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Balancing Act

Balancing Act

Sandy Schroeder and her husband, Melvin, have lived in the same Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, home for 42 years, and it is from this home that Sandy runs her tax business. It’s the only office Sandy has ever had, and the only one she ever wants.

One perk? “If I can’t sleep at night, I can always go to my office and work without even having to get dressed,” laughs Sandy. “I just have to make sure I’m out of my pajamas by eight a.m. when my clients start showing up.”

Sandy’s many satisfied clients enjoy the home-office experience, as well. They appreciate the warmth of her living-room fireplace during a Minnesota winter, and if they have to wait a few minutes to see Sandy, there’s a newspaper to read and a big, comfy chair-and-a-half in the living room.
And if that’s not enough to keep them entertained, there’s Mel, Sandy’s husband of 45 years, to tell his “fish story.” Mel is also Sandy’s only employee and does all the copying, phone answering, message taking, errand running, and office supply purchasing. Working together “gives us more time together,” says Sandy.

This home and the office inside it are part of the secret to Sandy’s success: balance. She is happy with only one office and has no desire to expand. As Sandy points out, “Taxes are a required part of life, but they are not my whole life.”

Work/life balance

Sandy’s life is so full that, in order keep her balance, she must keep her priorities straight. Her family comes first; their events go on the calendar, and her work fits around that. In fact, Sandy’s business was formed in part from a choice to stay at home with her children, Amy and John, when they were young.

“I was going to night school for years and years, it seemed, because I was doing child care during the day and had two children. As I neared graduation, I was just agonizing over what I was going to do.” Some friends offered to find Sandy some clients if she would agree to start her own business and run it out of her home. And, Sandy says, “The rest is history.”

Sandy will be the first to tell you that she has two speeds: “off” and “off and running”—and it seems like she’s usually at the latter. Between volunteering for her church, making time to cheer for her grandchildren, Julia and Jacob, at sporting events, and spending time at the family’s lake cabin with Mel, Sandy doesn’t have much time to turn “off.” She was highly involved in her community as well, volunteering with various women’s groups, the Lions club, the music ministry at her church, and even the local marching band, to which her son, John, once belonged.

Over the years, Sandy has dealt with many challenges that threatened to throw her off-balance, but none more so than the illness of her son, John. In 1990, at age 20, John was diagnosed with a nerve and muscle disease of unknown origin. He suffered for 16 years before finally succumbing to the disease in May of 2006. Busy tax seasons came and went, but “during his illness, my top priority was caring for my handicapped son,” Sandy says matter-of-factly. She keenly remembers sleeping in the windowsills of hospitals (John was hospitalized for 56 days during one year) and preparing taxes on her lap in doctors’ offices (her son had 90 doctor appointments during another tax season). Balance in life was of utmost importance as Sandy struggled—and succeeded—in giving her son the care he required while meeting the needs of her tax clients.

Sandy’s dedication reaches beyond her family and clients. She has been a member of the National Association of Tax Professionals (NATP) for 21 years and was chosen by the NATP as its 2009 Tax Professional of the Year. “It means so much to me to be chosen,” she says. “It says the work I do matters. When your peers choose you, that is pretty life changing.”

Part of the secret to Sandy’s balanced life is figuring out how to take care of herself: “I have to find a way to eat properly, exercise, have my Bible study, return e-mails, meet with clients, work on client files, read e-mails, answer phone calls, write letters, research, spend time with family and friends, and save time to breathe.” One way Sandy protects herself is by clearing out of the office on Monday mornings when the phone rings nonstop. “Every Monday morning, I go to the Subway about a mile away and do my Bible study. When I get home, I return all those calls right away, and I’m much more efficient.”

Building her business

Through word of mouth, Sandy currently has 265 clients, and they just keep coming. “If they come, they come; if they don’t, they don’t. But they keep coming, so I must be doing something right,” says Sandy.

Sandy’s business has changed throughout the years as her family situation has changed. At its largest, Sandy prepared taxes for 450 clients. When her first grandchild was born, she cut her clientele from 450 to 300, as she wanted to care for her grandchildren the first two years of their lives. When the second grandchild came along, she cut another 150 clients. “It got interesting talking to the IRS while changing a dirty diaper,” she says with a laugh.

The business balance

Sandy has been a tax professional for 33 years and became a Certified Financial Planner (CFP) in 1989 and an Enrolled Agent in 1991. She is an Accredited Tax Advisor and Accredited Tax Preparer and does financial counseling, payroll, estates and trusts, and pro bono work. Sandy also teaches tax classes to day care providers and Sunday school groups.

“The best part of my job is the people I work with and the treasured relationships that have developed over the years. People tell me I can’t quit, so I plan to do this as long as God gives me strength, hopefully until age 80 to keep my brain active. I am now 65, so I have a way to go before I quit,” laughs Sandy.

Customer service

Sandy helps keep her clients balanced, too: “I treat all my clients with respect and make myself available to them.” She encourages her clients to call her to get their concerns addressed quickly, and she doesn’t charge for phone calls. She even waives the initial appointment fee for potential clients.

She also sends out newsletters three or four times a year, takes elderly clients out to lunch on their birthdays, gives gas and gift cards for referrals, and sends cards to congratulate clients on weddings and births.

But the finest “extra” Sandy offers her clients is her integrity. “My clients know I won’t ‘create’ anything for anybody,” she says. “Creative accounting is cheating, and I will not be a party to it.  They will get every possible benefit, deduction, and credit, that they are entitled to—no more, no less. My reputation and my name mean a lot to me. I tell clients that I won’t jeopardize all the licenses I hold just to do something stupid.”

Balancing the books with Drake Software

Sandy’s come a long way since getting her first computer, which was “so slow I could iron a shirt sleeve waiting for a page to change.” Since then, she’s used a number of different tax software programs. In 2000, Sandy tried Drake Software, and she’s been a loyal customer ever since. “Quite simply, Drake’s efficiency allows me to accomplish more. I never cease to be amazed at the vast amount of resources and aids, all built into the program at no extra cost,” Sandy says. “You couldn’t get me to quit [Drake] now.”

Using Drake Software helps Sandy maintain balance in her tax preparation. She finds the software straightforward and easy to use. “It handles complex returns with ease and is an incredible value for the price,” she says. Sandy is pleased that Drake Software is up to date with new laws and sends its clients e-mails with changes and tips for use, along with weekly updates.

Sandy also appreciates the fact that the first release of Drake Software comes out in November so that she can get a head start on tax season. It gives her time to “play around” with the program and learn how to use all the new features.

This experienced tax pro has some favorite Drake Software features. “One special feature I like is the screen listing elections. If tax pros are supposed to make an election and we don’t, then we are not providing due diligence and are hurting our client as well.” Sandy appreciates Drake’s other built-in checking mechanisms as well, including the flags to keep her from overlooking something.

But Sandy’s favorite Drake Software feature? The support staff. “The staff stays on a task until a problem is resolved,” says Sandy. “One time during tax season, when my son was having a major surgery, I was on the phone with Drake Software tech support for two hours with several techies, trying to get a major problem solved. They did it. They knew how important it was to get the issue resolved, and they stayed at it until it was. The software is good, but the staff is incredible.”

Sandy takes advantage of all of the training opportunities Drake offers its clients. “I recently took a free webinar titled ‘Basic Functionality and Features’ to learn more of the functions and features of Drake Software for the upcoming year,” she recalls. “It’s amazing all the stuff that is embedded in the program. Every year, there are things to make our lives easier and make us more accurate. I can’t imagine what more they can put in the software, but I know they’ll think of something!”

Not only does Sandy regularly take advantage of Drake’s webinars, but she also attends a training class in November of each year and goes to a Drake Users Group, which focuses on teaching and sharing among local tax professionals and Drake users.

Professional challenges

Even a professional as experienced as Sandy Schroeder encounters some challenges, and she admits that the complexity of tax laws, combined with the fact that they change so much each year, are a challenge for tax preparers, herself included. “A client once asked me, ‘How does it feel to be in a business where the laws change every 20 minutes?’”

Another challenge Sandy sees for tax professionals in general is that of training. “Drake provides all the resources, but it’s up to us to have the intellect, knowledge, and experience to accurately prepare a return,” says Sandy. “Education is critical in this business. The minimum training required for Enrolled Agents is 24 credits per year, and the minimum for a CFP is 30 credits for two years. I routinely get a minimum of 125—and sometimes more than 200—credits a year.” She continues, “You can’t keep a professional relationship if you can’t answer your clients’ questions.”

Professional guidance

If Sandy could offer any advice to a budding entrepreneur in the tax-preparation field, it is this: “Be honest. Be a person of good character and integrity. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. If you abide by these principles, you will always be able to live with yourself.”

The perfect balance

Sandy Schroeder does a bang-up job of keeping things balanced in her life, but there’s one pastime she just can’t make time for between January 1 and April 15: “I can’t start a book during tax season,” says Sandy. “I would have to hide in the bathroom to read!” So when tax season ends, the days are all Sandy’s. She “sleeps until I can’t sleep anymore,” then cracks open her first book in four months and settles into that comfy chair-and-a-half in her living room that her clients like so much. And she’s not changing out of her pajamas for anyone.

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