tax preparation

No, You Really Can't Get a Deduction for that Artwork You Donated to Charity

Some arts organizations misleadingly suggests that artists can get tax deductions for works they donate to charity. Here’s why that’s unfortunately not the case.

Last month, I wrote about how the tax law passed in 2017 — officially the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) — will soon bring big changes to charitable giving.

Based on reader feedback, I now want to address a longstanding practice regarding charitable giving in the art world that needs to end. …read more…

What's the Deal with Receipts?

Look at all these tax deductions! These are my actual studio tools.

Look at all these tax deductions! These are my actual studio tools.

Here’s the confusion: You keep hearing that the IRS requires you to keep receipts and documentation for all of your business expenses. So why is your accountant annoyed when you try to hand her your receipts?

Here’s the story. Yes, you are required to keep receipts and documentation to prove each and every one of the business expenses that you deduct. That is the law. And here is the actual gospel, from the IRS itself. And here is a comprehensive list of what New York considers to be legal proof of your expenses. In case it’s not clear - and I get enough questions from people to know that it isn’t - the reason that you need this documentation, besides being a good practice for your actual business anyway, is that should the IRS or your state decide to examine your tax return, this is the proof of expenses they will require you to show them in order for them to allow you to keep those deductions. If you can’t, then you have just lost your audit, you may have a bad experience, and you will owe them money. You need to save these receipts and documentation for 7 years.

So why is your accountant irritable when you hand over receipts? That is another story. Tax season is super stressful. Most people, despite their intentions, don’t get their tax documents organized until a few weeks before the tax deadline, so your tax accountant has a drinking-out-of-a-firehose situation from about March 1-April 15. A lot of inexperienced taxpayers with freelance income don’t realize that they have a fairly big job to do before they can get their taxes done - that is, they need to do their bookkeeping. They need to tally up their receipts and income, and put it into some basic expense categories. Here’s a beautiful chart to help you with that. If that’s intimidating to you, hiring a bookkeeper is a great idea. Your bookkeeper can help you put things in the right categories, teach you how to maintain your own books, answer your questions and set you up with a system that works well for you. A good bookkeeper is worth the money.

So keeping your books is a requirement if you run a business. And if you’re a freelancer of any kind, though you might not have realized it, you are running a business. My course The Ultimate Honest Guide to Understanding Artists’ Taxes is a great primer on the need for good books and records and gives great insight into what happens in an artist/creative worker audit. It’s one hour, and very worth it.

So showing your accountant your receipts says that you haven’t done your bookkeeping, that you probably don’t realize that you have a sizeable job ahead of you, and that you probably need some coaching about the basic tax rules.

This is totally understandable. You’re just a bespoke latex dog-costume designer, not an accountant! This might even be your first year freelancing. But your accountant is facing an immovable deadline with an obscene flood of work. So if she’s not keeping up with her loving-kindness meditation, she might get grumpy with you. As a person who was new at my arts practice once, and as a tax accountant, I’m advocating for understanding in both directions here.

So with that, here are some basic guidelines for you:

  • Bookkeeping. If you have a system that isn’t working, pay a bookkeeper to look it over for you, or take a bookkeeping course yourself. Good bookkeeping is a question of habit. So schedule a regular time to do it.

  • Saving receipts. The law says that if you can’t produce the receipt to prove it, it never happened, and you can’t deduct the expense. Your bank and credit card statements aren’t enough. For meals and entertainment, the documentation requirement is even stricter: the receipt must be accompanied by the name of the business contact you are meeting with, plus the reason for the meeting. A receipt alone will not suffice. Personally, if I don’t grab a pen and jot these things down at the moment I am handed the receipt, I will never do it. So that has become my personal habit – I write directly on my receipts, and the save them in a file folder.

  • Some people are handy enough with their phones that they snap a picture of every receipt (many accounting softwares integrate a receipt-saving feature like this, and there are stand alone apps dedicated to it). I am not fast enough with my phone for this to work for me, but if you are, it is a great method for keeping your receipts.

  • Keeping a calendar. In the days of Google calendar, you probably have one that is pretty good already. But you might not realize that this can be an important document to show your business activity in the event of an audit. Your calendar can be used to show the amount of overall time you spend on your arts practice — and that means everything from making the actual work to networking, marketing, and bookkeeping.  Your calendar can also show who you met with and for what purpose. This may corroborate other parts of your documentation, from travel expenses (your calendar shows the meetings you had set up in your travel location), to your meals expenses (meeting the strict substantiation requirement of who you met with and for what purpose).

  • Maintaining important correspondence that shows your effort to grow your career. You may still snail-mail out old-school introduction packets to museums (and be sure to save those receipts if you do!), but you almost certainly reach out to art world people over email. In the days of searchable email, this is a lifesaver. If you use an email folder system, consider saving this correspondence into one place (ie. “gallery + museum correspondence 2018”), so that in the event of an audit, you can produce this important evidence of your businesslike intentions quickly and without having to rely on your memory.

  • Maintaining your arts inventory. In Susan Crile’s drawn-out audit, her professional inventory system weighed heavily in her favor to prove that she was a professional artist and not a hobbyist. How do you track your art inventory? Having an up-to-date document that shows what you’ve produced and where everything is is an important tool in your arsenal.

  • Tracking mileage. I went over the details of mileage tracking in my Miami travel expense post. But here’s a tip: go out and record your car’s odometer reading right now. And while you’re at it, set an alarm on your calendar to do this the first day of every year. Because tracking your business mileage means not only tracking the number of business miles you drove this year, you also must record your total miles for the year. By recording your odometer on day one, you have both your ending mileage for last year, and your beginning mileage for this year. Two birds. One stone.

MileIQ is one of several mileage apps that use the location detection on your phone to automatically record your mileage. Similarly to Xero Taxtouch, you swipe left or right to categorize drives as business or personal. You can also track the things people often don’t – volunteer miles driven (deductible at 14 cents/mile, if you itemize) and medical miles driven (ditto, but 17 cents/mile, with a high threshold before it’s useful). The free version doesn’t capture everything, so it’s useful to get the full version. And it’s a deductible expense! You can get a 20% discount by using this code: HCOL124A

 

DISCLAIMER: True tax advice is a two-way conversation, and your accountant needs to hear your full situation to apply the rules correctly in your case. This post is meant for general information only. Please don’t act on this alone.

Here’s the confusion: You keep hearing that the IRS requires you to keep receipts and documentation for all of your business expenses. So why is your accountant annoyed when you try to hand her your receipts?

Here’s the story. Yes, you are required to keep receipts and documentation to prove each and every one of the business expenses that you deduct. That is the law. And here is the actual gospel, from the IRS itself. And here is a comprehensive list of what New York considers to be legal proof of your expenses. In case it’s not clear - and I get enough questions from people to know that it isn’t - the reason that you need this documentation, besides being a good practice for your actual business anyway, is that should the IRS or your state decide to examine your tax return, this is the proof of expenses they will require you to show them in order for them to allow you to keep those deductions. If you can’t, then you have just lost your audit, you may have a bad experience, and you will owe them money. You need to save these receipts and documentation for 7 years.

So why is your accountant irritable when you hand over receipts? That is another story. Tax season is super stressful. Most people, despite their intentions, don’t get their tax documents organized until a few weeks before the tax deadline, so your tax accountant has a drinking-out-of-a-firehose situation from about March 1-April 15. A lot of inexperienced taxpayers with freelance income don’t realize that they have a fairly big job to do before they can get their taxes done - that is, they need to do their bookkeeping. They need to tally up their receipts and income, and put it into some basic expense categories. Here’s a beautiful chart to help you with that. If that’s intimidating to you, hiring a bookkeeper is a great idea. Your bookkeeper can help you put things in the right categories, teach you how to maintain your own books, answer your questions and set you up with a system that works well for you. A good bookkeeper is worth the money.

So keeping your books is a requirement if you run a business. And if you’re a freelancer of any kind, though you might not have realized it, you are running a business. My course The Ultimate Honest Guide to Understanding Artists’ Taxes is a great primer on the need for good books and records and gives great insight into what happens in an artist/creative worker audit. It’s one hour, and very worth it.

So showing your accountant your receipts says that you haven’t done your bookkeeping, that you probably don’t realize that you have a sizeable job ahead of you, and that you probably need some coaching about the basic tax rules.

This is totally understandable. You’re just a bespoke latex dog-costume designer, not an accountant! This might even be your first year freelancing. But your accountant is facing an immovable deadline with an obscene flood of work. So if she’s not keeping up with her loving-kindness meditation, she might get grumpy with you. As a person who was new at my arts practice once, and as a tax accountant, I’m advocating for understanding in both directions here.

So with that, here are some basic guidelines for you:

  • Bookkeeping. If you have a system that isn’t working, pay a bookkeeper to look it over for you, or take a bookkeeping course yourself. Good bookkeeping is a question of habit. So schedule a regular time to do it.

  • Saving receipts. The law says that if you can’t produce the receipt to prove it, it never happened, and you can’t deduct the expense. Your bank and credit card statements aren’t enough. For meals and entertainment, the documentation requirement is even stricter: the receipt must be accompanied by the name of the business contact you are meeting with, plus the reason for the meeting. A receipt alone will not suffice. Personally, if I don’t grab a pen and jot these things down at the moment I am handed the receipt, I will never do it. So that has become my personal habit – I write directly on my receipts, and the save them in a file folder.

  • Some people are handy enough with their phones that they snap a picture of every receipt (many accounting softwares integrate a receipt-saving feature like this, and there are stand alone apps dedicated to it). I am not fast enough with my phone for this to work for me, but if you are, it is a great method for keeping your receipts.

  • Keeping a calendar. In the days of Google calendar, you probably have one that is pretty good already. But you might not realize that this can be an important document to show your business activity in the event of an audit. Your calendar can be used to show the amount of overall time you spend on your arts practice — and that means everything from making the actual work to networking, marketing, and bookkeeping.  Your calendar can also show who you met with and for what purpose. This may corroborate other parts of your documentation, from travel expenses (your calendar shows the meetings you had set up in your travel location), to your meals expenses (meeting the strict substantiation requirement of who you met with and for what purpose).

  • Maintaining important correspondence that shows your effort to grow your career. You may still snail-mail out old-school introduction packets to museums (and be sure to save those receipts if you do!), but you almost certainly reach out to art world people over email. In the days of searchable email, this is a lifesaver. If you use an email folder system, consider saving this correspondence into one place (ie. “gallery + museum correspondence 2018”), so that in the event of an audit, you can produce this important evidence of your businesslike intentions quickly and without having to rely on your memory.

  • Maintaining your arts inventory. In Susan Crile’s drawn-out audit, her professional inventory system weighed heavily in her favor to prove that she was a professional artist and not a hobbyist. How do you track your art inventory? Having an up-to-date document that shows what you’ve produced and where everything is is an important tool in your arsenal.

  • Tracking mileage. I went over the details of mileage tracking in my Miami travel expense post. But here’s a tip: go out and record your car’s odometer reading right now. And while you’re at it, set an alarm on your calendar to do this the first day of every year. Because tracking your business mileage means not only tracking the number of business miles you drove this year, you also must record your total miles for the year. By recording your odometer on day one, you have both your ending mileage for last year, and your beginning mileage for this year. Two birds. One stone.

MileIQ is one of several mileage apps that use the location detection on your phone to automatically record your mileage. Similarly to Xero Taxtouch, you swipe left or right to categorize drives as business or personal. You can also track the things people often don’t – volunteer miles driven (deductible at 14 cents/mile, if you itemize) and medical miles driven (ditto, but 17 cents/mile, with a high threshold before it’s useful). The free version doesn’t capture everything, so it’s useful to get the full version. And it’s a deductible expense! You can get a 20% discount by using this code: HCOL124A

 

DISCLAIMER: True tax advice is a two-way conversation, and your accountant needs to hear your full situation to apply the rules correctly in your case. This post is meant for general information only. Please don’t act on this alone.

Bio: Hannah Cole is an artist and Enrolled Agent. She is the founder of Sunlight Tax.

 

 

A Personal Finance Cheat Sheet for the Overwhelmed

personal finance

Money is the most powerful metaphor we have. For many people it represents their self-worth, their standing, their power and their security. In many ways artists are a little different—we have a life where we choose to value different things than the rest of society – freedom, both artistic and from societal norms, as well as intellectual independence. Our very existence can be seen as a challenge to capitalism. It’s why some people feel threatened by us—our choice to place a high value on things other than money might call into question their own choices and values.

So I understand why many artists may want to or feel as though they live outside the “regular” financial system. However, we all still must function within it. I have seen too many artists succumb to their own lack of financial knowledge and security – by giving up art, making outsized financial sacrifices (like homeownership, children, or secure retirement), and even becoming destitute. Money can be very emotional: not knowing how to manage it can make us feel out of control, anxious, overwhelmed, and ashamed.

But the flipside is wonderful. Taking some basic steps to control your money is empowering. It can prolong your career, help you meet personal and professional goals, and set your mind at ease.

I’d like to outline the most basic ideas of personal finance. There are tomes written on each single line below, and a million variations. But since feeling overwhelmed can cause paralysis, I want to assure you that the very basics of solid personal finance are universal.* Here they are.  Read more...

Set up For Your Best Year Ever: A Tax Day How-To

tax day help

Here we are at Tax Day. Your taxes are filed. (They aren’t? Here’s an IRS extension form – postmark it today. You’ll need one for your state, too.)

Last year you vowed to get your stuff in order. Then suddenly the tax deadline was upon you, and you scrambled through the process, and weren’t as careful as you intended to be. You suspected you should have been paying estimated quarterly taxes all year, but didn’t, and now your tax bill is surprisingly high.

You meant to set some money aside in a retirement account, but that shocking tax bill meant you didn’t have any cash to do it.

You suspect that there were deductions you missed.

If you’re being honest, your books were a mess (if you’re thinking “I need to keep books?” go back and read this.)

Now that the time pressure is off, let’s take a look at how you can make this year better. Plus some discounts on apps that can help you.  Read more...

Rent Too Damn High? Deduct Your Home Studio.

One of the best tax breaks out there is the home office (or home studio) deduction. In tax terms, this essentially turns a portion of your nondeductible personal expenses (your home) into deductible business expenses (a workplace). A lot of people are confused about the rules, and some people are scared to take the deduction at all because they’ve heard that it can be a red flag to the IRS. As long as you are following the rules correctly, there is nothing wrong with taking the deduction. And it’s a big one! So here is some help.

First, when can you claim a home office/home studio?

You have to use it both exclusively and regularly.

Exclusive use means that the space is a dedicated workspace – no kids watching TV in there after hours, no guests staying there. There is no wiggle room on this part.  read full article

The Nitty Gritty: How To Prepare for Filing Your Taxes

iStock_000002997516Large-1438.jpg

Nobody likes filing taxes. But thinking ahead and getting your documents lined up reduce the stress of the process. Here are some key ways to prepare yourself for tax season, and get you ready to sit down to your own tax prep software or deliver an organized package to your tax preparer.

1. Download a 2016 tax year organizer. There are many available online. Mine is here. This will be your guide and checklist, and will help you see what you still need, and tell you when you’re done. Follow this guide.  Every accountant has a horror story about someone who, in the attempt to save themselves time, doesn’t read the organizer carefully, and causes no less than six follow up phone calls to chase down the information. Believe me when I tell you that a busy accountant in the heat of tax season will charge you extra for that kind of hand-holding. If you want to save yourself time (and money) on the tax process, have these materials fully prepared before heading to your accountant. 

2. Put your receipts, 1099-MISCs, W-2s and all your other tax documents in a folder. This can be virtual or manilla. But keep in mind...read more