TAXES FOR FREELANCERS, 101
In the past, I’ve gotten some questions about the business of illustration & about how taxes work. Filing taxes is a bummer, but it sucks even more when you have no idea what you’re doing. After progressing from Completely Clueless to Somewhat Experienced* during the past 5 years of doing my own taxes, I thought i’d write (& illustrate!) a generalized rundown. Here’s hoping it might provide some insight for the curious!
*This info is from my own experience and I am by NO means a tax professional! I’m simplifying a lot of the info here, so please don’t take my word as law—check out the specifics on the IRS website instead.
First, the basics:
If you earn an income, you have to pay income taxes, and Uncle Sam has a “pay as you go” system. If you want to avoid a pricey penalty, you are expected to pay taxes throughout the year as you earn income, not all at once when you file your income tax return. There are 2 ways this happens:
1. For people who receive regular paychecks from an employer, your employer will withhold a certain amount from your paycheck to pay for federal (and state) income taxes—you fill out a W-4 form when you’re hired, which determines how much they withhold for you. Easy-peasy!
2. If you’re a freelancer, you don’t have a regular paycheck or a regular employer to withhold your taxes for you, so you have to pay quarterly Estimated Taxes yourself. Estimated taxes cover your income tax and self employment tax*, for both the federal gov’t and your state gov’t (if applicable).
*Yes—as a freelancer, you not only have to pay income tax, but you also pay self employment tax! (basically, a tax that goes to Social Security/Medicare)
I’m just going to focus on federal estimated taxes first:
If you’re a freelancer, the trick is to make sure you pay enough in estimated taxes throughout the year to avoid the underpayment penalty.
You will avoid the penalty if you:
Owe less than $1000 in taxes after subtracting withholding and credits
(A)Have paid at least 90% of the tax amount owed for the current year, or (B) have paid at least 100% of the tax shown on last year’s return — whichever is smaller.
So let’s break down these scenarios a bit:
If you’re a student just graduating from school and you haven’t done many freelance jobs (i.e. probably making less than $8,000 in taxable income from freelance), it’s likely that you don’t have to pay estimated taxes, because you’ll probably owe less than $1000 in federal taxes from your freelance work. So don’t sweat it!
If it does look like you will owe $1000 or more in taxes, you have 2 choices for calculating how much to pay in estimated taxes—the aforementioned (A) or (B).
(A) Make sure you pay at least 90% of the tax amount that will be owed for the current year.
(B) Make sure you pay at least 100% of the tax shown on last year’s return.
There’s an estimated tax worksheet that you can use to help figure out either one.
Since my freelance income fluctuates and I’m lazy enough that I don’t like trying to predict how much tax I will owe for the upcoming year (and adjust quarterly payments if needed), I prefer to just use option (B).
That means that I can just pay an equal amount each quarter, and make sure all 4 estimated tax payments add up to the tax amount I paid for last year’s return (or more).
So, for instance, if I owed $7000 total in federal taxes for 2012, I won’t be penalized for underpayment if I pay at least $1750 each quarter ($7000 total) for my 2013 federal estimated taxes—regardless of whether I owe more taxes in 2013 or not. If I earned a higher income in 2013 than in 2012 and didn’t pay enough estimated taxes to cover it all, I’d still have to pay the difference at tax time, but at least I wouldn’t have to pay the underpayment penalty!
Not too difficult, so long as you have enough in your bank account, but tricky to figure out at first!
All of this information also generally applies to state estimated tax payments, though the specific numbers and percentages can change and a few states don’t charge income tax at all. In most states, you have to pay a state income tax as well as a federal income tax, so I pay quarterly estimated tax payments to the federal government, as well as quarterly estimated tax payments to Maryland, my state of residence.
Your state will also likely have a free online tax system you can use.
Some tax filing methods:
-Just use a tax professional! Seriously, especially if this is new to you and you don’t have any outside help. I know plenty of professional illustrators that use one. Better than messing things up and getting in trouble with the IRS.
-Use online tax software that helps to walk you through the tax experience and will do all the calculations for you, like TurboTax, TaxAct, etc. (I use TaxAct) They usually have a free version for your federal returns well as pay options, (which may include your state return as well). They will also let you schedule your federal estimated taxes, which I take advantage of. I recommend having a tax-savvy friend or relative you can call if you get stuck! I owe huge debts of gratitude to my own tax-savvy relatives that patiently answered questions & put me on the right track.
-Print out all the pertinent tax forms and worksheets, start to fill them out by hand, alone in your paper-strewn room, and then jump out the window in wild frustration when you can’t figure out all the jargon and your math skills aren’t as good as they used to be.
“Happy” taxing, everyone!