Last Updated Thursday, February 18, 2021
Freelancers and gig workers are required to pay income taxes on their earnings. Here’s what’s taxable and how to report and pay income taxes on your gig or freelance earnings.
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Working gigs—working as a freelancer or independent contractor—is the epitome of the American Dream for some. They’re their own boss and make more than they would working for someone else’s business. For others, gig work is a necessity. It’s a way to make money because the job they used to have doesn’t exist anymore, or it’s a way to supplement their wages from a day job so they can make ends meet.
No matter what your reason for venturing into the gig economy, you need to realize the income you make is taxable and take steps to keep your gig economy earnings from turning into a financial liability.
The Facts: Freelancing Statistics
According to Statista, the number of freelancers in the United States grew from 59.7 million in 2018 to 62.2 million in 2019. Furthermore, the projections indicate that by 2027 the majority of the workforce will be freelancing.
Freelance income is a significant source of earnings, too. A 2019 study conducted by Upwork and Freelancers Union found that freelancers now contribute nearly $1 trillion in income to the US economy. That’s nearly 5% of the US GDP.
Gig and freelance opportunities exist in industries as diverse as computer programming and food delivery services. Writers, editors, consultants, project managers, business brokers, and Uber drivers are just the tip of the freelance iceberg. But whether you work full-time or only once in a while as a gig worker or freelancer, you need to pay attention to the income taxes that will be due on your income.
What Taxes Do You Owe on Freelance or Gig Income?
As a freelancer, you have to pay taxes just as you would if you worked for a larger company but with one important caveat. You’re responsible for all of the income, social security, and Medicare taxes.
What you may not know is that when you are an employee, your employer pays half of your total Social Security and Medicare taxes. Thus, as an employee of someone else’s business, you paid 6.2% of your salary (up to the taxable maximum) for Social Security tax, and a 1.45% Medicare tax, (combined total, 7.65%.) Your employer was required to match those payments. Thus, your total contribution for Social Security and Medicare (your payment plus the employer’s) was 15.3%. And, of course, you also had money withheld from your paycheck for income taxes calculated based on the information you provided your employer on a W-4 form. As a freelancer, you have to pay a self-employment tax which is equal to both parts of the Social Security and Medicare taxes. For 2019, the first $132,900 of your combined wages, tips, and net earnings is subject to self-employment tax. The amount increases to $137,700 for 2020.
Determining the total amount of income tax, Social Security, and Medicare taxes you’ll owe for the year isn’t easy. You have to take into account your income, your tax bracket, deductions, and credits. If your business is relatively stable, simply look at last year’s tax return and take numbers from there. Or, a very rough estimate is to take 35% of every dollar you make, put it in a separate account and use it to pay taxes.
State and Local Taxes on Freelance Income
In addition to Federal income taxes, Social Security, and Medicare, you may be required to pay state or city income taxes as well. Don’t forget to calculate their cost for the year, too.
Tip: When determining the rates you charge your customers, don’t forget about those extra taxes you’ll owe. Too many freelancers don’t charge enough for their services because they don’t take taxes into account.
The IRS doesn’t want you to hold onto the money you owe them until tax time. In most cases, if you will owe more than $1,000 in taxes at the end of the year, you have to make quarterly estimated tax payments. If you file as a corporation, your threshold is $500 but most freelancers should pay attention to the $1,000 number.
How To Determine and Pay Estimated Taxes
If you owe estimated taxes, how do you know how much to pay? If you use tax preparation software like TurboTax, it will tell you what it believes your estimated taxes will be based on your previous year’s tax return. The IRS also has forms and worksheets to help you. Aim for 100% of your previous year’s taxes or 110% if you will earn more than $150,000.
Estimated taxes are due quarterly—April 15, June 15, September 15, and January 15 of the following year. There are exceptions to these dates but you would almost certainly have an accountant advising you of those dates if that was the case. Be sure you pay your estimated taxes on time. If you don’t, the IRS will charge you a penalty.
If you don’t want to pay your taxes in 4 quarterly installments, there are a few other ways. First, if you receive a refund on your taxes, apply it to your estimated taxes. Second, if you or your spouse are employed by other companies, you can ask your employer to withhold additional taxes from your paycheck each week. (You’ll need to file a new W4 and fill in line 6 to indicate the additional amount you want to be withheld.) To come up with the amount to withhold, divide your estimated tax by the number of paychecks you will receive and have them without that amount. For example, if you plan to have a tax liability of $7,000 but you get paid from an employer once per month, have them withhold an extra $583.34 from each paycheck.
Learn more about freelance work and estimated taxes at the IRS website.
Alternate Approach: Let Your Day Job Deduct More Taxes
The great thing about owning a business is that your expenses are deductible. Nearly every purchase you make that directly goes to the operation of your business will reduce your taxable income. Everything from office supplies to mileage, to the use of a home office, will land you deductions and reduce your tax burden. Beware—you don’t want to exaggerate or take deductions you can’t prove. If you’re audited, the IRS will ask for receipts and substantiation of all of your deductions. Learn more here.
First, let’s be careful with that word. An employee is somebody on your payroll. You have to withhold taxes and even pay part of their tax burden. Remember the self-employment tax above? You have to pay it. When possible, freelancers prefer to hire contractors (other freelancers) because the employer doesn’t have to worry about the taxes. It all falls on the contractor.
You don’t get to choose. How you use that person determines if they’re a contractor or employee. For example, do you control what the worker does and how they perform their job? If the answer is yes, they’re an employee of your company. Before hiring help read about this at the IRS website.
If you hire a contractor, and they make more than $600 per year, you have to file form 1099 reporting their wages. If they’re an employee, you file a W-2 form.
If all of this seems a little overwhelming, you probably need an accountant. In fact, if your business is making well into the five-figures, you need an accountant anyway. Articles like these are great for general education but only an accountant can look at the specifics of your business and set you up for success.
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About the Author
Tim Parker is the Founder and President of The Web Group, a full service IT firm focusing on security and compliance based in Tampa, Florida. In the little spare time he has, Tim enjoys writing financial articles for major websites focusing on entrepreneurship, investing, personal finance, and retirement.
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