Accounting In Small Town U.S.A.
By Elizabeth J. Nolan
For many people, going from Athens, Greece to Paris, France sounds exciting,
but going from Athens, Texas to Paris, Texas doesn't. For some people
though, driving those two-lane, blacktop roads of east Texas is exactly
where they want to be. Most articles discussing the attractive career
choices and exciting job opportunities associated with being an accountant
emphasize the "professional" in the practice of public accounting;
the "big wig" on the corporate ladder for industry; the "bureaucrat"
in the governmental position, or the "agent" in a regulatory
or law enforcement position. Few articles ever actively encourage the
accounting student to consider accounting in a small, local practice.
But, there are real accountants, doing real accounting in every little
nook and cranny that calls itself a town, village, city, or hamlet. Any
accountant that enjoys this lifestyle, will lead a life that is just as
fulfilling and interesting as the lives of their more worldly associates.
Sometimes accounting professors complain, "There are students who
graduate and just stay in their little towns." They imply that this
group of graduates are not living up to their potential. I feel just the
opposite. Those graduates practicing in their small town are doing a real
service, in a professional manner, in a respected field, aiding friends
and community. Many of these accountants also take an active part in church
and civic organizations, assuring the accuracy of these records, introducing
ideas such as budgeting and separation of duties, and teaching concepts
such as understanding the use of financial statements for decision-making
purposes. Their often free or underpaid advice allows these clubs to continue
serving the community. Their assistance keeps the city on track, makes
audits easier for the external reviewer, and leads to less expense for
Accountants in a small town firm are primarily involved in income tax
preparation, audits of local governments or non-profit organizations,
and advisory service for small businesses. But, this isn't as dull as
it sounds. The questions and problems of small town business folk are
numerous and diverse. This type of accounting practice demands that a
person be able to think quickly, research well, and dare to consider novel
or innovative approaches in answer to unique questions.
Small town accounting is not something that a college course can prepare
you for. You will have to keep up with passing fads like worm farming,
raising emus, and running catfish farms. You will have to learn some important
non-accounting concepts like the difference between fencing wire and bailing
wire, or the qualities that make it a race horse and not just common breeding
stock. You will need to stay informed about the diverse types of business
activities practiced in your community. For everything from farming to
retail, non-profit to manufacturing, you will need to be current on any
laws, tax regulations, or other related business problems affecting your
Communication skills are very important. You will be called upon to give
luncheon talks to civic groups and you will have to gently teach a lady,
recently widowed, how to write a check. You will need to write concise,
explanatory notes for your client to all kinds of agencies about all kinds
of problems. And you may be called upon, in court, to clearly explain
the intricacies of accounting to judges, lawyers, and jury members who
don't have a clue.
You will work long hours (but so do many people in the other types of
accounting professions), although, frequently, you can pick your own hours.
You will find that you are well paid for what you do, if you are not afraid
to charge what you are worth. You can work your way up so that you are
your own boss or, at least, you are in a position to choose who your co-workers
are. Job security depends on your honesty, your ethics, and the local
You can practice accounting in a small town without passing the Uniform
CPA Exam, however, this designation will open doors for you and allow
you to perform audits for additional income. Additionally, this certification
will assist you in getting that first job where, hopefully, you begin
working with an accounting mentor who will get you in good with the community
and teach you the tricks of the trade.
Small town life has a dynamic all its own and you had better understand
that dynamic before you decide to work there. An understanding of local
politics and who's who in your town is important. In a small town, who
you know can make or break you. It will probably be better if you live
in or near the community, because it emphasizes your interest in and attachment
to the location. You will be an important cog in a small wheel, and you
are going to be recognized and noticed wherever you go. If you don't want
everyone knowing your business (sometimes before you do) this is not the
place for you.
Other problems for the small town accountant: If you want consistency
in your job, don't try to make it here. If you donĄŻt like pressure
or deadlines, what are you doing in accounting? If you don't want to associate
with people on a day to day basis, you may be able to work in a small
townĄbut only if you can find the perfect secretary. It is more likely
that you will succeed if you are somewhat outgoing. You need to be honest
and able to keep secrets. You will end up in the middle of conversations
and feuds that would make the local paper jump or joy, but you will have
to learn to keep these secrets just that---secrets.
Accounting in the small town can be the perfect job. Your work can be
interrupted by your spouse or kids, or a day perfect for fishing, and
your clients won't mind, as long as their work gets done in time. You
can dress down. Save the black suits for clients' funerals. You will go
to these, because you are more than just their accountant, you are part
of the community, part of their family, and part of their lives. If this
sounds tempting, this may be the job for you.
Elizabeth (Betty) Nolan is an assistant professor at Southeastern Oklahoma
State University in Durant, Oklahoma. She also maintains an accounting
practice in Durant, population @ 13,000.