Setting your hours and making money on your terms are some of the highlights of being a freelancer. But the benefits of being your own boss come with added pressures and responsibilities. Tracking expenses, managing invoices, measuring profitability, and preparing for tax season are just a few of the accounting concerns that freelancers need to master. Following these boilerplate accounting tips for freelancers can help you better manage your income in a rapidly growing gig economy.
The gig economy is growing.
The job market is changing, and new contract work opportunities have arisen both for part-time and full-time freelancers. Demand for skilled workers in the gig economy has increased as companies move to replace salaried positions with contractors.
What is a freelancer?
A freelancer is anyone paid for products or services as a sole proprietor. Additionally, freelancers make money pre-tax, which means that they are solely responsible for tracking and reporting their income during tax season.
- Sole proprietors
- Typically work alone
- Make money pre-tax
- Usually set their own hours
- Sometimes set their own pay
- Responsible for their own benefits and retirement plans
Over the last decade, our concept of freelancing has expanded to include contractor jobs on app-based platforms like Uber, Lyft, Wag, or Handy, to name a few.
Workers may have access to app-based income tracking or reports on these platforms, simplifying income reporting. However, app-based freelancers still need to calculate their tax liability and keep receipts for qualifying expenses if they plan to take deductions.
If you are a contract worker or are interested in becoming one in the future, follow these accounting tips for freelancers to improve your bookkeeping skills.
6 Accounting Tips For Freelancers
- Set aside 30% for Taxes
- Track Your Hours To Make Sure You are Profitable
- Track Business Expenses So You Can Itemize
- Open a Separate Bank Account for Freelance Income
- Standardize How You Receive Payment
- Invest in Accounting Software with Mobile Features
1. Set Aside 30% for Taxes
If you are new to contract work, don’t learn about taxes the hard way. Being surprised by a tax bill in your first year of business is a rough way to start your freelance career. Instead, it’s much better to plan ahead by saving 30% of all the money you make for taxes.
Taxes you might owe:
- Federal income tax on any income over $400
- Self-employment tax
- State income tax
- Sales tax
One mistake new freelancers make is setting fees that don’t take their tax liability into account. If your goods or services are no longer profitable after you’ve deducted your tax liability, your pricing may be too low.
You might be required to pay quarterly taxes.
Freelancers who expect to owe $1,000 or more are required to pay taxes quarterly. However, paying taxes quarterly can be a good strategy for any freelancer. The quarterly approach avoids the sticker shock of a lump sum payment during tax season.
The quarterly tax due dates for 2021 are:
- April 15
- June 15
- September 15
- January 15
Receiving 1099-MISC forms from your clients:
You should receive a 1099-MISC form from any client who paid you more than $600. Businesses are required to send these forms by January 31st. Use these 1099s to fill out your Schedule C. If the client paid you less than $600, they are not required to send you 1099, but you still need to report that income.
2. Track Your Hours To Make Sure You are Profitable
When you first start as a freelancer, it’s common to offer services or goods for low prices to attract new business. But this strategy can come back to haunt you if your prices are so low that you aren’t profitable. It can also make it difficult to raise prices in the future if a reputation for rock bottom prices precedes you.
Find the pricing formula that works for you.
We recommend assigning value to your time and tracking your hours as an expense. Price goods and services by adding the cost of your time to the cost of materials and overhead expenses (if applicable), then add a 20% to 30% markup for profit. Also, don’t forget to factor in credit card processing fees and overhead expenses.
3. Track Business Expenses So You Can Itemize
Running a business requires overhead expenses that you may be able to deduct from your taxes. Unlike personal income tax, there is no standard deduction for business expenses. You have to track and itemize everything manually. Follow the IRS guidelines for itemized business expenses closely. The list below includes some of the most common deductions.
Some of the most common expenses you might be able to deduct are:
- Home office: If you have a dedicated office space at home (and you don’t also have an office elsewhere), you can deduct a portion of your household costs like utilities, internet, and rent based on the square footage you use. The IRS requires that your office space not be used for any other purpose. So a makeshift office in your living room doesn’t count.
- Phone and Internet: If you have a devoted phone or internet account for your business, you can deduct it as an expense. It’s possible to deduct a percentage of your personal phone or internet usage if the account is shared for personal use, but the burden of proof is tedious. You need to have records that show how and when you used your phone or internet for business purposes.
- Business/Office Supplies: Deduct your computer, software, task apps, printer/scanner, and any office supplies you use exclusively for work.
- Professional Education: Educational courses, seminars, or business books related to your work can be deducted as expenses.
- Organization Dues: If you join professional organizations, the dues you pay count.
- Marketing costs: Track advertising or marketing expenses and deduct them, including any cost involved in building and maintaining your business website.
- Mileage: Deduct any work-related travel involving the use of your car. Commuting to and from your office, if your primary place of work is outside your home, doesn’t count. However, any business-related car travel, like meeting clients for meetings or attending seminars or conferences, should count.
- Travel expenses: Business travel to other cities or countries often require lodging, food, and other commuting expenses. You can choose to deduct an amount per diem provided by the IRS or save your receipts and itemize your deductions. If you merge a business trip with a personal vacation, you can only count your expenses on your workdays.
- Professional insurance: Insurance you buy to protect your business can be deducted.
If you’re unsure about a deduction, it’s a good idea to speak with an accountant about it. If you plan to file without help from an accountant, err on the side of caution. Bloating your business expenses with exaggerated deductions can get you in real trouble with the IRS.
4. Open a Separate Bank Account for Freelance Income
Opening a bank account for your freelance income will help you separate your personal and professional assets. It will also allow you to keep cash on hand for business expenses, set aside money for taxes, and keep track of profits.
5. Standardize How You Receive Payment
Accepting payment in many forms and via a variety of providers may be convenient for your clients but can be a real hassle for you as a business owner. We recommend standardizing how you receive payments by choosing one credit card processor and taking all payments there. These include services like Paypal, which also offers in-app invoicing.
If you decide to allow cash or check payment, make sure you have a way to issue receipts, log payments and merge this with your cc reports.
6. Invest in Accounting Software with Mobile Features
If your freelance work is all or a large percentage of your income, accounting software might be a good investment. Some free and low-cost options are an excellent fit for part-time freelancers or those who want to scale slowly or need help with a few specific accounting tasks.
When comparing software options consider which features are the highest priority for you and your business—we have given some examples of software features you might consider.
Freelance Accounting Software Features
- Great mobile app
- Receipt tracking
- Mileage tracking
- Professional invoices
- Manage sales tax
- Assign hours and expenses to clients
- Track profitability
- Transfer income and expense to Schedule C
- Calculate quarterly income tax payments
- Auto billing
- Automated payment reminders
- Payroll integration
- Multiple users
- Advanced tracking of income and expenses by location or type
- Inventory tracking
Following these accounting tips will help you treat your freelance career or side-hustle like the business that it is. Putting forth a little effort upfront with income tracking and record-keeping will pay off when it comes to managing your taxes.
Adopting these habits early on in your freelance career can help you scale your business and might even prepare you to make the leap from Freelancer to Small Business Owner in the future.
Learn more about side-hustles on our recent blogs:
Please Note: This blog shouldn’t substitute professional advice from an accountant. We aren’t qualified to make final decisions about your finances; only you can do that. We have, however, done broad-based research about accounting for freelancers. The guideposts in this blog can help you consider your options.