I earn a full-time income from freelancing, but there are 4 mistakes I wish I hadn't made when I was starting out
- I started freelancing when my first son was born in 2014.
- Five years later, I make a full-time income, but I made some mistakes along the way.
- To anyone who's just starting out in self-employment, I'd recommend hiring a CPA and financial adviser, and figuring out how to pay your quarterly taxes.
- Are you self-employed and looking for a financial adviser? SmartAsset's free tool can help you find a qualified professional today »
My freelance writing career was somewhat of an accident. When my first son was born in 2014, I decided (at the last minute) that daycare costs weren't worth the stress of a longer commute, and I quit my job. Thankfully, after downsizing homes, my husband's salary was enough to keep us afloat.
But if I wanted spending money, I had to come up with it on my own - so I started putting my pricey English degree to work by writing and editing for friends. Five years later, I'm earning a full salary.
I may have done things a little differently had someone told me about the best ways to manage my money - and my taxes - as a freelancer. Here's what I'd recommend to anyone who's just starting the self-employment journey.
Pay your quarterly taxes
Like other self-employed workers, I owe about 15% of my income to the IRS. In the beginning of my career, I spent all my freelance paychecks when I got them, failing to set aside money for (or even think about) taxes. Then, tax season would come, and I'd be shocked to discover I owed the federal government thousands of dollars.
To make filing much less complicated, I pay quarterly taxes throughout the year. It's a bit of a buzzkill to lose money immediately after getting paid, but setting money aside in a savings account each month and handing it over when the time comes both prevents surprises and pesky interest fees on payment plans later on.
Set up a short-term payment plan when needed
While I make an effort to get ahead of my taxes, there have been years when other expenses - car repairs, home maintenance, medical bills - have taken priority over quarterly estimates.
In those cases, I've still owed money, and sometimes, a lot of it. Thankfully, the IRS has a fairly convenient payment plan system for individuals who can't pay the lump sum they owe all at once.
There is, of course, a caveat: While there's no set-up fee for those who can pay their full balance in fewer than 120 days, a longer-term plan will run anywhere from $30 to $150 in fees, depending on how you pay. Thankfully, interest rates are fairly low at 3%.
Hire an experienced CPA
The first year I freelanced, I had worked half the year for my old employer and the other half for myself, which made my taxes somewhat complicated.
I tried to use TurboTax to file on my own, but I couldn't believe the amount I owed. Rather than risking paying too much or too little, I consulted with a CPA who specializes in self-employed taxpayers and small businesses. Hiring a CPA came with a cost, but she was able to apply credits and write-offs I didn't think of, ultimately saving me money.
Hire a financial planner
My husband and I may have two incomes now that I have steady writing work, but that doesn't mean my income is as predictable as his.
Because freelancing has slow and busy months, and every client has different payment terms, it can be somewhat difficult to plan out a budget. Working with a financial adviser to manage our income has encouraged us to think long-term about our taxes and investments.
Our adviser has also helped us come up with a strategic plan for paying off debt, so we can allot more money to quarterly taxes.
Track all business-related spending
Throughout my freelance career, I've traveled to conferences in other states, hired developers and designers to build my website, created an office in my home, and marketed my services on social media - all of which I can deduct as business expenses on my taxes.
Unfortunately, I didn't get in the habit of keeping track of receipts and invoices for these things until my CPA told me I was missing an opportunity to save money. Now, I track spending down to work-related car mileage.
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