self-employment tax

Translating the New Tax Bill for Small Businesses

“Am I going to benefit from the new business deduction?”

“Do I need to incorporate to take advantage of it?”

These are questions I’m hearing a lot since the passage of the massive new tax bill. Much of the worry centers around some misconceptions. So, I’d like to outline what’s in the new provision, who it affects, and why you likely don’t need to change a thing to benefit.

The most important outcome of the new tax law (officially the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, or TCJA) was to give a large, permanent tax cut to corporations. The corporate tax rate went from 35% to 21%. Those numbers are a little deceptive, because most US corporations don’t pay nearly that rate once you factor in tax credits and loopholes. A 2016 U.S. Government Accountability Office study found that between 67% and 72% of all active US Corporations between 2006 and 2012 had no tax liability after credits. In fact, the effective corporate tax rate (a much more meaningful number) is closer to 15%. But despite the fact that most corporations don’t pay anything close to the corporate tax rate, the point of the TCJA was largely to cut that rate.

But most businesses in the US are small businesses, not large corporations. In fact, 30.2 million businesses (or 99.9% of US businesses) are small businesses, according to a government-sponsored  2018 US Small Business Administration report. About half the private workforce in the US is employed by small businesses, and more than a quarter of the small businesses are minority-owned. However, the big corporate tax cut rate did not help these businesses at all. So rightfully, Congress introduced a provision into the TCJA to create a little more parity, called the deduction for Qualified Business Income (QBI) (also known as Section 199A). This provision, unlike the corporate tax cuts, is strictly for businesses known as “pass-through entities.” (More on that in a moment.)

But first, here’s what it does: …read more…

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.

 

 

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...

The SEP IRA: A Lovesong

SEP IRA

We freelancers pay a lot of tax. We don’t just pay an income tax rate of anywhere from 0 to 39% on our freelance income – we also pay a flat 15.3% self-employment tax, no matter what our income bracket. Without tax planning, this can be a huge bite.

As artists and cultural workers, our freelancer tax strategy is generally to reduce the amount of our taxable self-employment income as much as legally possible. Tax planning is hard, because it’s about saving small bits in many places. There are few silver bullets. But the closest thing there is to a silver bullet is tax-sheltered retirement savings. Read full article

Estimated Quarterly Taxes for the New Freelancer

Last Love Song  , Silica and Pigment on Linen, 24" x 20", 2014, by   Matt Phillips

Last Love Song, Silica and Pigment on Linen, 24" x 20", 2014, by Matt Phillips

In my last post, I addressed a common dilemma for the new freelancer - an unexpectedly large tax bill in April. I explained self-employment tax, and why it catches so many people off guard. In this post, I’ll explain estimated quarterly taxes, which are the solution to that huge April tax bill.

You’ve newly struck out on your own, and you had your first profitable year as a freelancer. Congratulations! But when you prepared your taxes, you were blindsided by the enormous tax bill. You got a crash course in self-employment tax, and now you’re ready to set yourself up better for next year. It’s time for estimated quarterly taxes.

ESTIMATED QUARTERLY TAXES – WHAT THEY ARE

Our tax system is called “pay as you go.” If you’re employed, your employer withholds taxes from your paycheck each pay period, so that at the end of the tax year, you should have already paid in approximately the amount of taxes that you owe. When you overpay, you get a refund, and when you underpay, you owe some more tax on top. But the idea is that you don’t pay all of your taxes for the year at one time - for almost everyone, setting aside that much money would be difficult.

When you freelance, there’s no employer to withhold tax for you, so it becomes your job. (Yes, another burden of the gig economy). Everyone knows, and that includes the IRS, that it’s much harder to pay one big bill than several small ones. So to approximate the withholding situation of an employer, the IRS requires freelancers who owe at least $1000 in tax to make estimated quarterly payments.

It may seem yucky to have to pay taxes four times a year instead of just once, but it’s a good thing. Breaking it up into quarters makes the payments much easier to handle. And you avoid an unpleasant surprise in April.

read more...

Self-Employment Tax for the New Freelancer

Rikki and Carrie, Dining Room.   Carrie Will , 2008  From the series entitled,  I am redundant, half of a whole, a freak, identical and lucky.  Courtesy Novado Gallery, Jersey City

Rikki and Carrie, Dining Room. Carrie Will, 2008

From the series entitled, I am redundant, half of a whole, a freak, identical and lucky.
Courtesy Novado Gallery, Jersey City

SELF EMPLOYMENT TAX IS TWO IDENTICAL PIECES, EACH 7.65%, TOTALING 15.3%

You’ve dreamed of quitting your job and striking out on your own. You’ve gathered some clients, or sold some artwork, and suddenly this year, you’re making some real money. But then you hit a speedbump. You file your taxes this year and discover that you owe money - a lot of money - that you didn’t expect to owe. Uh oh. This is a rude surprise that many freelancers encounter when starting out. The good news is, you’re making money. But the bad news is that anytime you make money, the government wants its share. And for a lot of freelancers, that share is a lot bigger than they realized.

Here’s why.

SELF EMPLOYMENT TAX, EXPLAINED

Our tax system is “pay as you go.” Everyone is supposed to pay taxes all year long, as they earn income. When you work as an employee, your employer takes care of the logistics for you - they withhold 7.65% from your paycheck for Social Security and Medicare (also known as FICA). In other words, you are paying the Federal government 7.65% of your paycheck towards Social Security and Medicare, but you don’t have to think about it. In addition, your employer pays, out of their own pocket, another 7.65% towards Social Security and Medicare, on your behalf. This is called “payroll tax.” If you’ve ever wondered why so many businesses try to pay people as contractors (reported on a 1099) and not as employees (reported on a W2) - this is the reason. It automatically costs them 7.65% extra to treat you as an employee. (And it is fair and contributes to a healthy society, if I may say so).

read more...