The only constant in my career is that my taxes suck.
Nobody likes taxes, but at least when you have a traditional job, they aren’t painful. You don’t notice losing the money that goes toward your taxes because you never had it in the first place.
When you are a freelancer though, you have to take a portion of the money you earn out of your bank account and give it to the government in taxes. It’s a more viscerally unpleasant experience because even though you know logically that everyone has to pay taxes, your brief possession of that money makes it feel like something is being pried directly out of your hands.
Obviously, my tax advice will be most accurate to freelancers in the United States. But based on my cursory research, estimated quarterly taxes are a Thing for freelancers globally. In the US, Self employed people are at the highest risk of getting audited, since we’re most likely to make mistakes with our taxes. This is going to be less about which forms to fill out than it is about the year-long process of making sure your records are in place to avoid tax time mistakes.
Since my lawyer best friend will probably read this, let me take this time to say that I am not a lawyer and if you have serious legal concerns about taxes, consult a lawyer, not me.
Recording your business income
In a perfect world, here is how it is supposed to go:
In January, you will receive a 1099-MISC form from every person who paid you at least $600 over the course of the year. They will be completely accurate (perfect world, remember?) and you will then input those forms into your tax software, file and submit.
This never happens. Not every employer sends tax forms. For example, if somebody pays me $600 to build a website, they’re probably not going to send me a 1099-MISC. They don’t see themselves as my employer; they see themselves as my client!
Even when I do receive 1099-MISC forms, the onus is on me to make sure they are accurate. If they don’t match up with my bank statements (because of a missed payment, a lost check in the mail, or a zillion other reasons), I have to request an updated one.
The solution to this is simple but tedious: you need to track every single payment you earn. There is no alternative. You are solely responsible for keeping track of what you have been paid.
I use Quickbooks Self Employed but I could also use Freshbooks. I could even use a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet. Or, a pen-and-paper list if I’m a real masochist. The structure does not matter—keeping a close eye on every single payment you’ve received does.
All you need on the spreadsheet is the employer name, the amount of money you got paid, and the date you received it. For your April 14 taxes, you’ll want to add those up to a total for each employer, too. And if you got a 1099-MISC, it better add up to the same number as the sheet.
If you fall behind on this, you’ll have to do all of it at tax time.
Recording your business expenses
This next thing is a little easier and more fun. It’s another spreadsheet for recording everything you spent money on in order to conduct your freelance business.
Freelancing isn’t free. Did you buy a computer for writing articles? Write it off as a business expense! Take a client out to lunch? In the US, you can save the receipt and write off 50% of the total. Do you use one of the aforementioned softwares for tracking income? Write it off!
Here’s a complete list of self-employed business expenses that you can deduct from your taxes. The problem is if you don’t remember to record these expenses, or you don’t have any records of buying them. In that case, you don’t get to write them off.
Once again, the software you use does not matter. What does matter is the item or service you bought (anything from a scanner to contract labor*), what category it falls into (equipment, software, labor, advertising, etc.), and how much it cost. It’s also good to save the receipt in case you get audited so you can show the Tax Person proof of purchase.
If you do remember though, add up the total. Then, subtract that number from the total business income you earned that year (this is your gross income). The resulting number is your revenue, the amount of earnings you have to pay taxes on in any given year.
If you itemize your business expenses in this way, you will need to pay money for your tax software or else go to an accountant. (Silver lining: these are both expenses you can write off!) For my April 14 taxes, I import my records from Quickbooks into TurboTax Self Employed. Otherwise, I would have to manually enter each expense write-off line by tedious line.
*If you paid a contractor $600 or more, you need to send them a 1099-MISC!
Calculating your quarterly estimates
Since I make more than $400 a year as a freelancer, I pay what the IRS calls Self Employment Tax four times a year. These are Social Security and Medicare taxes just like everyone else pays, but since I’m self-employed I have to do it myself.
Even though I need to pay taxes four times a year, April 14 is the beginning of a new year and end of an old, fiscally speaking. So that’s when I calculate my quarterly estimated taxes. For federal, I can use IRS Form 1040-ES to calculate this. Virginia has its own calculator for my state taxes (and I guarantee your state has this, too).
In April, June, September, and January, I pay taxes to the state of Virginia and the federal government. Each time, I pay 25% of the total I determined on April 14 using state and federal forms, but if I had a really good (or really bad) quarter, I could redo the estimate based on my new higher (or lower) total income prediction for the year. If I predicted I was going to earn $60,000 for 2018 in April but it’s December 2018 and I’ve only earned $40,000, I would pay a much, much lower amount for my final January estimated tax payment.
What to do on Tax Day
For John and I, Tax Day usually comes in March simply because my taxes are so much more complicated than average. We want to give ourselves room to deal with them.
Honestly, my 2017 taxes were the best yet. I automatically imported the data (business income and expenses) from Quickbooks to TurboTax. After that, I just had to confirm that the income I reported matched the 1099-MISC forms I received, add any additional income for which I didn’t receive a 1099-MISC, and input the date and amount of each quarterly tax payment.
(Oh, and then we had to put in John’s W2, because we file jointly as a married couple. But it’s clear that John’s job is more of a footnote to the tax nightmare than the main attraction!)
It only takes a few days after that for TurboTax to notify me that my tax return has been approved. And then it’s time to start all over again! I calculate my estimated taxes for federal and state, and then because I live in a county with special rules for doing business as a self-employed person, I pay an additional yearly tax there, too. You will have to check at the county website (or at the local courthouse) in order to learn if you have to do this as well.
In conclusion: Taxes suck
I used to think it was cool that my tax money goes toward schools and parks and public services, but as my local library languishes and my idiot representatives spend my taxes on a $1 million bus stop (no joke), the appeal has worn off for me. That said, everybody has to pay taxes so you might as well lay the groundwork so you can pay them accurately.
This blog post ended up being a short novel, but the book chapter I’ll base on it will be even longer. If you have a question about freelance taxes, leave it in the comments, please.