live off the balance that’s left (I’d have to do that if was employed by somebody else who was deducting the taxes from my paycheque). If I lived in Quebec or BC, I’d have to add the provincial taxes to the transfer.

(I can’t take the credit for this solution—it was provided to my wife by our first accountant, the late Terry Wunder.)

It is a difficult thing to do, especially if times are tough and cash flow tight, but the government has always viewed these amounts as items held in trust, and they will do all that they can to collect them. (We’ll talk about that another time.) (Bankruptcy, by the way, is no protection from GST/HST debts.)

However, having put the cash aside and ready to go when the tax filing deadline comes along means that I have one less thing to keep me awake at night.

This is a strategy that can be used by both incorporated and unincorporated businesses.

Most banks have special business-oriented savings accounts that allow transfers to and from your regular operating account at little or no charge. However, be aware that if you pay your taxes directly from the savings account to the government, there will often be extra bank fees—so, transfer the money back to your operating account and pay it from there.

It can be awfully tempting to borrow from the “tax account” when you have a cash crunch and the tax account has a large balance—but that’s a mistake (trust me on this—I’ve learned from my own mistake here!) But in my experience so far, CRA doesn’t care if you pre-pay your income tax or in monthly instalments instead of quarterly. Nor do they care if you pre-pay your GST/HST before the filing deadline and adjust when you actually file your return (just make sure that you use the “instalment” form instead of the “actual filing form”) or clearly mark on your cheque that it’s a “current instalment”. And since you can do all this filing online now, it’s quick and painless and definitely a stress-reliever. So I recommend that if you go this route, make monthly payments rather than  having some money sitting around temptingly.

How do you handle your sales and income tax payments?

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Photo credit: “Money_April08_027” by Kevin_P via MorgueFile

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